I recently wrote a blog about the history of toilet paper and the response was so enthusiastic, I decided to look further into the subject.
Before toilet paper came into existence in 1857, people used leaves, moss, stones, corncobs or whatever was handy. The Romans used a sponge on a stick which doesn’t sound too bad. Except that Romans had communal lavatories and after using the sponge, they would dip it in a pail of water and then pass it onto the next guy. Ugh! Parts of the world today don’t even wipe, they use water from a jug or a bidet.
Public Roman bathroom
When cheap paper became easily available in the 19th century, people used newspapers and magazines as well as the giant Sears Roebuck Catalogue, which was a favorite in American bathrooms. In 1857, Joseph C. Gayetty started manufacturing “Paper for the water closet” and sold it in a package of sheets.
It wasn’t until 1871 when Seth Wheeler of Albany, NY, came up with the design that we are familiar with today. He invented the concept of perforating a roll of paper so it could be conveniently torn off in small squares. He then patented the cardboard tube at the center of the roll and a holder for this new contraption.
Early toilet paper roll
Old SCott Paper Company toilet paper
While we see this invention as brilliant and practical, it was apparently not easy to convince early 20th century Americans to buy this new, miraculous, disposable product. People wondered why they should pay for this fancy paper when they had so much paper available for free that could be put to the same use.
Well into the 1940s, toilet paper was a luxury because most Americans still used outhouses. These were basically a hole in the ground, so it didn’t matter what, or how much, you threw down that hole.
But another invention came to the rescue and made toilet paper a necessity in every American household – the flush toilet. Around this same time, many cities began building sewers and municipal water supplies which allowed more and more homes to acquire a hallmark of modern civilization, the indoor bathroom.
Flush toilets connect to sewers with an S-shaped trap to keep sewer gases from backing up into bathrooms. This piece of plumbing can get easily blocked up. Therefore, flush toilets are much more particular about what they can digest.
Newspapers and catalogs were no longer viable for modern bathroom duty.
Old flush toilet design
Flush toilet design
Early flush toilet ad
Companies began to use modern advertising to compete with each other over the booming toilet paper market. Softer, “splinter-free,” and the multi-ply paper was touted as more comfortable and more absorbent. Colored toilet paper came out to match bathroom décor.
Toilet paper is now a 2.5 billion dollar industry and is considered to be enough of a daily necessity to cause the Coronavirus panic buying and resultant shortages in stores.
Old toilet paper ad
Colorful rolls on display
This is not the first time toilet paper shortages have made the headlines in recent history. In 1971, a July dock strike wiped out the toilet paper supply in Hawaii, which imports everything. That shortage lasted months and caused some interesting social phenomena. People stole toilet paper from the restrooms in bars, so some bar owners took control of the toilet paper supply and assigned a “poop manager” to ration out six squares to anyone who needed the restroom. To avoid similar pilfering, some hotels posted security guards in their restrooms.
Having toilet paper became a status symbol and a wealthy heiress received toilet paper rolls as a housewarming gift. When radio stations had contests, the winner got toilet paper – in one case the toilet paper was delivered in a Rolls Royce! In 1999 the threat of another strike caused another run on toilet paper in Hawaii.
After that, Hawaiians stockpiled supplies so they never had to panic about shortages again.
Decorative old toilet
More familiar toilet design
The good news today is that the current toilet paper shortage should be short-lived. Most of the paper industry is local and there are ample supplies of the raw materials used in its production: wood pulp and recycled paper. There are no overseas supply chains to get disrupted by Coronavirus so long term toilet paper shortages shouldn’t be something we need to worry about.
At least that’s what I read. We all know that sometimes what you read isn’t even worth the paper it’s printed on!