The panic buying spurred by the Coronavirus has highlighted the products that Americans feel are most essential to their wellbeing. Apparently toilet paper leads the pack since most stores initially reported that they were completely out of toilet paper.
Toilet paper hoarding has become a national joke, with people buying carts full of the stuff in anticipation of long periods of ‘sheltering in place.’
I was surprised to discover that toilet paper has only been around since 1857, which means that humans spent centuries and centuries without this basic item of civilized life. So what did people do before this life-changing invention? Sailors used the frayed end of a rope dipped in saltwater. The Romans used a sponge on the end of a stick. Rural areas used corn cobs hung in outhouses.
Stones and moss were also used as were all kinds of printed paper, which were put to double use. People wiped indiscriminately with everything from newspapers and catalogs to almanacs and literature and even government proclamations.
Then around 1857, Joseph C. Gayetty invented the first commercial toilet paper called “Gayettey’s Medicated Paper.” It was made of hemp, had the inventor’s name watermarked on each sheet and claimed that its four medications combined with the paper pulp prevented and cured hemorrhoids. It was clearly a luxury item only for the rich because it sold for $30 in today’s money for 1000 sheets.
Gayettey’s product was sold only in sheets, as were the other brands that popped up, but it continued to be sold into the 1920s. It wasn’t until 1890 that Irvin and Clarence Scott of Philadelphia’s Scott Paper Company revolutionized the world of toilet paper by selling it on rolls. If you look at the original patent, you can see that the roll was designed to be placed with the sheets coming OVER the roll, NOT UNDER!
A later patent tried to address the problem of finding the ‘end’ sheet if it’s not hanging down. It was not successful, nor were the others that subsequently tried to tackle that pressing issue. Later improvements on the toilet paper roll addressed the problem of waste – too many sheets unraveled with each use. In 1891 a patent was granted for a roll of toilet paper with perforations to separate sheets so that only one sheet of paper came off the roll at a time.
Another welcome improvement in quality came in the early 1900s when a company boasted of its super-refined, “splinter-free” toilet paper. Ouch! Before this time, minute wood pulp splinters were a common residue from the papermaking process. By 1943, toilet paper was advertised as “soft and oh so gentle” for the first time!
Toilet paper has also been used as a political tool and numerous American politicians have appeared on rolls, including George Bush and Donald Trump. Prior to World War II, some British toilet paper was made with pictures of Adolph Hitler and other Nazi leaders printed on the sheets. One such roll from the 1930s was recently found in a barn in England. It was thin, war issue paper and was only twenty sheets, but it showed Hitler giving the Nazi salute. It sold for $240!
Are we going to face prices like that for Charmin in the near future? If it had pictures of Donald Trump on it, it might be worth it.