In December 1973, amid gasoline shortages and global recession, Wisconsin Congressman Harold Froelich warned, “The U.S. may face a shortage of toilet paper within a few months. . . . It is a problem that will potentially touch every American.” After Tonight Show host Johnny Carson mentioned it in a joke, panicked shoppers stocked up. The shelves stood empty for weeks.
Of course people haven’t always had TP. They used whatever was at hand: leaves, moss, rags. Later pages from old newspapers, the Sears Roebuck catalog, or the Old Farmer’s Almanac served the purpose. Mass production of a medicated product began in the 1850s, and Scott introduced perforated rolls in 1890. But who wanted to buy a novelty to replace what they’d been using for free?
What made TP indispensable was indoor plumbing with flush toilets. The age-old remedies would clog the pipes.
Brian Gersten, whose 11-minute documentary The Great Toilet Paper Scare premiered at the Big Sky Film Festival in February, writes his initial goal “was simply to make a film about a bizarre and forgotten piece of history that people would ideally find funny and entertaining. I think my goal now is for people to use the film as a mirror of sorts. A fun-house mirror perhaps.”
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.