How long gas station lines can lead to toilet paper shortages

Line to H-E-B station at Leon Springs, TX reached far out into the IH-10 access road., Sept. 3, 2017 (Jack Dennis)

Declassified document: U.S. considered military takeover of Middle Eastern oilfields

Consumers swarmed grocery stores hoarding toilet paper

 

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Long lines at gas stations due to distribution and disruption problems associated with Hurricane Harvey are reminiscent of what occurred across the United States in the late 1970s. A fuel embargo from Middle East nations caused shortages so great that consumers were limited to five gallons of gas depending on the last number of their license plates.

Odd–even rationing permitted vehicles with license plates having an odd number as the last digit (or a vanity license plate) to buy gas only on odd-numbered days of the month, while others could buy only on even-numbered days.

A declassified document from 2004 revealed the U.S. briefly considered taking military action to forcibly seize Middle Eastern oilfields in late 1973. British intelligence estimated “the American occupation would need to last 10 years as the West developed alternative energy sources, and would result in the ‘total alienation’ of the Arabs and much of the rest of the Third World.”

1973 gas lines with a limit of 5 gallons per car (David Falconer/EPA/National Archives)

That was when American relied on OPEC nations for about 66 percent of oil imports. Now, the U.S. has relied more on Canada and Mexico with only 40 percent of such imports coming from the Middle East.

The embargo caused widespread gas shortages and panic. By January 1974, people were paying four times more for gas than they were in August. Some gas stations closed. Other remained opened just for their regular customers. Businesses and government were turning off electricity to save energy. Christmas lights were banned in some communities.

A national maximum speed limit was set to 55 mph and the Department of Energy was created. For over a year, daylight savings time was implemented indefinitely from January 1974 through February 1975. The 24 Hours of Daytona and 12 Hours of Sebring races were cancelled and even NASCAR reduced all race distances by 10 percent.

Gasoline, electricity, and some vegetables such as onions were heavily reported as goods and services that were in limited supply. Similar to 2017, some Americans cultivated a “shortage psychology.” But in 1973, amidst the economic turmoil of energy and onions, a toilet paper scare ignited an enormous panic attack.

“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.”

In November of 1973, there was no Internet or social media, but several major news agencies reported a tissue shortage in Japan. A couple of press releases from Wisconsin Congressman Harold V. Froelich warned that, “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.”

Johnny Carson (The Tonight Show)

Consumer panic was fueled even more by broadcast and newspaper reports but was especially ignited with The Tonight Show host Johnny Carson told 20 million television 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!”

Immediately viewers that night and the days that followed swarmed to grocery stores to hoard as much toilet paper as possible. Some stores began setting limits on the number of rolls each customer could buy. Soon, the price of a roll shot up from under 40 cents to over 70 cents. Customers emptied the shelves each day for several months after the public realized there was no shortage. It had been affectedly created by a mainstream media and pop culture frenzy.

“I don’t want to be remembered as the man who created a false toilet paper scare,” Johnny Carson looked directly in the camera to apologize later. “I just picked up the item from the paper and enlarged it somewhat…there is no shortage.”

It was two years later that Carson was entangled in a lawsuit with a porta-potty company named “Here’s Johnny.”

 

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