Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
Visit any Anchorage store right now, and the toilet paper aisle is empty, cleared by residents stocking up amidst coronavirus fears.
The history of commercial toilet paper in America dates back to 1857, when a New Jersey company offered sheets of aloe-soaked paper described as “Therapeutic Paper” in 500 count boxes. However, the toilet paper roll as we know it today only dates back to the 1880s with the first mass-produced version from Scott hitting stores in 1890. Do you know what Americans used before toilet paper? Grass. Corncobs. Leaves. Newspapers. Catalog pages. Or whatever else was handy. Try not to think too hard about it.
Toilet paper was indeed available in early Anchorage, albeit at a high cost. In 1916, Pilger’s General Store advertised three rolls of toilet paper for 25 cents, roughly equal to $6 today. And for that princely price, it likely would have been some of the worst, roughest toilet paper you’ve ever encountered. This is not a joke. The technology to ensure splinter-free toilet paper did not exist until the 1930s. Northern offered the first widely available toilet paper with a splinter-free guarantee in 1935.
In 1955, Carrs advertised three rolls of name brand—Walford—toilet paper for 29 cents, around $2.80 today. The difference in relative price and product quality illustrates the difficulty and cost to import materials into Anchorage in 1916 versus 1955.
As various goods were often in short supply or expensive in Anchorage, residents got creative. For example, some tied long strips of toilet paper to sticks, letting the breeze wave the paper and hopefully scare bears away. But the most inventive use of toilet paper in Anchorage belongs to Marvin “Muktuk” Marston (1889-1980).
After the opening shots, but before America’s entry into World War II, Marston proposed a reserve militia with the necessary Alaska-specific skills to defend the Territory. In June 1942, after the Pearl and Dutch harbor attacks, Gov. Ernest Gruening authorized the Alaska Territorial Guard, a forerunner of the Alaska National Guard. Major Marston was assigned to the Governor and tasked with recruiting and organizing volunteers. In Nome, he tried muktuk—a traditional meal of whale blubber attached to skin—and earned his nickname.
After the war, after the Territorial Guard was dissolved in 1947, Marston tried his hand at real estate. By this time, he already owned several hundred acres of mostly wilderness near Spenard Road. Because of its relative isolation, he struggled to find investors. By 1950, in large part thanks to the continued southward development of Anchorage and the nearby international airport site, Marston was able to develop Anchorage’s first high-end housing development, Turnagain-By-The-Sea, simply called Turnagain today.
Turnagain-By-The-Sea, a white’s-only enclave, was Anchorage’s first neighborhood with paved streets, curb cuts and sidewalks. It quickly became home to many of Alaska’s social and political elite, including Elmer Rasmuson and Wally Hickel, the latter a partner in the community’s development.
Marston was involved in all aspects of the neighborhood design. He had a particular vision that he wanted made real. And when it came time to clear the streets, Marston himself walked the desired paths. As he walked, he unrolled toilet paper for the bulldozer behind to follow.
Is this story true? The first time known printed version dates from 30 years later, in an Anchorage Times obituary feature. However, the Times’ editor was Robert Atwood, a man well familiar with Marston. Atwood himself had been a lieutenant in the Territorial Guard. And Atwood, who likely heard the story dozens of times over the decades, included no mention of it as a legend, just presented it as fact.
Moreover, this isn’t the only example of toilet paper-aided surveying in Alaska history. Richfield Oil made the first major commercial oil strike in Alaska on July 19, 1957, the Swanson River oilfield in the Kenai Peninsula. To get there, Richmond Oil began constructing a road in October 1956. They had to wait until the ground was firm enough for heavy trucks and bulldozers. However, the spruce were too thick to mark the route, and helicopters were not yet used in Alaska winters.
So, Bill Bishop, the geologist in charge, ordered a plane to fly close overhead and drop unfurled toilet paper rolls. The paper laced across treetops and marked the 23-mile path to the site. Said Bishop, “The trick is to unroll several feet, loosely re-roll it and, with a spin, drop it out the window.” Different colored toilet papers were used to mark locations when and where more precision was needed.
Alaska Oil and Gas Association. Oil & Gas Chronicle: A Timeline of Development in Alaska. July 2006, petroleumnews.com/pdfarch/AOGA_Chronicle.pdf.
Praeger, Dave. Poop Culture: How America I Shaped by Its Grossest National Product. Los Angeles: Feral House, 2007.
“State Loses a Colorful Champion.” Anchorage Times, July 21, 1980, B2.