Why Hoard Toilet Paper? Dirt and Disorder in the 21st Century

Sarah L. Berry //

“Of all dangers, those allied to pestilence, by being mysterious and unseen, are the most formidable.” — Charles Brockden Brown, Arthur Mervyn, Chapter 28.

Contagion breeds panic, as the early American novelist Charles Brockden Brown pointed out in Arthur Mervyn, or Memoirs of the Year 1793, a fictional chronicle of the medical and political drama of a yellow fever outbreak in Philadelphia. Despite the advancement of scientific knowledge about communicable disease, social panic transcends the centuries. In 2019, a new form of coronavirus broke upon the world as “mysterious and unseen” as the mosquito- and sewage-borne epidemics of the eighteenth century.

Panic responses to pandemics amplify prevailing social rifts and provoke behaviors that add a layer of danger to existing threats of disease. During the bubonic plague of 1665, Londoners stuffed their mouths with garlic and poured vinegar over their heads; in 2020, shoppers from Japan to New York City hoarded toilet paper. Although these behaviors appear irrational, they are intricately connected to cultural and political contexts. The history of epidemics and literature in England and America reveal roots in class, gender, and racial disparities. This history shines a light on bath tissue hoarding during the present public health crisis, as personal hygiene and prejudice have been secret relatives from colonial times to COVID19.

I. Fever Dreams of the Other

In Mervyn, Arthur imputes yellow fever to “infected substances imported from the east or west” while his urbane companion Medlicote insists that it comes from “a morbid constitution of the atmosphere, owing wholly, or in part to filthy streets, airless habitations and squalid persons” (Ch. 7). While Arthur’s theory is broader in scope and vaguely xenophobic, Medlicote voices a specific cause consistent with medical knowledge at the time. The long-lasting miasma theory accounted for the spread of disease as air contamination; Medlicote pins this pollution to the bodies of people living in tenements, incubating the poisoned air in unventilated, shabby housing, and releasing it, along with the offal lining unsewered streets, into the city air to expose everyone. In this theory, a portion of residents are equated with waste and unsafe housing, all of which pose a threat of contamination to the presumably cleaner, wealthier residents. Published in 1793, this passage reminds us that American democracy is founded on class prejudice and wealth stratification.

Bacteria and viruses were identified as the causes of communicable illness toward the end of the nineteenth century by Louis Pasteur and Rudolf Virchow, respectively. Public health ramped up to identify carriers of disease beginning in 1849, with John Snow stemming cholera, a human-waste-borne illness, by tracing it to a contaminated well in impoverished central London (Gilbert 56). Medical attention to contagious illness captured the cultural imagination. In Victorian literature, fevers, signaling what we recognize today as dozens of communicable illnesses, served as a litmus test of character. Charlotte Bronte’s coming-of-age novel Jane Eyre (1847) was immensely influential on both sides of the Atlantic; Jane’s angelic friend Helen Burns dies at the severely underfunded school for clergymen’s daughters during a typhus outbreak. In Little Women (1868-69), Louisa May Alcott’s perennial domestic fiction classic, the youngest March sister, Beth, succumbs to scarlet fever (a complication of untreated strep infection). Jo’s death of smallpox in Dickens’s Bleak House (1852-53) is a sympathetic portrayal of the vulnerability of poor people to uninhabitable living conditions such as those of Tom All-Alone’s. On the American Gothic side, revelers in an aristocratic mansion perish of collective hemorrhage in Edgar Allan Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death” (1842), apparently from their patrician excess. Sometimes pestilence is generative: Fanny Fern’s bestselling semi-autobiographical novel Ruth Hall (1854) predicates Ruth’s professional rise as a journalist upon the death of her beloved husband to typhoid fever.

An 1884 advertisement for Pears Soap, in which a child's dark complexion appears to be washed to whiteness by the soap.
Fig. 1. Pears Soap advertisement, 1884. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Dirt, moral worth, and disease are aligned not only with class and gender purity, but also with race. In Britain and America, Pear’s soap advertisements made explicit the offensive association between complexion and dirt (see figure 1). Public health also took a turn at pathologizing enslaved people; before the Civil War, medical researchers and racist cultural scripts maintained invulnerability to contagion that reinforced enslaved labor. After Emancipation, epidemics were blamed on African Americans as perceived threats, incubating illness in close quarters—a problem that W.E.B. DuBois overturned in an early sociological study concluding that poverty and poor living conditions caused illness. African American history is public health history, especially with scapegoating: TB, syphilis, and pneumonia have all been been used as excuses for segregation and racialized double standards around medical policing and access to basic necessities.

Xenophobia is also heightened during pandemics. By the late nineteenth century, at the peak of the British empire. Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (1897) played up anti-Semitic xenophobia with every sexualized bite of the Eastern European vampire. Projection of disease onto other cultures is a consistent historical pattern, as Susan Sontag notes: syphilis, a sexually-transmitted bacterium, “was the ‘French pox’ to the English, morbus Germanicus to the Parisians, the Naples sickness to the Florentines, and the Chinese disease to the Japanese” (qtd. in Biss 156). Essayist Eula Biss surveys the conclusions by evolutionary psychologists that “our behavioral immune system,” which causes people “to be highly sensitive to physical differences or unusual behavior in other people . . . can easily be triggered by people who pose us no risk” (157). Nevertheless, pandemics activate existing international prejudices as they travel across man-made borders. The sitting U.S. president branded COVID-19 the “Wuhan virus,” consistent with his promotion of xenophobic attitudes and policies throughout his tenure. In addition, news coverage played up the proposed site of first human infection at the “wet markets” of China, a site of food procurement calculated to disgust a capitalist audience of supermarket shoppers. Yet supermarket shoppers are equally vulnerable to contagious illness; mere months before the outbreak of COVID-19, all California-grown romaine lettuce in U.S. supermarkets was recalled for E. coli, a bacterium spread through human and animal feces.

II. Viral Panic: We Are What Our Neighbors Hoard

Panic was glamorized before the pandemic: see the popular bands Widespread Panic and Panic! at the Disco, the Jodie Foster feature film The Panic Room, and the Nickelodeon cartoon Planet Panic. Capitalism cultivates panic behaviors and disaster planning, and the public health crisis amplifies them. With the outbreak of COVID-19, Americans began hoarding disinfecting supplies such as soap, alcohol, surgical masks, and hand sanitizer. These items were declared effective in reducing risk of virus infection, so the run on supplies makes sense, even if the quantities purchased do not. (Two Tennesseans amassed 17,000 bottles of hand sanitizer from stores around the state, intending to profit.) But what about toilet paper? Beginning in early March, New York City shelves were emptied in hours, and the behavior swept upstate and across the borders to other states. Suddenly it was in my own backyard.

On March 12, 2020, I left work in a small rural city in upstate NY and drove to a big box store for a few items. Inside, there was pandemonium. Five times the usual number of shoppers were there, and as I walked around collecting the few items I had planned on buying, I noticed people filling carts with bread, boxed and canned foods, and eggs. Puzzled, and not tuned into the news about coronavirus, I worried that the items I already had at home would not be available when I needed more of them in a week or two, and decided to buy some more. A 10-minute trip was turning into a 2-hour trip, and then I heard an announcement on the loudspeaker that sounded really strange: “There is plenty of toilet paper at Big Lots across the street.” Really not wanting to spend any more money, I checked out and left. I headed to a second store, a supermarket chain, for a deal on seltzer. Walking in, I was struck by a completely empty shelf running the length of an aisle. On the opposite shelf, boxes of tissues were still stacked neatly. Some flustered people were hovering about the empty space where huge packages of toilet paper used to sit, and one man in a business suit caught my eye as he strode past, sneering to me, “These people are ridiculous; give me a break.” I was still puzzled, but the emptying of shelves of toilet paper in Oswego, NY, is when I realized the virus that had been reported in China was coming to us.

In the next week, I thought about how to plan for a food and water shortage, and purchased a lot of lentils at the local farm store. A lot of lentils. And some dried peas, which, unlike lentils, I do not normally cook, and pounds upon pounds of coffee. Observant readers will see that I could subsist only on high-protein plant food and caffeine. I wasn’t really worried about toilet paper, though. I could think of about 5 alternate products to use if we ran out, and once we ran out of those, there was always the bathtub. But I wondered why toilet paper, of all things, was the coveted item. People need food, water, and oxygen to survive in the most calamitous event, I reasoned. The rest is luxury.

Consumer behavioral psychologist Kit Yerrow says that consumers are motivated by social mimicry: “”In times that are really kind of unprecedented and uncertain, we do look to other people for cues about what to do. Unfortunately, other people are doing [irrational] things, so it makes us feel like we should do it too” (Smith para. 1). Food critic Helen Rosner had a similar experience of a mob at Costco in Brooklyn in early March, and at large commercial stores around the nation, consumers recreated the conditions of Black Friday sales. (Notably, smaller stores and family-owned businesses have been overlooked by anxious crowds, suggesting all the more how deeply consumers are conditioned by large corporations.) Black Friday has, for many, eclipsed Thanksgiving as the main holiday of late November. Consumer frenzy, socially inappropriate behaviors of rudeness, and even physical violence in competing for “scarce” resources (non-essential electronics and appliances) at reduced prices, has been actively cultivated by retail industry in the past decade. Panic-shopping and bulk-buying at big box stores like the one I shopped at on March 12 is programmed into our habits and spending in ways that it wasn’t for Charles Brockden Brown or Charlotte Bronte. 

Social media also play a central role in the panic behaviors of COVID-19. Even during the H1N1 outbreak in 2009, social media did not cue mass trends the way they do now, and their power is overwhelmingly visual. Yerrow theorizes that an empty aisle, such as the one I saw in the supermarket, makes a more dramatic photo than a much smaller cleared-out space where cans of tuna were shelved (Smith para. 8). Social media also circulated pictures of lines and crowds; this is photo-worthy in the U.S., though that is normal in the many areas of the world with food shortages. Indeed, in wealthy nations like Canada and the U.S., the images of customers in lines and all those empty shelves could intensify panic as people associate scarcity with less wealthy nations that have been especially maligned in the current xenophobic political climate.

Despite the xenophobia, panic-hoarding spreads like a communicable illness across international borders. This raises another question about who hoards, and why. Hoarding toilet paper, it turns out, is not uniquely American. It started in Japan, with the (mistaken) assumption that that product was manufactured exclusively by China (Schreiber para. 6), an illusion perhaps fueled by Japan’s own historical xenophobia lending myopia to what goods China manufactures. The panic spread via social media in Japan first, and soon other countries caught on: Canada, Great Britain, and Germany all experienced widespread toilet paper hoarding while South Korea and the Netherlands did not (Blatt para. 1). Are Anglophone and Germanic cultures more concerned with personal hygiene than other nations? And what does personal hygiene have to do with surviving an illness spread through airborne upper respiratory droplets?

Based on the cultural history of blaming disease on the poor and racially othered in the U.S. and U.K. (Germany is beyond my expertise, but it was also an imperial power in the nineteenth century), the simple answer is that personal hygiene is a sign of class and racial privilege, whether consumers are aware of the bigger picture or not. In the U.S., hoarding is normalized for middle-class people through shopper’s clubs, bulk discount marketing, and on-demand purchasing from Amazon and meal kit services. For people of lower income, big box stores appeal to aspirational hoarding (Walmart’s tag is “Save money. Live better.”)

A thriving alternative market in the U.S. caters to “doomsday preppers” who purchase supplies for natural disaster survival. In an interview, business owner David Sanders stated that people are looking for control in a social context that revolves around “calamity” and insecurity (para. 10); Yerrow agrees that hoarding is a response to conflicting or uncertain messages about a threat, which certainly occurred with COVID-19 in U.S. territory (Smith para. 1). Hoarding was already in place in U.S. retail, but beyond the influence of social media, the pandemic reveals what people most fear in their choice of stock-up items; for me, it is clearly caffeine withdrawal.

Fears of personal filth cuts across class and gender; shrewd marketers have introduced “dude wipes” for men and even conservative personalities like Alex Jones, the host of radio show Info Wars, exploit this created sense of insecurity. Jones sells Tactical Wipes in military-designed packaging. Class division and racial identity are fundamental to hygiene product marketing. Since well before Pear’s soap broadcasted the moral imperative that cleanliness is next to whiteness, in the cultural imaginary, consumers have been made insecure about every bodily function, anxious about any visual or olfactory “tell” that could de-class, de-gender, or racialize them.

The cultural conditioning of hypersensitivity to bodily cleanliness targets women in particular, and women do the majority of shopping in the U.S. Feminists have pointed out how deodorant chemicals in sanitary napkins have caused infection, as well as the link between underarm deodorant containing aluminum and breast cancer. All of these items continue to sell; women are conditioned to fear smelling bad more than inducing serious health problems. In many ways, this amplifies a persistent cultural message: the body that smells is the sick body evoking revulsion. This personal hygiene mandate is true for most post-industrial nations. In the 2013 Spanish film Los Ultimos Dias (The End Days), a pandemic of agoraphobia is induced by the wealthy citizens being accustomed to such a “sterile” life that they immediately die when they venture outdoors.

Cleanliness is historically a tangible privilege; people who do not physically toil (sweat) or dirty themselves are able to remain clean because others do that work. Imperial and domestic slavery and the capitalist system that flourished from that wealth have ensured that cleanliness is a positional good, much like health. Hoarding in the U.S. economic context is also a sign of privilege. People living in five wealthier cities bought the most products from David Sanders’s Doomsday Prepper store (para. 2). COVID-19 is revealing that the impacts of the pandemic are not evenly distributed. Low-income people cannot afford to buy large quantities of anything; this gap increases as millions have lost employment. The shortages resulting from overbuying, economists say, will drive up prices, making the acquisition of basic necessities even more difficult for all people. As with other public health threats, morbidity and mortality rates of COVID-19 are much higher for low-income people and people of color due to higher incidence of risk factors and lower healthcare access. However, the same social and corporate media that amplified toilet paper hoarding could offer a chance to turn around social disparities of disease; the injustice of disparities, long known to the poor and oppressed, are suddenly making headlines during the pandemic.

Since the miasma theory, science has advanced to isolate new viral strains and can precisely determine the mode of communication through microscopic drops from the nose and mouth. The sudden turn to toilet paper, though, signals that COVID-19 activates traditional fears that are not influenced by new scientific knowledge. They are instead responses to conflicting messages about public health threat and a lack of coordinated response. Selfish behavior— shoppers taking more than they need, or refusing to wear face coverings known to protect others—could be the miasma of the twenty-first century. In these times, the versatility, generosity, and prosocial actions of ordinary people, first responders, and local officials are the best vaccine for these impulses.

Cover image source: Kgbo – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=87666282



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