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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

Categories: Coronavirus - Covid 19, Ellin Curley, House and home, Humor, Marilyn Armstrong, Photography, Shopping

Tags: , , , , ,

11 replies

  1. I used to work in Ecuador building outhouses in remote communities that didn’t have them. There was one village we worked at that threw a big party to welcome us – lots of food, dancing, etc. I ate too much and needed to use the restroom, but there was none yet because we hadn’t built any. I explained the situation to our local contact, who kindly walked with me out into the jungle and gave me a crash course in which of the local leaves made good toilet paper. She knew that I, not being a local, woukd probably get lost trying to find my way back to the village by myself, so she stayed with me (looking the other way) while I did my business. Living in a foreign country can sometimes feel like being a little kid again – you need help and explanations to do the simplest things at first.


    • And having to do ones business in a jungle is definitely something special. Just using the outhouse in Maine was special. I didn’t mind the outhouse so much as I minded the big spiders that lived there.


      • Oh yeah, Ecuador definitely had its share of big spiders – once we had hardly finished assembling a privy when this huge huntsman spider moved in right under the seat! It was so big that its legs reached from one side of the seat to the other! The jungle is a pretty attractive option compared to that.

        “Something special”, that’s a polite way of putting it. But when the need is severe enough you hardly mind. I read an interview with a man who’d been lost at sea for a long period. He said eventually he got so hungry that he was eating every part of the fish he caught, even the eyeballs, but he was so starved that to him they tasted like candy. Similarly, when you’re sufficiently full of fried plantains, a tree in the jungle is as nice as your bathroom at home and a handful of soft leaves is as good as Charmin.


  2. Fascinating, informative and reassuring, Elin! 🙂 Thanks. We always have plenty of TP and other necessities on hand here at the farmstead in central Maine in case we have extensive power outages or other catastrophic happenings. Most families are not so fortunate, so it’s reassuring to hear that our TP is made here in USA and we’re not short on paper-making resources. Thanks. Sharing your post!


  3. For years I was a toilet paper hoarder. JUST when I finally decided I could just buy it when I needed it … and ran out … that’s when the empty shelves appeared. They are still empty. Considering TP is a local product, why ARE we getting so little in the stores? Who is doing the hoarding? Could it be the companies are holding back deliveries so they can monumentally raise prices?


  4. My grandparents had an outhouse on the family farm. I remember when they finally installed an indoor toilet. It was big step forward. Of course the old catalogue would no longer work in the indoor setup.


    • With possible toilet paper shortages, it’s important to remind people that they can’t put other paper, like paper towels, down the toilet! I saw a show where they cut a roll of paper towels in half and said “Now you have 2 rolls of toilet paper!” It may have been meant as a joke, but it gives the wrong message.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. so interesting! and funny how once again, in our current times, having a roll of toilet paper is once again a status symbol!)


    • Having indoor plumbing at one time was a status symbol and you’re right, again it’s a sign of superiority if you had the ingenuity or foresight to find toilet paper in today’s manmade shortage!

      Liked by 1 person

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