Historic blunders

14th March 2003 at 00:00
Americans are the world's biggest producers and users of loo roll. The average citizen puts 57 sheets down the pan every day, which works out at 21,000 a year. Cheers, says the business community enjoying the profits from this $2.4 billion (pound;1.5 billion) market.

In the US toilet roll is taken seriously. So much so that there was once a very public panic over the very private business of bottom wiping. The man behind it was veteran chat-show host Johnny Carson. In 1973, a writer on The Tonight Show decided to make a joke out of a warning from a Wisconsin congressman that the government was falling down on its toilet roll supply duties. If it did not get its act together, he said, the country could run out of the stuff.

Johnny duly told the nation that loo roll was disappearing off supermarket shelves, adding, unwisely, that there was already an "acute shortage".

Smiles were wiped off faces the following morning when it emerged that many of the show's 20 million viewers had rushed out to the supermarkets determined not to be caught short. Most shops had none left by midday.

Some tried rationing, but failed in the face of people traumatised at the prospect of a few days deprived of anything soft, strong and long.

They had forgotten that life is possible without loo roll. Leaves and even corncobs were used by early American settlers. The Vikings opted for scraps of wool, and the Romans, always ones for comfort, preferred sponges. Three days later Carson went on air to confess that there was no crisis and to say sorry for the chaos. But it was too late. People were on a roll. They had stockpiled so much that they actually had created a shortage. Scott Paper, a major producer, even released a video of its factories in full and glorious production, but it made little difference. (Scott, incidentally, introduced paper on a roll back in 1890, but they were too embarrassed to put their name on the stuff). It was three weeks before things got back to normal. The relief was palpable.

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