Buying Toilet Paper

A few days ago I brought the last package of toilet paper upstairs to our bathroom and accordingly put “TP” on my grocery list, so when I go to Walmart this afternoon, I’ll be hitting the toilet paper aisle. This usually doesn’t require much thought or effort. I long ago settled on my “favorite” brand (though the reasons for that selection are lost in the mists of time), so I head right to it. I usually buy the Giant Economy Size of 24 or even 36 rolls, avoiding looking at the shelf price since I don’t even want to know how much I’m paying for something that will just be thrown away.

I recently said to my husband that I was thinking of changing brands. He strenuously objected, saying that he liked what we have, but the problem is that it is very linty: I am constantly having to sweep or vacuum up paper dust from under the TP dispenser. If I did decide to switch, Walmart offers several brands to choose among: Cottonelle, Charmin, Quilted Northern, Angel Soft, and its own Great Value brand. Cottonelle, my “favorite,” comes in Clean Care (single-ply), Comfort Care (two-ply), and Gentle Care (with aloe). So I am spoiled for choice. This was not the case for my mother 70 years ago.

As time permits, I’ve been reading the letters my mother wrote to her mother throughout her married life. During the war years, when rationing was in effect, mention of unavailable items was frequent. Even after the war, in the 1945 and 1946 letters, it was not uncommon to find allusions to hard-to-find or expensive meats or canned foods. And my parents had been trying for many months to get a new car to replace the extremely unreliable 1937 Ford my father had bought from his mother before he was married. But toilet paper?

The first reference I noticed was in a letter dated December 1, 1947. My father’s parents had come to visit us in New Orleans for the week of Thanksgiving, returning home on Sunday, November 30. The next day, Mother summarized the activities of the past few days. On Friday, she wrote, “…while Suzanne was taking her nap, Mama and I went in search of toilet paper. Found some at our Maison’s…”

“Our Maison’s” was the Gentilly branch of Maison Blanche, which had recently opened in a shopping center on Gentilly Boulevard at Frenchman Street, within walking distance of our house (the photo below shows its interior in 1948; the location is now an AutoZone). I can’t imagine having to buy toilet paper in a department store!

Six weeks later, Mother was searching again, writing to her mother on January 16:

While I think of it, how is the toilet paper situation in Tennessee? We are really desperate—have been using face tissues at 26¢ and 31¢ a box. If Daddy could get us some good brand, we’d certainly appreciate it. Even Tom’s wholesale grocery customers can’t get it. I’d rather use Kleenex than the sandpaper brands the drugstores have.

Those prices for Kleenex would be $2.70 and $3.22 in 2018 dollars. A box of Kleenex today costs less than $1.50 but would still be expensive to use as toilet paper.

That the shortage continued is evidenced by a March 13, 1948, letter. My father had had to travel to Biloxi-Gulfport on business (he was an IBM salesman), and Mother writes: “Tom got home from Biloxi last night about 8:45—much earlier than I expected him. He brought me a box of candy and 12 rolls of toilet paper!”

This is certainly something to think about when I find myself dissatisfied because I have to get two-ply instead of single-ply or settle for a bundle that has packages of four or nine rolls instead of my preferred six!

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