Wiped Out: When Johnny Carson Helped Cause a Toilet Paper Shortage in 1973

In 1973, Johnny Carson accidentally prompted mass panic over toilet paper.
In 1973, Johnny Carson accidentally prompted mass panic over toilet paper.
Image: Jemal Countess, Getty Images. Background: seb_ra/iStock via Getty Images. Composite: Jake Rossen, Mental Floss.

Gary VandenBerg, the assistant manager of the Piggly Wiggly grocery store in Appleton, Wisconsin, was accustomed to fielding customer requests and making sure everyone left happy. But in December of 1973, VandenBerg was confronted with a peculiar situation.

His store was running out of toilet paper. Fast.

Customers plucked rolls from shelves as quickly as they could be stocked. A woman came in looking to purchase 10 cases. Store management decided to triple their normal order. It wasn’t enough. The Piggly Wiggly had been inexplicably besieged by people hoarding bathroom tissue.

Just a few days later, this local epidemic would soon turn into a national concern. And Johnny Carson would be to blame.

 

In 1973, the United States was beginning to grow accustomed to shortages. Oil prices had soared due to an embargo; the stock market was plunging.

In the midst of this, Harold V. Froehlich—a Republican congressman from the heavily-forested eighth district of Wisconsin—began receiving complaints from constituents that pulp paper was getting harder to come by. Around the same time, Froehlich noticed some news reports of a tissue shortage in Japan. He investigated and believed the source of the claim was companies who were exporting more pulp paper out of the United States to avoid federal price tolls on domestic sales.

Toilet paper was believed to be in short supply.sergeyryzhov/iStock via Getty Images

Believing this could lead to a serious paper shortage of all types, Froehlich issued a press release on November 16, 1973. Few news outlets paid much attention. Then Froehlich discovered the federal government’s National Buying Center had failed to secure their normal number of bids for a four-month toilet paper supply intended for soldiers and bureaucrats. Froehlich issued a second press release on December 11, this one focusing more on the potential for a shortage of not only paper, but the one consumer product that no American could live without: “The U.S. may face a serious shortage of toilet paper within a few months,” he wrote. “We hope we don’t have to ration toilet tissue … a toilet paper shortage is no laughing matter.”

Froehlich’s intention was to bring attention to what he perceived to be an industrial problem by pointing out a shortage that would affect every household in the country.

It worked. News media began to cover the story on television and in print. The more outlets that picked it up, the more words like “potentially” were lost in translation. Almost immediately, consumers were buying shopping carts full of TP out of fear they might soon not be able to buy any.

On December 19, roughly a week after Froehlich’s second and more dire warning, Tonight Show host Johnny Carson made mention of the story in his monologue. "Of all the shortages we have ... there's a gasoline shortage," he said. "You know what else is disappearing from the supermarket shelves? Toilet paper! Ah, ha, ha! You can laugh now! There is an acute shortage of toilet paper in the good old United States. We gotta quit writing on it. But I wanna tell ya, it is serious. I just saw a commercial ... where a Mrs. Olsen comes in with a shopping bag and a housewife says, 'Forget the coffee, just give me the shopping bag.'"

With an audience of roughly 20 million viewers, Carson’s mention activated a national paper panic. Millions of people cleaned retail shelves of rolls. A store in Seattle ordered 21 cases but received only three, adding to the hysteria. One woman reported asking for toilet paper rather than gifts for her party. Stores tried setting limits of two to four rolls per customer. Others raised prices from 39 to 69 cents per roll—not to gouge customers, but to dissuade them from buying too much. Other paper products like towels and cups were also in short supply. There were even rumors that a toilet paper black market had emerged, where hoarders were offering rolls at a mark-up.

“I’m used to being able to go when I want to, but suddenly I think I’m going to have to start curbing my habits,” one woman said.

The more toilet paper that was purchased, the more customers unable to find toilet paper were convinced there really was a shortage. Froehlich was right about the crisis—only he was the one who had unintentionally caused it.

 

The toilet paper frenzy continued into 1974—but eventually, consumers realized Froehlich’s concerns simply weren’t materializing. Respected CBS broadcast journalist Walter Cronkite urged calm on his newscast and aired footage from the Scott Paper Company that demonstrated toilet paper was coming off the factory line without delay. Even Froehlich walked back his comments, though his third press release didn’t get nearly the same attention as the one where he raised the potential for bathrooms devoid of toilet tissue.

When he returned from his holiday break, Carson felt compelled to issue an apology. “For all my life in entertainment, I don’t want to be remembered as the man who created a false toilet paper scare,” he told viewers. “I just picked up the item from the paper and enlarged it somewhat … there is no shortage.” The furor soon wound down.

Strangely, it would not be Carson’s only brush with bathroom controversy. In 1977, the host was able to win a lawsuit against Earl J. Braxton, a Michigan businessman who marketed portable toilets under a name that was familiar to Tonight Show viewers: Here’s Johnny.

Take Advantage of Amazon's Early Black Friday Deals on Tech, Kitchen Appliances, and More

Amazon
Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Even though Black Friday is still a few days away, Amazon is offering early deals on kitchen appliances, tech, video games, and plenty more. We will keep updating this page as sales come in, but for now, here are the best Amazon Black Friday sales to check out.

Kitchen

Instant Pot/Amazon

- Instant Pot Duo Plus 9-in-115 Quart Electric Pressure Cooker; $90 (save $40) 

- Le Creuset Enameled Cast Iron Signature Sauteuse 3.5 Quarts; $180 (save $120)

- KitchenAid KSMSFTA Sifter with Scale Attachment; $95 (save $75) 

- Keurig K-Mini Coffee Maker; $60 (save $20)

- Cuisinart Bread Maker; $88 (save $97)

- Anova Culinary Sous Vide Precision Cooker; $139 (save $60)

- Aicook Juicer Machine; $35 (save $15)

- JoyJolt Double Wall Insulated Espresso Mugs - Set of Two; $14 (save $10) 

- Longzon Silicone Stretch Lids - Set of 14; $13 (save $14)

HadinEEon Milk Frother; $37 (save $33)

Home Appliances

Roomba/Amazon

- iRobot Roomba 675 Robot Vacuum with Wi-Fi Connectivity; $179 (save $101)

- Fairywill Electric Toothbrush with Four Brush Heads; $19 (save $9)

- ASAKUKI 500ml Premium Essential Oil Diffuser; $22 (save $4)

- Facebook Portal Smart Video Calling 10 inch Touch Screen Display with Alexa; $129 (save $50)

- Bissell air320 Smart Air Purifier with HEPA and Carbon Filters; $280 (save $50)

Oscillating Quiet Cooling Fan Tower; $59 (save $31) 

TaoTronics PTC 1500W Fast Quiet Heating Ceramic Tower; $55 (save $10)

Vitamix 068051 FoodCycler 2 Liter Capacity; $300 (save $100)

AmazonBasics 8-Sheet Home Office Shredder; $33 (save $7)

Ring Video Doorbell; $70 (save $30) 

Video games

Sony

- Marvel's Spider-Man: Game of The Year Edition for PlayStation 4; $20 (save $20)

- Marvel's Avengers; $27 (save $33)

- Minecraft Dungeons Hero Edition for Nintendo Switch; $20 (save $10)

- The Last of Us Part II for PlayStation 4; $30 (save $30)

- LEGO Harry Potter: Collection; $15 (save $15)

- Ghost of Tsushima; $40 (save $20)

BioShock: The Collection; $20 (save $30)

The Sims 4; $20 (save $20)

God of War for PlayStation 4; $10 (save $10)

Days Gone for PlayStation 4; $20 (save $6)

Luigi's Mansion 3 for Nintendo Switch; $40 (save $20)

Computers and tablets

Microsoft/Amazon

- Apple MacBook Air 13 inches with 256 GB; $899 (save $100)

- New Apple MacBook Pro 16 inches with 512 GB; $2149 (save $250) 

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- Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 with 13.5 inch Touch-Screen; $1200 (save $400)

- Lenovo ThinkPad T490 Laptop; $889 (save $111)

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- Samsung Galaxy Tab A 8 inches with 32 GB; $100 (save $50)

Apple iPad Mini (64 GB); $379 (save $20)

- Apple iMac 27 inches with 256 GB; $1649 (save $150)

- Vankyo MatrixPad S2 Tablet; $120 (save $10)

Tech, gadgets, and TVs

Apple/Amazon

- Apple Watch Series 3 with GPS; $179 (save $20) 

- SAMSUNG 75-inch Class Crystal 4K Smart TV; $998 (save $200)

- Apple AirPods Pro; $169 (save $50)

- Nixplay 2K Smart Digital Picture Frame 9.7 Inch Silver; $238 (save $92)

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Canon EOS M50 Mirrorless Camera with EF-M 15-45mm Lens; $549 (save $100)

DR. J Professional HI-04 Mini Projector; $93 (save $37)

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Blubber Boom: Reliving the Disastrous Tale of Oregon's Exploding Whale—50 Years Later

Oregon came up with a combustible solution for their dead whale problem.
Oregon came up with a combustible solution for their dead whale problem.
Haliep/iStock via Getty Images (Whale) // revenaif/iStock via Getty Images (Explosion)

The 75 or so people who had gathered on the shore just south of Florence, Oregon, on November 12, 1970 stood at a safe distance and waited for the dynamite to go off. The explosives had been buried under the landward side of a 45-foot-long, 8-ton sperm whale. The mammal would feel nothing when it exploded; it had washed ashore several days before and was long dead.

Its status as a non-living organism was, in fact, the source of the problem. The whale had begun to emit a putrefying stench that repulsed beachgoers. It simply could not remain in place. Its fate was left up to the Oregon State Highway Department, which had no experience relocating whale carcasses and decided to treat it as they would a massive boulder that needed to be removed.

The issue was that this was no boulder. It was a whale. And no one was sure exactly how much dynamite it would take to reduce it to bite-sized pieces of blubber that seagulls and other scavengers would eat. To be on the safe side, 20 cases—or approximately one half-ton—of explosives were used. What happened next is something Florence locals still talk about nearly 50 years later.

 

It’s not always clear why whales strand themselves on land. Sometimes, an injury or illness weakens them to the point they can no longer swim, so they simply wash ashore. Orca whales might chase prey and then find themselves in shallow water—and unable to get back to the open ocean.

A beached sperm whale.Ablestock.com/iStock via Getty Images

However the whale near Florence found itself on the beach, it quickly began to make a posthumous impression. Visitors’ curiosity soon gave way to repulsion as the whale decomposed. Because the beach in Lane County was a public right of way, and nearby roads had a speed limit of 25 miles per hour to observe, the task of dealing with the whale was left up to George Thornton, the assistant district highway engineer of the Oregon State Highway Department, and his team.

It had been a while since a whale had washed ashore in the area, and no one knew exactly how best to deal with it—though various solutions were proposed. One idea was to simply bury the whale in the sand in an oceanside grave, but there were concerns the incoming tide might cause it to resurface. Another suggestion was to cut up the corpse, but there were no volunteers for what would amount to an incredibly unpleasant and time-consuming job hacking away at the blubber. Burning it was also impractical.

That left the seemingly rational option of blowing it up, which dead whales sometimes do naturally; the build-up of gases like ammonia, hydrogen, methane, and sulfide can result in a gory burst of guts spewing forth. But Thornton needed a more potent blast. He consulted with Navy munitions experts who theorized that, with an explosion, the whale would be reduced to chunks that would head toward the Pacific Ocean. Any lingering pieces could be retrieved by workers later.

Local news station KATU sent reporter Paul Linnman and photojournalist Doug Brazil to the scene via helicopter to cover the event. The two arrived and began filming a segment that included an interview with Thornton and a dispatch from Linnman with an enormous dead whale in the background.

 

At 3:30 p.m., spectators and the reporters were asked to move back roughly a quarter-mile away. At 3:45 p.m., Thornton ordered the explosives to be detonated. The scene was captured by the KATU team.

At first, locals cheered the spectacle, which resembled a building demolition. But cheers soon gave way to panic as it became apparent that the half-ton of dynamite had been insufficient to atomize the whale. Large chunks of blubber sailed over their heads and landed with a thud at their feet. Smaller pieces pelted their bodies. The smell of putrid whale oil engulfed the scene. In a spectacular denouement, a giant piece of whale at least 3 square feet in size landed directly on a brand-new Cadillac, smashing the top and blowing out the windows. The vehicle's owner, Walter F. Umenhofer, had wanted to meet a business partner at the detonation ceremony.

Incredibly, no one was injured. But as locals beat a retreat, it became obvious that further action would have to be taken. A large portion of the whale remained; it was eventually moved using a bulldozer and buried on the beach. Smaller bits of blubber were collected and either discarded or covered in sand. Seagulls that had been expected to feast on the remains were scared off by the explosion and remained wary of the area for some time.

For years, Thornton refused to discuss the incident, slightly bashful about the consequences of attempting to blow up a whale. Later, when the footage was circulated online, some people thought it was a hoax. Today, locals celebrate the anniversary by dressing as various whale parts and then running around that very same beach. Just this month, Florence unveiled a new park to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the incident: Exploding Whale Memorial Park.

When 41 sperm whales beached themselves near the same area in 1979, no dynamite was used; they were instead buried in the sand. As for the Cadillac: The state of Oregon reimbursed Umenhofer for the car. His son, Kelly, who was 14 at the time and went with his father to the beach, would later recall that the car had been bought at Old’s Dunham Cadillac, a dealership that promised buyers—prophetically, it turns out—that they would get “a whale of a deal.”