Oct. 23 Johnny Carson and the toilet paper shortage

Study Break

Oct. 23 – Happy Birthday Johnny!

Before there was Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Jay Leno and David Letterman, there was Johnny Carson. The comedian and late-night talk show host—born on Oct. 23, 1925—hosted the popular “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” from1962 to 1992.

Millions of people watched the “Tonight Show” for those 30 years, and yet it was an innocent comment in December 1973 that set the country into a tizzy. Carson joked about an alleged shortage of toilet paper, which caused actual panic buying and hording. In turn, this caused a real shortage that lasted for weeks. According to a spokesperson for the American Paper Institute, the imagined shortage became an actual disaster as frenzied consumers across the country bought all the toilet paper available. Stores and toilet paper manufacturers had to ration supplies until the panic ended.

This humorous incident vividly illustrates the Thomas theorem, a theory of sociology that says “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” In other words, the interpretation of a situation causes the action.

Carson apologized in January 1974 for the incident, and consumers continued to squeeze the Charmin.

When supply and demand don’t match up, shortages arise. The market solution is to allow prices to fluctuate until suppliers produce more, or consumers demand less. In the short-term, however, shortages can be real and sometimes severe.

Political interference in markets was on everyone’s minds. Wage and price controls, initiated by Richard Nixon in 1971, affected many people. In 1973, the OPEC oil embargo and subsequent rationing of gasoline had a huge impact on almost everyone’s daily life. The Toilet Paper Scare arose when rumors started that the government would begin rationing it, as well.

What items have been hard to get during you or your lifetimes? What do these items have in common? Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Gas
  • Cabbage Patch dolls
  • Video games (Super Mario Bros, etc.)
  • Tickle Me Elmo
  • Nintendo Wii
  • Toyota Prius
  • Microsoft Xbox 360
  • Amazon Kindle
  • Lululemon Athletica (yoga wear)