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Dayhoff: The Great Toilet Paper Panic of 2020 and some history of ‘the greatest necessity of the age’

It has been nearly a month since the Great Toilet Paper Panic of 2020 began minutes after Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced the state’s first positive cases of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and declared a state of emergency to ramp up Maryland’s coordinated response across all levels of government. A month later the frenzy is not showing any signs of letting up.

In a recent segment heard on “All Things Considered,” a program on NPR, Michel Martin may have explained it best: “I’m pretty sure I speak for most people when I say a particular source of anxiety for many Americans right now is toilet paper. … Many stores across the country have been running out of toilet paper as people stock up in preparation for self-isolation or even lockdowns. There’s no actual shortage, or so we’re told…”

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One might argue that the sudden demand for toilet paper, known as the “white gold rush,” began around March 5 — a day that will live in infamy. The manifestation of the “fear contagion,” as it is known to psychologists, has taken many folks, including historians, emergency operations officials, elected officials, and grocery stores completely by surprise. What is particularly bewildering is that it is also widely understood that there is no shortage of the product. Yet the frenzy continues.

So apparently, inquiring minds want to know, when was toilet paper invented and what did people use before?

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Much of the historical reflection upon the COVID-19 Pandemic has been a discussion of the Spanish Flu which took place 100 years ago. A hundred years from now, historians will be totally baffled over the great toilet paper panic of 2020.
Much of the historical reflection upon the COVID-19 Pandemic has been a discussion of the Spanish Flu which took place 100 years ago. A hundred years from now, historians will be totally baffled over the great toilet paper panic of 2020. (Kevin Dayhoff)

To help with that question, the BBC published an article on March 12 written by Jonny Wilkes for BBC History Magazine. He reported, “As for paper … the first to see its benefits in the bathroom were the Chinese. The earliest-known record comes from AD 589, when an official named Yan Zhitui wrote that he ‘dare not use’ any paper on which has been written quotations from the Five Classics (seminal texts in Confucianism) or the names of sages for ‘toilet purposes.’

“In the 14th century, the emperor issued a decree calling for paper measuring two feet by three feet for his bathroom needs. Best not to think on why he needed such large sheets.”

Wilkes goes on to explain, “Yet it would still be centuries later that toilet paper truly got on a roll, as it were. People had begun using old magazines, but, in 1857, New York-based entrepreneur Joseph Gayetty started selling the first commercially packaged toilet paper. Marketed as “The greatest necessity of the age!,” his ‘Medicated Paper’ came in single sheets infused with aloe … On each sheet was Gayetty’s name, although why he wanted people to wipe their backsides with his name is best left known only to him.”

In an article in National Geographic on March 31, Erin Blakemore reports, “There’s historical precedent for runs on toilet paper, too. In 1973, Japanese women began buying huge amounts of toilet paper, lining up in front of stores to stockpile rolls,” over a growing concern about future prosperity.

“The toilet paper hoarding in Japan stoked some fears in the United States as well, prompting a Wisconsin congressman to issue a statement on a potential shortage. When comedian Johnny Carson joked about the situation on “The Tonight Show” in 1973, he inadvertently sparked a short-lived toilet paper panic,” according to Blakemore.

Of course, if the toilet paper panic were to have occurred 100 years ago in Carroll County, we would have been well-prepared.

According to research by historian John Sies in 2018, there were once quite a number of paper mills in Carroll County. In her book, Mills and Memories, Joan Prall documents that as “early as 1730 there were probably some primitive, log-type grist mills on the North Branch of the Patapsco River. The first record of a mill in Westminster is Aug. 5, 1742, when a mill lot on Little Pipe Creek was patented to Thomas White.”

An article by Carrie Ann Knauer on Jan. 17, 2008 in the Carroll County Times explains, “Mills served an important connection between farmers and merchants, and served a variety of purposes. For example, an industrial survey from 1852 found 147 gristmills, 245 flour mills, 25 paper mills, 33 cotton mills, 43 woolen mills and 188 sawmills across Carroll County. … Mills were a center of life in rural communities … they often contained a general store, possibly a saw mill and were often the post office for an area. A road leading to a mill often was named after the mill, he said, hence modern day maps leaving hints of where these mills stood in the past…”

Much of the historical reflection upon the COVID-19 Pandemic has been a discussion of the Spanish Flu which took place 100 years ago. A hundred years from now, historians will be totally baffled over the great toilet paper panic of 2020.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. His Time Flies column appears every Sunday. Email him at kevindayhoff@gmail.com.

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