The Toilet Paper Story
The Chinese were way ahead of the rest of us; 1,500 years ago they were using toilet paper. But, it wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that Westerners caught onto this new fad.
The Talmud, the text of Jewish law, advises that “On the Sabbath it is permitted to take along three rounded pebbles into the privy.”
The Romans, well the rich ones, soaked wool in rose water or vinegar. The folks at Charmin tell us that “Initially, people just cleaned themselves up with whatever was handy; rocks, sticks, leaves, corncobs or (yeeouch) wood shavings.” Elsewhere, seashells, broken pottery, and knotted ropes are mentioned – double yeeouch.
So, let’s get to the bottom of this story (Oh dear, and it probably doesn't get any better).
By Any Other Name
What to call it? Toilet paper, bathroom tissue, bog roll, bum wipe?
Toilet paper is location specific without being graphic. Bathroom tissue is nicely vague about usage and could mean dabbing away a bit of errant mascara. Bog roll is a British expression using a slang term for toilet and the brightest among us can figure out the roll reference. Bum wipe gets right to the point but might be a little like Eliza Doolittle yelling “C’mon Dover, move your blooming arse.” “Oh! Where’s the smelling salts. Aunt Agatha needs reviving.”
The Evolution of Toilet Paper
On a daily basis, we should all say a hearty “Thank you” to Joseph Gayetty. In 1857, Mr. Gayetty of New York launched the Western world’s first commercial toilet paper.
The product, called Therapeutic Paper, came in a box of 500 sheets moistened with aloe. The inventor was bold enough to have his name printed on each sheet. However, Therapeutic Paper was a bit of a flop; in modern parlance we might say it went down the crapper, but we have more class than to do such a thing.
The failure of Therapeutic Paper may have been connected to the years that went by before its competitors could start advertising it as “splinter free.” Again, with the yeeouch.
The Scott Paper Company introduced the toilet paper roll in 1879, although it was unperforated. Over to Joe Kissell for the punch line, “the company did not market their products under the Scott brand initially—not wanting to, ah, soil the family’s good name.”
Squeamishness about bodily functions held back the sales. In the days before self-serve stores, people were reluctant to ask for the product by name. Linda Rodriguez McRobbie writes that “By 1930, the German paper company Hakle began using the tag line, ‘Ask for a roll of Hakle and you won’t have to say toilet paper!’ ”
Acceptance came slowly as suppliers battled to introduce improvements. First, there was two-ply then four-ply and quilting. All along there was the search for the Holy Grail – softness combined with what was delicately referred to as “firmness.”
Advertising Toilet Paper
Spare a consoling thought for the advertising agency creative team that learns their hot-shot sales people have landed the bog roll account. How are we going to sell this stuff?
It’s not Vim or Brillo pads so we can’t actually show it being used. The standard solution to this conundrum has been to use surrogates. So, cuddly white kittens and puppies are shown tumbling over piles of unravelling toilet paper.
Another agency used bears. But they had to be de-clawed, their flesh-tearing fangs disguised, and then cutyfied into cartoon fuzzy-wuzzies.
Then, there is Gretchen the runway-model cavorting about in a gown made of toilet paper. One can imagine the conversation with the talent agent, although curiously we only have one side of the interaction:
Gretchen: “I am not going on national television in a dress made of bum wad.”
Gretchen: “How much?”
Gretchen: “I can totally wear that.”
Taylor’s Happy Life Rule
Never sit down without checking there’s enough paper left on the roll.
Soviet Bum Wipes
Toilet paper has come to symbolize the chaos of the Soviet Union’s Communist economy. The commodity was almost always in short supply, which was a mixed blessing because those who used it said it was like 80-grit sandpaper.
The Soviet bog roll shortages gave rise to a Western spy activity called Operation Tamerisk. Soviet agents resorted to tearing pages out of their military documents to clean up, and, as the plumbing system could not handle the discarded paper, it was deposited in a waste bin.
After the janitors had tidied up, Western espionage people would go dumpster diving behind Soviet offices. International security expert Richard J. Aldrich has written the operation yielded “gold dust to the growing army of analysts in London and Washington.”
An Issue with Tissue
Who knew that what we discard in the reading room is contributing to global warming? But, it is. The manufacturing of toilet paper requires wood pulp that leads to the cutting down of 10 million trees a year.
Since 1996, an area the size of Pennsylvania has been logged from Canada’s boreal forest; about a quarter of those trees have been used to make toilet paper. The vast woodlands of Canada absorb huge amounts of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Turning these tracts into toilet paper affects climate change.
A 2019 report by the Natural Resources Council and the environmental group Stand.earth says there are alternatives to using virgin wood pulp but “leading toilet paper makers cling to their decades-old formulas that include zero recycled content.”
The Guardian notes that the report says “Americans are particularly to blame for this crisis. They make up just over four percent of the world’s population, yet account for more than 20 percent of global tissue consumption. The average four-person household in the U.S. uses over 100lb of toilet paper a year.”
It seems a return to pottery shards, seashells, or pebbles is unlikely. Or, maybe the bidet will catch on. TUSHY is a company in the bidet business that claims their products will “turn your toilet into a caboose cleaning paradise.”
England’s Henry VIII created the position in his court of Groom of the King’s Close Stool. The job involved assisting the monarch in his daily royal bowel movements and in the subsequent clean up.
Metsa Tissue is a Finnish toilet paper manufacturer. In 2013, it released its product with affirming messages about joy and love printed on each sheet. Unfortunately, some of the quotes were biblical. Fire and brimstone was delivered from Scandinavian pulpits.
How many men does it take to change a toilet roll? Nobody knows because it’s never happened.
Over or under? It’s the crucial debate about how to hang a toilet roll. Science says over. A University of Colorado study says there is a greater chance of food poisoning bacteria being transmitted if toilet paper is pulled from the bottom rather than from the top of the roll. The reason is that with the under pull the hand may brush the wall leaving behind bacteria that the next user can pick up. Also, it’s harder for the cat to unravel the roll if it’s coming off the top.
- “Toilet Paper History – Complete Historical Timeline.” Toilet Paper World, undated.
- “The Story of Toilet Paper.” Joe Kissell, Interesting Thing of the Day, August 23, 2018.
- “Toilet Paper History: How America Convinced the World to Wipe.” Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, Mental Floss, November 7, 2009.
- “History of Toilet Paper.” Charmin, undated.
- “Cold War Spies Sifted Through Used Soviet Toilet Paper In Search of Clues.” Urvija Banerji, Atlas Obscura, March 17, 2016.
- “Advisory: New Stand.Earth, NRDC ‘Issue with Tissue’ Report Asks: Why Are We Flushing Ancient Forests down the Toilet?” Stand.earth.com, February 19, 2019.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor