Toilet paper: Out of mind until off the shelves

Perceived shortages can make us more of the value something, whether it's soil organic matter or toilet paper

The toilet paper supplies were limited at some major retailers Thursday, March 12, in Willmar. Periodic shortages of household essentials — such as hand sanitizer, toilet paper and disinfecting wipes — are occurring across the country as people prepare for the coronavirus' spread. Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

It’s interesting how we think of the value of something when it goes away.

I was talking to a farmer the other day about what he was going to do to get into the field this spring. He talked about his fancy new tillage tool, but acknowledged that might not do the trick to prepare the soil for seeding. A “match” might be needed. He was thinking about burning corn residue so he could put in some edible beans that might make money in 2020.

The downfall, he said, was that he would sacrifice organic matter that he considers vital for soil health. A bit later, as I was thinking about how crop residue — once called “trash” — is now highly valued.

Toilet paper is one of those things that’s taken for granted until people perceive it might go away.

Because of COVID-19, people are now hoarding it, or at last stockpiling it. I started thinking about availability after I saw the interview with the over-the-road trucker in Nebraska who said he couldn’t count on the public rest areas anymore because thieves were “stealing” the toilet paper.


Toilet paper seems to have originated in China, in the Sixth Century. It’s come a long ways since. A few fun facts about “modern” TP history:

1857: Joseph C. Gayetty, an inventor from New Jersey, produced the first “commercially packaged” TP, first sold as “loose, flat, sheets of paper,” initially made from Manila hemp. They put aloe on it and call it “medicated”

1867: Partners start making it in Philadelphia, and eventually start Scott Paper Co., the first company to sell it in rolls.

1871: Seth Wheeler of Albany, N.Y., patent rolled and perforated TP, and Albany Perforated Wrapping Paper starts selling it in 1897. (Note to relatives: Patent diagram shows roll has sheets “over and facing out.”)

1935: Northern Tissue, established by Northern Paper Mills in Green Bay, Wis., in 1901, invents a “splinter free” toilet paper.

While half the world doesn't use it, about 7 billion rolls are sold in the U.S. annually. The average American uses 23.6 rolls a year — about 50% more than other Western countries. A single tree makes about 200 rolls.

This isn't the first perceived shortage. On Dec. 11, 1973, former U.S. Rep. Harold V. Froelich, R-Wis. a lawyer from Appleton, issued a press release warning of a shortage of pulp paper. Froelich, hinted a shortage of pulp paper and potential “shortage of toilet paper within a few months.” TV talk show host Johnny Carson read a clipping about Froelich’s comments, sparking three weeks of irrational consumer hoarding.

Today, despite perceptions, major manufacturers — Kimberly Clark, Georgia Pacific and Procter and Gamble — have ramped up production. Toilet paper will be back.


And so will organic matter. Dave Franzen, a North Dakota State University Extension Soils specialist says it’s understandable for conventional farmers to burn off corn residue to get a crop in in 2020. Yes, Franzen acknowledges, it will knock back nitrogen, sulfur and organic matter a bit. But with good management and any luck, the levels will back in a year or two.

Good news.

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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