Hot commodity: How toilet paper became an icon of stability

Why We Wrote This

Mundane things can take on new meaning during times of crisis. In an uncertain time, toilet paper has taken on outsize proportions as something of an anchor, a marker of personal and societal stability.

Robert F. Bukaty/AP
Scott Mitchell fills a box with toilet paper at the Tissue Plus factory, March 18, 2020, in Bangor, Maine. The new company has been unexpectedly busy because of the shortage of toilet paper.

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As stay-at-home guidelines swept the nation last month, rolls of toilet paper flew off the shelves while people contemplated what they didn’t want to run out of. Now bath tissue is one of the most sought-after products.

Although toilet paper may not be immediately available in retail stores or on Amazon, that doesn’t mean that all the toilet paper is gone. Shipments are still coming into stores regularly.

To address the shortage, many retailers have set limits on how much an individual shopper can purchase at a time. With office buildings largely closed, suppliers are also working to divert supplies meant for public bathrooms to residential customers.

Why is it we hoard toilet paper in times of crisis?

It might have something to do with a sense of cultural shame and privacy around toileting, says Richard Smyth, who has written a book on the history of toilet paper. But more than that, he says, “To a lot of people in the West, it stands for civilization.”

The rush on toilet paper has provided ample comedic fodder to lighten the mood as fear around the novel coronavirus swirls. References to a toilet paper shortage have cropped up in countless memes, social media stand-up routines, and even pickup lines on dating apps. But it arises from a very real concern among consumers. For many, this bathroom staple has taken on outsize proportions as something of an anchor, a marker of personal and societal stability.

As stay-at-home guidelines swept the nation last month, rolls of bath tissue flew off the shelves while people contemplated what they didn’t want to run out of. The sudden surge in demand for toilet paper has raised questions about why we value toilet paper so much – and what its future in our lives might look like. 

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Where has all the toilet paper gone? 

Although toilet paper may not be immediately available in retail stores or on Amazon, that doesn’t mean that all the toilet paper is gone. Shipments are still coming into stores regularly.

Unlike other consumer products in high demand right now, toilet paper is mostly produced domestically in the United States. And Procter & Gamble, for example, has said production at U.S. plants is at a record high. 

The tricky part for suppliers, however, is that while demand for toilet paper is high now, it is likely to plummet to extremely low levels soon, as consumers work their way through the piles of toilet paper now residing in closets, basements, and garages. 

Typically the demand for toilet paper rises in step with population growth, and in the long term that is unlikely to change. The respiratory symptoms associated with COVID-19 don’t typically call for increased usage of toilet paper. So companies are working to balance the need to meet current demand without creating a massive surplus down the line.

To mitigate this problem, many retailers have set limits on how much an individual shopper can purchase at a time. With office buildings largely closed, suppliers are also working to divert supplies meant for public bathrooms to residential customers.

How did toilet paper become essential? 

Although toilet paper is largely considered a necessity across Western societies today, that hasn’t always been the case. In fact, it didn’t catch on right away. 

Before a consumer product was designed for the task, humans used a variety of other items including leaves, moss, rocks, and corn cobs. The Romans had a sponge on a stick available in their communal lavatories. 

As modern paper goods spread across the globe in the 19th century, people began ripping pages out of newspapers or catalogues. Then, in 1857, a New York businessman designed a paper product specifically for lavatory use. 

It was initially considered a “quack product,” says Richard Smyth, author of “Bum Fodder: An Absorbing History of Toilet Paper.” Most Americans still used outhouses, and there wasn’t a place in the market for toilet paper. But as consumerism rose and indoor flush toilets became the norm, toilet paper became omnipresent.

Why do we hoard toilet paper in times of crisis? 

This actually isn’t the first time that there has been this kind of a rush on toilet paper. In 1973, in the wake of a stock market crash, a rumor that there was a shortage prompted millions of American shoppers to begin hoarding toilet paper.

There wasn’t actually a shortage when it all began. But, much like bare shop shelves today, the suggestion alone that one might be forced to go without toilet paper triggered a buying spree that created a shortage.

But why toilet paper

It might have something to do with a sense of cultural shame and privacy around toileting, Mr. Smyth says. “I think people see it as rock bottom. If you’re going to the toilet and you don’t have toilet paper, that’s the lowest you can go.”

Furthermore, Mr. Smyth adds, decades of marketing has contributed to this sense that toilet paper is essential to life as we know it. “To a lot of people in the West, it stands for civilization.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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