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The toilet paper crisis Hawaii has never forgotten

Shelves at the Target department store in Wadsworth, Ohio, are empty of supplies such as toilet paper and sanitizer a day after Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine put in place a stay-at-home order. (Dustin Franz)

The cause was different, but the effect was the same: Not enough tissue at hand for the issue at hand.

Americans are struggling to find toilet paper after demand exploded amid the coronavirus crisis. In July 1971, dock strikes wiped out the supply in Hawaii, leading to an uncomfortable shortage that lasted for months.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union strike shut down every dock on the West Coast while bosses and union leaders fought over a new contract. Hawaii residents were completely dependent on those shipments for a variety of goods – salt, rice – but none seems to have stuck in the memory like the lack of toilet paper.

Perspective: How America fell for toilet paper. (Don’t worry, we won’t run out.)

Bar owner Bob Hampton recently recalled to the Star-Advertiser that after patrons kept stealing rolls from the restrooms, they moved them behind the bar and assigned a “kukae [poop] manager,” who rationed six squares per customer for a visit to the commode.

When a local hotel owner ran out of TP for guests, he lifted some from the public restrooms in the luxury resort across the street, he told the Star-Advertiser. After a few days, the restrooms suddenly had security guards.

A 1971 New York Times article described how having toilet paper became an expression of status. When a wealthy heiress and her husband bought a condo in Waikiki, they received rolls of toilet paper and Morton’s salt shakers as housewarming gifts from neighbors.

When radio stations had contests, the winning caller got toilet paper. One station, the Times wrote, delivered the TP in a Rolls-Royce. You didn’t get to keep the Rolls, though, just the rolls.

And what’s a public health crisis without a little quid pro quo? A grocery store manager told the Star-Advertiser he got a call from then-Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi.

“I need a case of toilet paper and three bags of rice,” Fasi told him.

When they made the exchange at midnight, “like two spies,” Fasi asked him if there was anything he needed. The manager told him about some potholes behind the store; two days later, they were paved over.

By October, President Richard Nixon got involved in the strike negotiations, citing national “health and safety” concerns. The longshoremen were forced back to work for 80 days — just in time for Christmas — but they struck again in January 1972. This time, the shipping company refused to allow dock workers to load military cargo to Vietnam, according to the Waterfront Workers History Project at the University of Washington, claiming the extra income from that work was prolonging the strike.

An agreement was finally reached in February, largely to the strikers’ favor, and soon the critical tissue began rolling back onto the shelves of Hawaiian stores.

Hawaii residents may or may not have forgiven the dock workers for the strike, but they certainly haven’t forgotten. In 1999, a threat of a strike caused a run on toilet paper at big-box stores across the state, the Star Bulletin reported at the time.

It happened again during a dock worker lockout in 2002. State economist Pearl Imada Iboshi told the SFGate, “People are quite prepared,” because they had “built up inventories to cushion any negative impact.”

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