comscore Rearview Mirror: When calamity strikes Hawaii, residents run for toilet paper | Honolulu Star-Advertiser
Hawaii News | Rearview Mirror

Rearview Mirror: When calamity strikes Hawaii, residents run for toilet paper

  • STAR-ADVERTISER / 1949
                                When times get difficult, Hawaii residents reach for toilet paper. Pictured, a woman buys toilet paper during the 1949 shipping strike.

    STAR-ADVERTISER / 1949

    When times get difficult, Hawaii residents reach for toilet paper. Pictured, a woman buys toilet paper during the 1949 shipping strike.

  • STAR-ADVERTISER / 1949
                                People are seen picketing during the 1949 shipping strike.

    STAR-ADVERTISER / 1949

    People are seen picketing during the 1949 shipping strike.

  • STAR-ADVERTISER / 1971
                                A woman finds toilet paper during the 1971 shipping strike.

    STAR-ADVERTISER / 1971

    A woman finds toilet paper during the 1971 shipping strike.

  • DENNIS ODA / FEB. 26, 2020
                                Empty shelves that used to be full of toilet paper are seen at Sam’s Club on Keeaumoku St.

    DENNIS ODA / FEB. 26, 2020

    Empty shelves that used to be full of toilet paper are seen at Sam’s Club on Keeaumoku St.

I cover a wide range of topics in Rearview Mirror: people, places, organizations, sports, the military, schools and even food. But I never thought I’d write a column on toilet paper!

However, these are difficult times, and in difficult times, islanders flock to the markets and buy up all the TP they can find.

It makes no sense on a practical level. Matson and Pasha are not going to stop coming, and the stores will stay open.

But on a psychological or historical level, it makes perfect sense. Dock strikes in the 1940s and 1970s have cut us off from mainland sources of that soft, powder room paper our okole crave.

When I was going to the University of Hawaii in the early 1970s, my housemates reminded me to secure my own supply and that if I ran out, I couldn’t count on them!

Between 1946 and 1952 four major maritime union strikes closed West Coast and Hawaii ports for 390 days.

As Matson moved to containerizing ocean cargo in 1969, a 35-day strike by the Marine Firemen’s Union took place. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union launched strikes in 1971 and 1972 that lasted 135 days.

Toilet paper, rice, salt and many other basics were hard to come by. Just the possibility of a strike sent islanders to the stores, leaving shelves empty.

In 1974 one retailer was overstocked in toilet paper. In a reverse psychology move, it announced it was limiting sales to one package per customer. There was plenty of TP all over town, but this one store created a panic and sold four containers of it in five days, at full price.

Jim Kelly told me his daughter, a teacher at Waiakea High in Hilo, found a 1971 article about the toilet paper crisis in Hawaii that ran in The New York Times!

“As I recall,” Kelly said, “a radio station dispatched a Rolls-Royce, complete with then Waikiki star John Rowles, to deliver necessary toilet paper rolls to some lucky listener.”

New Zealand entertainer John Rowles (“Cheryl Moana Marie”) did in fact deliver rolls of TP to contest winners in his Rolls-Royce.

Rowles delivers rolls in his Rolls. Got that?

Steve Miura said that during the 1971 ILWU strike, which lasted from July 1 to Oct. 6, K-POI radio held a popular “roll-a-thon” contest.

“Every time that they played the song ‘Roll On’ by the New Colony Six, the first caller to get through on the contest telephone line would win a roll of toilet paper.

“In his book, ‘Showman of the Pacific,’ Tom Moffatt said that one day a Cadillac drove up to K-POI. The chauffeur got out of the car and went into the station office to pick up the free roll of toilet paper that his Kahala boss had won in the radio contest.”

HYGIENIC STORE

The New York Times article had a few other interesting TP tidbits. It said, “When Mr. and Mrs. Lenn Curley of San Francisco (she’s the former Marcella Gump of the retail chain Gumps) recently purchased an apartment in Waikiki, Kinau Wilder, who comes from a family of missionaries, dropped in for a visit.

“Her housewarming present consisted of two rolls of tissue and a six-pack of Morton’s tiny salt shakers.”

Cynthia Eyre said she was out in the country looking for papayas, which also had vanished from Honolulu shelves because of a drought, and stopped at the Hygienic Store in Kahaluu. There on the shelves were rows and rows of toilet tissue in pink, green, yellow, blue and white.

Eyre forgot all about the papayas and asked the storekeeper, “Would you consider me piggish if I bought six rolls?”

“Oh, no — help yourself,” the saleswoman, seemingly unaware of the shortage that had hit the islands, told her. So Eyre selected six white rolls.

“White, eh?” said the woman as she rang up the sale. “You must be one of those ecology types!”

Edwyna Fong Spiegel recalled, “At a TransAmerica staff party during the Matson strike, I won a case of toilet paper! I thought it was marvelous!”

Ken Takeya was a manager at Beretania Foodland. During the dock strike he got a call from the mayor. “Hello, Mayor Fasi,” Takeya said.

“Frank,” the voice on the line insisted he be called.

“What can I do for you, Frank?” Takeya asked.

“I need a case of toilet paper and three bags of rice,” he said.

“OK. Come by at midnight,” Takeya instructed. Like two spies meeting in the dark, he showed up, paid and loaded it in his car.

“Is there anything I can do for you?” he asked.

Takeya mentioned he had a problem with a road behind the store that was not technically city property and was not maintained by it. It had potholes and hindered customers and deliveries.

Fasi said he’d look into it, and within two days it was paved.

PAPER CAPER

“Way back in my childhood we had a Matson shipping strike, and the shortage of everything everywhere was a big problem,” Kimo Sutton told me.

“Ike, my pop (former state legislator), had a small 10-unit hotel on Saratoga Road (which is now the Trump hotel), and the rooms used about one roll a day. Despite being the wise operator, he could not keep up with demand, but nearby big hotels could.

“The Edgewater, a Kelley hotel, had lots, and public restrooms,” Sutton continued. “I was sent over and collected three rolls a day for several days from the men’s room until security was stationed there.

“I switched to the ladies’ room and had no problem escaping with even more TP! It just was a time when we got desperate and other sources had dried up.

“Thinking back, the Kelleys could have stopped the pilfering but probably knew that they were helping the industry, and we were not selling it on the black market.”

TP ISSUE POINT

Territorial Tavern owner Bob Hampton was on the other end of that equation.

“In the early 1970s Honolulu had a toilet paper shortage. It was so bad that local folks were taking TP from restaurants, hotels and other public luas.

“In order to provide TP for our wahine and kane luas in the Territorial Tavern downtown, we had to take all TP out of the luas and only issue a maximum of six sheets to customers before they entered. The cashier at the bar was the TP Issue Point,” Hampton says.

“We called the cashier the ‘kukae manager.’ It seems the role of kukae manager lasted for a few months before the supply increased in the stores.”

And now the TP panic has spread to the mainland, and some of their shelves are running low. Hopefully, this crisis will be over soon.

I have every reason to think we will have electricity and water during this pandemic. Stores will stay open and have food on their shelves. Panic buying is not necessary.

So please, leave some TP for the rest of us. You don’t need two years’ supply. One year is enough! (I’m joking!)


Have a question or suggestion? Contact Bob Sigall, author of the five “The Companies We Keep” books, at Sigall@Yahoo.com.


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