When the plys become important

A dorky deep dive into the toilet paper shortage
“Only 30% of the world uses toilet paper,” Dr. Franke Wilmer said.

Paper currency took on an entirely new meaning recently as toilet paper became a bit of a commodity. As some folks hoarded toilet paper and created a nationwide shortage, grocery stores began to ration it and Amazon developed a one month delay in shipping.

The Lotus Pad staff sent a message of community to customers when they started giving-out a roll of toilet paper with every to-go order. Owner Alexandra Omania explained that it just seemed like the right thing to do. Her benevolence in a time of scarcity was unique.

For many, the sacrifice of a few rolls from a personal stash became an act of great love. Alliances were drawn and quotes from the “spare a square” Seinfeld! episode once again surfaced in regular conversation. Memes began surfacing with individual squares of toilet paper labeled, “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday...” Many families and friends across the nation began communicating about the two and three-ply sheets of paper as if it were an addiction.

Some professors on college campuses will likely toss the “Great Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020” into classroom discussion as a perfect example of groupthink.

Some universities are already discussing it. Yale University has started exploring the psychological factors of panic buying during a pandemic.

“I think we are seeing a perfect storm of psychological forces,” Nathan Novemsky’s article begins. “One is scarcity... scarcity makes everything seem more valuable. Another factor is control; consumers feel out of control about many aspects of the pandemic.” However, he went on to explain, people feel more in control when they can stock up on items. Also, providing things can be a way to care and concern for themselves and others.

Yet, could there be something at play beyond psychology?

Dr. Franke Wilmer, professor of political science at Montana State University explained another possible contributing factor this way: “Elasticity (the ability of demand for something to change in one direction or the other in response to market variables like price) varies in part by the degree to which it is possible to substitute something else for the goods in question."

“You may have some old magazines, or even photos of old boyfriends you wouldn’t mind using instead of toilet paper, but I think other than tissues and paper towels, there’s little substitutability for actual tp,” she said. 

Where did toilet paper come from, anyway? What did people use before and what could be used as back-up now? 

According to a Farmer’s Almanac article, toilet paper initially surfaced in China during the 6th century and was manufactured on a large scale in the 14h century in modern day Zhejiang province. Modern toilet paper did not hit the United States until the mid 19th Century. 

Before toilet paper was mainstreamed and accepted as the end all and be all of options, people used water and “the mechanical action of the left hand.” In ancient Greece, people used bits of pottery with enemies' names inscribed upon them; the Romans used sponges on sticks soaked in saltwater or vinegar. 

Bidets, sticks, corn cobs, which were “surprisingly soft”, sea shells, newspaper – hey, don’t get any ideas, telephone books, the Sears Roebuck catalog, the Farmer’s Almanac, hay and grass, leaves, rocks. Draw your own conclusions – do these sound sanitary, safe, or soft? 

Hence, the toilet paper crunch. Ew. Let’s rephrase – the toilet paper importance and scarcity. 

Dr. Wilmer also noted that according to a United Nations report half the people of the world do not have access to a toilet or a clean latrine – often having to head to bushes or fields. 

“Only 30% of the world uses toilet paper,” she said.  

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