Toilet Paper: A History

TP

Seinfeld excelled at criticism of the everyday. A few months ago, in a fine essay in the NY Times, Sam Anderson suggested that Roland Barthes was the father of pop cultural criticism and that we are all now cultural critics in the Barthian vein, “decoding everything.” Perhaps. But if Barthes gave us serious criticism of popular culture, Seinfeld taught us to be ironic critics of the utterly mundane. Case in point: toilet paper.

Consider this exchange from “The Face Painter” episode:

George: Take toilet paper for example. Do you realize that toilet paper has
not changed in my lifetime? It’s just paper on a cardboard roll, that’s it.
And in ten thousand years, it will still be exactly the same because really,
what else can they do?

Siena: That’s true. There really has been no development in toilet paper.

George: And everything else has changed. But toilet paper is exactly the same,
and will be so until we’re dead.

Siena: Yeah, you’re right George. What else can they do?

George: It’s just paper on a roll, that’s it. And that’s all it will ever be.

Siena: Wow.

Now stick with me. I know you’re probably wondering why I’m writing about toilet paper, but there is a point here. George reminds us that ubiquitous technologies tend to become naturalized (reified if you prefer) and veil their very contingent history. In other words, there has been development in toilet paper as Jerry points out later in the episode:

George: I saw Siena again.

Elaine: Siena?

Jerry: Yeah, he’s dating a crayon.

George: We discussed toilet paper.

Jerry: Toilet paper?

George: Yeah, I told her how toilet paper hasn’t changed in my lifetime, and
probably wouldn’t change in the next fifty thousand years and she was
fascinated, fascinated!

Jerry: What are you talking about?

Elaine: Yeah.

Jerry: Toilet paper’s changed.

Elaine: Yeah.

Jerry: It’s softer.

Elaine: Softer.

Jerry: More sheets per roll.

Elaine: Sheets.

Jerry: Comes in a wide variety of colors.

Elaine: Colors.

George: Ok, ok, fine! It’s changed, it’s not really the point. Anyway, I’m
thinking of making a big move.

Toilet paper has a history. Of course it has a history. But who thinks of it? Like George, we take most of our technology for granted. Of course, we pay a lot of attention to certain technologies, usually the newest and most innovative. But we don’t think too much about those other technologies that have become more or less part of our natural environment, the refrigerator for example. But these very mundane technologies have, in fact, carried rather significant consequences when you think about it. The refrigerator significantly reordered our relationship to food and dining, and consequently impacted household labor, the rhythms of daily life, and nutrition and health. These are no small things, but for all of this the refrigerator is hardly thought of as a revolutionary technology. Instead, the arrangements it facilitated are now more or less taken for granted.

Toilet paper, in case you’re wondering, was in use  in China as early as the fourteenth century and it was made in 2′ x 3′ sheets. Everywhere else, and in China before then, people made use of what their environment offered. Leaves, mussel shells, corncobs were among the more common options. The Romans (what have they ever done for us!) used a sponge attached to the end of a stick and dipped in salt water. And yes, as you may have heard, in certain cultures the left hand was employed in the task of scatological hygiene, and in these cultures the left hand retains a certain stigma to this day.

Until the late-nineteenth century, Americans opted for discarded reading material. It’s not clear if this is why Americans still today often take reading material into the bathroom, or if the practice of reading on the toilet yielded a eureka moment subsequently. In any case, magazines, newspapers, and almanacs were all precursors to the toilet paper as we know it today. It has been claimed that the Sears and Roebuck catalog was also known as the  “Rears and Sorebutt” catalog. The Farmer’s Almanac even came with a hole punched in it so that it could be hung and the pages torn off with ease.

Toilet paper in its present form first appeared in 1857 thanks to Joseph Gayetty. It was thoughtfully moistened with aloe. In 1879, the Scott Paper Company was founded by brothers Edward and Clarence Scott. They sold toilet paper in an unperforated roll. By 1885, perforated rolls were being sold by Albany Perforated Wrapping Paper Company.

In 1935, Northern Tissue advertised its toilet paper to be “splinter-free.” Apparently, early production techniques managed to embed splinters in the paper. Three cheers for innovation! And finally, in 1942, two-ply toilet paper was introduced in St. Andrew’s Paper Mill in the UK. An odd development considering wartime austerity and rationing. Speaking of rationing, the Virtual Toilet Paper Museum (you’re learning all sorts of things in this post) reports that the first toilet paper shortage in the US took place in 1973. Presumably, it was overshadowed by the oil embargo.

The point is that all technology has a history and that what we now take to be innovative and revolutionary will one day become ordinary and commonplace. This, of course, borders on cliche. The key, however, is to remember that before any technology became a naturalized and taken-for-granted part of society there were choices to be made. Forgetting that technology has a history is a way of refusing responsibility.

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191 thoughts on “Toilet Paper: A History

  1. Very funny post and very informative. “Yeah, the sanitation. Remember what the city used to be like?”

    I’ve been thinking more intentionally about all the different things that surround me and the knowledge I take for granted every day. I’m riding my bike and there are literally millions of things going on while cycling that includes science, mathematics, economics, philosophy (in some manner), psychology, sociology (Orlando drivers), etc., etc. We know facts about the energy it takes for me to bike along Orange Ave, the construction of my bike and the materials that make it up, how sweat glands operate, how wind currents work that slow me down or cool me off. I could go on.

  2. A German company came out with toilet papers with Poetry of Goethe printed on it. The idea did not take off well.

  3. I had to read this as I posted last year a post on toilet paper and the differences I noticed between the paper in the states versus what we found in Romania. It seems your on a roll…

  4. So I have a polish friend and toilet paper is one of the last few luxuries that they have gotten into the country. Every one was so excited. She called me the other day and told me that she recently had to go to the doctor because of a boil on her bottom. After examination, it turns out that she in fact had a splinter from the new toilet paper. True story!! Be thankful for the small things, friends.

  5. My grandmother always tells me the story of how my great grandfather was one of the first grocers in NYC to sell frozen peas, but he had to give it up because frozen food was for the richer set who could afford to keep their iceboxes cold at all times. I love that stories and it makes me appreciate the smaller, unsung updates in technology.

  6. Enjoying your site so I’m nominating you for my Illuminating Blogger Award for informative, illuminating blog content. I know not everyone participates in blog awards but I hope you’ll at least check it out because it’s a great way to discover new blogs and meet new web friends. If you’re interested in participating, you can check out the details at my site … foodstoriesblog dot com & then click on “Illuminating Blogger Award Site” in the upper right-hand corner … Either way, hope you’re having a great day :)

  7. Thanks for the history lesson. I have been around the World and there are definitely regional differences. I also remember all the color choices back in the 70′s.

  8. Toilet paper, in my opinion, is better than sliced bread. I mean, I could handle having to slice my own bread, but wiping myself with a leaf, or sandpaper?? No thanks.

  9. Using the left hand sans toilet paper isn’t a thing of the past in quite a few places. Also, I don’t know if this is the case any more or not, but in England during the 1970s, public toilets used paper folded zig-zag, like paper towels. Thus, the paper had to be strong enough to maintain the folds. I was a lot like waxed paper and not very absorbent! At at least one place (this is true, really), each little sheet had printing on the edge that said: “Now wash your hands, please.”

    I lived in a group house where we used to have house meetings every two weeks. We had one meeting in which vehement opinions were expressed regarding what brand of TP we should buy. Surprisingly, the men held stronger opinions than the women!

    Jeez, I didn’t think I’d have so much to say on this topic. Congratulations on being FP!

  10. Good stuff. In Japan you can get toilet paper with characters printed on it… wipe with superheroes, or cute anime girls! If you’re lucky the robo-toilet will serenade you as you go as well. Fun times!

  11. In honor of the 2012 elections, we should have toilet paper with the presidential & vice presidential candidates’ faces printed on it. I would buy that if I particularly hated one of the candidates.

  12. A few places in the world, it’s used for a lot more than just toilet paper. In Thailand, they call it “sanitary napkins” and are used for drying your hands, table napkins, and jsut as an all-purpose towel or tissue.

  13. Interesting! I haven’t ever heard anyone talking about toilet paper. Or even their history. Loved this post! It is so different and maybe, informative too. :D Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  14. Brilliant post I have recently posted a blog about the first toilet and was going to follow it up about the introduction of toilet paper but you’ve beaten me to it. I’ll re-post this blog when i decide to tackle the toilet paper history but come at it from a different angle. Great post again.

  15. Love this post! “we don’t think too much about those other technologies that have become more or less part of our natural environment” – so true, but sometimes it really takes a good article to remind us of that. Cheers! :)

  16. Fabulous post :-) Great blogging – keep on doing what you’re doing! (Oh, and Bill Byson has lots of fun history on the domestic environment in his book ‘At Home’, if you’re interested…)

  17. toilet paper may not alter too much in 10 000 years but i gaurantee that the means and the rescources of its production will………..just another angle on your blog …one technology often has a profound effect on the evolution of other technologies……….

  18. I have a great appreciation for the small things in life but have completely taken toilet paper for granted. Thanks for a great post and reminder!

  19. Excellent essay. Congratulations on getting freshly pressed.

    Another thing that is taken for granted today is flush toilets. Before they came into use it must have stunk everywhere.

  20. Magnificent point. One never wonder about these little things in our daily lives. We take them for granted, absolutely. :-)

  21. This brings to mind a quote from the sitcom Blackadder, spoken by Chirs Barrie’s French Revolutionary in series 3:

    “I hate you English with your boring trousers and your shiny toilet paper!” XD

  22. Lovely Post! Its always the little things that we forget. Funny more so because toilet paper is such a significant part of our everyday lives. Thanks for the lesson!

  23. I recall my Mother telling me that they used everything from corncobs to the Sears Catalogue as toilet paper back in the outhouse on the farm in the 1920s. Loved your post – thanks! And congrats on being Freshly Pressed.

  24. Toilet paper is one of those tricky things because I can’t afford it. Its one of those technologies that make you wonder, “Are you going to throw that out?” What we should be really asking is, “Are our grandkids going to have toilet paper?” If you are in a rush, the quick answer is, “Yes, unless we don’t have grandkids.” If you have some time to burn please allow me to explain:

    T.P. is here to stay. That’s the cold, hard reality. Isn’t it ironic that we still have to wipe ourselves, but my children aren’t allowed to visit me? This is one of those issues that you get caught “looking at a tree, but not burning the entire forest.” Look, the president has a failing economy, and a wars overseas to handle. Stop looking to the television, government, and celebrities for answers on this issue. We’ve become a society of worriers who can’t think for themselves. I say, “don’t sweat it.”

    If opportunity doesn’t knock them build a door,

    Richard

  25. You’re right, I did learn a LOT in this post. (I had no idea there was so much to toilet paper.) And now you have introduced me to my new biggest fear…toilet paper shortage! (No wonder smart people keep advocating that we use and replace our trees wisely!)

  26. Good points and fun history.

    If you have the time, please check out what can happen if you are both unfortunate and are just flushing that toilet paper down. My article is called “Double Toil and Toilet Trouble.” It’s filed under Historically Strange Accidents. I think you’ll laugh.

  27. Actually, TP did not change much until recently. In the last few months they’ve started sticking the top sheet onto the roll using super glue. Great if you are in a hurry, let me tell you.

      • It’s making me crazy. But I guess now it makes sense that you have to buy 36 or 72 rolls at a time. It’s because you’ll throw away half of it!

        • I’ve quit the glue. Quit the glue! I actually gave up on that ages ago and started ripping it a square or two up from the seal. Now I think I’m glad I do, if super glue is the true glue. Super glue? How did the combo of super glue and tp ever make it to market together?

  28. What the…I actually learned something! curses!!

    I finished school 8 years ago, and swore I’d never go out of my way to learn anything after that point. I expected a bit of humor, but winded up getting educated out of no where. Only thing I hate more than book learning, is internet sneaky book learning!

    Seriously though, that was a fun read.

  29. Yeah, all good points…but have many people written POETRY ABOUT TOILET PAPER? I think I’ll try…! Visit ourpoetrycorner.wordpress.com, to see if I was successful!?! Best regards…and I’m glad I live in the U.S. where the flushable kind is common and they don’t charge you per sheet as they did in the Dominican Republic at public beaches in the 1980′s!

  30. ironic — hadnt read this before right this second — since when with all the comments and likes and etc? — GKN

  31. Funny post Michael. Maybe there’s a book in here “Mankind’s love affair with toilet paper”.

    Yeah, and just imagine how our daily life in suburbia would be, if suddenly next Tuesday, all the TP in the world vanished, never to be made or appear again.

    Catastrophic !!!!

  32. Anyone who would doubt the value of technology in regards to toilet paper has never been without it when they NEEDED it ………. let the good times roll……………………

  33. Interesting history lesson. Now start the debate on the proper way to hang the toilet paper roll, tissue to the wall or tissue to the outside. I believe passionate beliefs will rage on both sides.

  34. When a technology stabilizes innovation usually continues in the manufacturing process. It becomes more automated, reliable, and efficient. Today there are compact, stand-alone toilet paper making machines that resemble a small printing press. They perform all the steps in transforming large rolls of paper into small individual rolls. It opens the way for boutique product lines and local manufacturing like micro-breweries. Anybody can be in the toilet paper business.

    • How do you get boutique toilet paper? Is it better with age, like wine? What is boutique toilet paper used for?
      Although, I know someone who would buy Kleenex boxes that matched her interior decor.

  35. James Lord, in his recent book on his WW II experiences, My Queer War, reports meeting an Englishman who complained in their first encounter of the stinginess of British authorities: “I happen to know that your (Lord’s) army allots twenty-three sheets per day per soldier. The British army allots three.”

  36. [...] A brief history of toilet paper, from The Frailest Thing blog: Toilet paper, in case you’re wondering, was in use  in China as early as the fourteenth century and it was made in 2′ x 3′ sheets. Everywhere else, and in China before then, people made use of what their environment offered. Leaves, mussel shells, corncobs were among the more common options. The Romans (what have they ever done for us!) used a sponge attached to the end of a stick and dipped in salt water. And yes, as you may have heard, in certain cultures the left hand was employed in the task of scatological hygiene, and in these cultures the left hand retains a certain stigma to this day. [...]

  37. The 1973 toilet paper shortage was inadvertently caused by a couple of jokes Johnny Carson told about a toilet paper shortage in Japan.
    People thought that the entire world was affected & went nuts hoarding the stuff.
    It was an artificial shortage caused a a small number of hoarders, it ended quickly

  38. Superb article. Needed guffaws, and I love a good guffaw. I use my right hand, always have. Very unfortunately, I was taught to use the paper wadded and “puffed” instead of folded. Requires more paper: wasteful. Mi esposa, of course, goes left-handed, folded. An oddity. But you got me wondering: what *possible* alternative could there be? Simply, bidets?

  39. [...] To read more about toilet paper that would give you splinters, why there was ever a toilet paper shortage, what this says about innovation and technology, how we have come to take certain things for granted, how this relates to Seinfield, what the Romans did for us, and other interesting details, click here. [...]

  40. I was in the Soviet Union in 1967. Toilet paper in public places consisted of old copies of Pravda and Izvestia, cut into squares of about 3 inches. Someone somewhere went thru all the squares to ensure than none of the ones that ended up in toilets contained the image of Lenin.

  41. Very funny and entertaining post. Got us all to thinking!! When I went to Europe, I collected samples of toilet paper from every country that we visited. My friends all thought I was crazy but I put it in my scrapbook anyway. UK, by far, the scratchiest. Maybe that explains Brits “dry” sense of humor. Likewise, take the piece of machinery I am using right now …. the typewriter. It’s over 100 years old and we are still using it!!!!! My husband is working on changing all of that. Stay tuned.

  42. Hello, fellow theologian and Chesterton fan! Really enjoyed this, as well as your “About” Page.
    I am less a blogger than you, to be sure. So I guess I’m not a blogger at all, with just a once-a-week post. But I do love the creative adventure this place is—truly exploratory and enjoyable. I can’t help but follow a Chesterton fan, for we are rare. Here’s a couple Chesterton posts on my page. I’m truly not trying to push “stats” or even gain a “follow”. I got over that a long time ago!
    It’s just for your enjoyment.
    Peace,
    Alexandria Sage
    http://simplysage.org/2012/02/19/do-it-again/
    http://simplysage.org/2011/11/24/fashionable-fallacies/

  43. I’ve been living in Asia for the past few years, so toilet paper is on my mind a lot, actually. In Korea, (like a previous person posted about Thailand), they don’t use napkins, they use toilet paper. It’s common to see a roll of toilet paper hanging in someone’s kitchen and in restaurants. It’s also common to find NO toilet paper in public toilets. In Bangladesh, where I am now, the left hand is still used by villagers who can’t afford to buy anything disposable. Thanks for sharing the history. Very interesting and entertaining read!

  44. A great read! Thanks.

    It’s funny that toilet paper has changed. Just saw a commerical where one brand isn’t putting the cardboard roll in the middle anymore. Now that’s progress…

  45. I could have lived forever without the image of splinter-infested TP, but then I would have missed out on Roman sea salt sponges. I’m a sucker for useless information because I find it quite useful.

    There are so many things I couldn’t live (my current standard of living) without, like a box springs base under my mattress. Who thinks of that as technology? But it sure beats hay stuffed bags.

  46. Hysterical! Thank you for the laugh. Believe it or not, I have been wondering what *man* did before toilet paper on a roll. As I strive to reduce my carbon footprint, there is one thing I refuse to give up (until they pry it from my hot little hand) and that is TOILET PAPER! I buy the recycled TP (which feels like I’m wiping my backside with 8 1/2 x 11) but I refuse, REFUSE, to give up TP!!!! I follow lots of blogs, and some have resorted to making their own TP out of cut up old sheets and/or clothes, and then tossing the used wipes into a bin to be laundered (sort of like a diaper pale). Yuck! I’m sorry but there is no effing way I’m going to do that, nope, no way… aint gonna do it. :-)

  47. Really fascinating article. It’s crazy the innovations that are so commonplace we forget how we got from sponges to mass-produced toilet paper. And a good thing, too, in the digital age. ;) Congrats on being freshly pressed!

    • Never mind, I found it: http://charlywalker.wordpress.com/2011/10/05/alls-fair-in-love-and-blog/

      If you do a quick search on Google for the history of toilet paper, you’ll notice that the only information that our posts have in common, names and dates, is widely available (as basic historical facts tend to be). If two posts mention widely available facts of history it does not follow that one copied the other. You’ll note in my post that I linked to the sites where I got my information. What I found absent from yours was any mention or link to sources, in light of which, I think you might want to reconsider any accusations of copying.

      Forgive me if this response is a bit sharp, but accusations of plagiarism are in fact quite serious — see Jonah Lehrer, not that I have anything like his standing. In any case, I’d be more careful about bandying them about.

      • Personally I find your article much more interesting and well written Michael, sharing basic facts is not plagiarism, it’s just research. Charlywalker’s article is much more about them self and their upset at their family, than genuinely about the history of toilet paper and the growth of ubiquitous technology.

      • Yes Michael, you tout your defense admirably…tell me..how did you come up with that subject matter……what triggered your search engine. Was it the splinter free?

        I can see you are adept at quick research by the 35 minutes to locate my work from over a year ago.

        Take in mind what Matt proclaims below….he paid you a compliment.

  48. I remember seeing cut up newspaper squares and Sears catalogs being saved for TP. We live on an island and we could have shipping strikes and/or a run on TP for emergencies, etc. I think I won’t recycle phone books anymore!

  49. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed, it’s a great article and very true. Ubiquitous technology today often changed the world 50 or 100 years ago. How about electricity, or the microchip (now in toasters! TOASTERS for gods sake?!)?

  50. There was a colored Kleenex ad in magazines featuring a beautiful girl with a multi-colored toilet paper dress on. Anyone know where we could get a look at that?

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