The Wikipedia entry for Congressman Harold V Froehlich is brief to the point of brusqueness which is odd because it makes no mention of the great toilet paper shortage scare that he was responsible for.
Froehlich was born in Wisconsin in 1932 and after serving in the US Navy during the Korean War he attended university and graduated with a law degree in 1962.
He was elected to Congress in 1972 and it was a year later that he made his claim to fame. The stock market had crashed and America entered a period of economic stagnation marked shortages of all sorts of products.
It was against this background that several news agencies reported a tissue shortage in Japan. No-one paid it much attention except for Froehlich whose heavily-wooded Wisconsin state relied on a prosperous paper industry. He issued a press release saying: ‘The Government Printing Office is facing a serious shortage of paper’.
Even this claim didn’t get much traction with the public but a few weeks later Froehlich uncovered a document that indicated the government’s National Buying Center had fallen far short of securing bids to provide toilet paper for its troops and bureaucrats. He issued a further press release stating:
The U.S. may face a serious shortage of toilet paper within a few months…we hope we don’t have to ration toilet tissue…a toilet paper shortage is no laughing matter. It is a problem that will potentially touch every American.
The media jumped on the story conveniently omitting the caveats of ‘may’ and ‘potentially’ and the stage was set for public panic. All that was needed was a single spark which came in the shape of Johnny Carson who told twenty million tv viewers ‘You know, we’ve got all sorts of shortages these days, but have you heard the latest? I’m not kidding. I saw it in the papers. There’s a shortage of toilet paper!’
Madness ensued as Americans swarmed to the shops to buy as many toilet rolls as they could lay their hands. And as with all buying-panics, hoarding shoppers caused the very shortage they feared and they carried on buying even when the price rose from 39 cents to 69 a roll.
The toilet roll shortage ran for four months and sparked a black market in tissue before the panic subsided in 1974 as people realised that the shortage had never really existed.
And all because of an ill-advised press release from Harold Froehlich and an ill-timed joke by Johnny Carson.