A Minute for Toilet Paper

Let take a minute and look in to the history of toilet paper and be thankful that it is here.

Background

Most of us can’t imagine living without toilet paper. The average American uses over 100 single rolls—about 21,000 sheets—each year. It’s used not only for bathroom hygiene, but for nose care, wiping up spills, removing makeup, and small bathroom cleaning chores. Manufacturers estimate that an average single roll lasts five days.

Toilet paper, paper towels, napkins, and facial tissues are sanitary papers, personal products that need to be clean and hygenic. They’re made from various proportions of bleached kraft pulps with relatively little refining of the stock, rendering them soft, bulky, and absorbent. Sanitary papers are further distinguished from other papers in that they are creped, a process in which the paper is dried on a cylinder then scraped off with a metal blade, slightly crimping it. This softens the paper but makes it fairly weak, allowing it to disintegrate in water.

Toilet paper can be one-or two-ply, meaning that it’s either a single sheet or two sheets placed back-to-back to make it builder and more absorbent. Color, scents, and embossing may also be added, but fragrances sometimes cause problems for consumers who are allergic to perfumes. The biggest difference between toilet papers is the distinction between virgin paper products, which are formed directly from chipped wood, and those made from recycled paper. Most toilet paper, however, whether virgin or recycled, is wrapped around recycled cardboard cylinders.

History

Before paper was widely available, a variety of materials were employed. The Romans used an L-shaped stick (like a hockey stick) made of wood or precious metal; at public toilets people used sponges on sticks that were kept in saltwater between uses. In arid climates, sand, powdered brick, or earth was used. Until the late nineteenth century, Muslims were advised to use three stones to clean up. One favorite tool was a mussel shell, used for centuries. Until the early twentieth century, corn cobs were used.

In the late fifteenth century, when paper became widely available, it began to replace other traditional materials. Sometimes old correspondence was pressed into service, as were pages from old books, magazines, newspapers, and catalogs. People also used old paper bags, envelopes, and other bits of scrap paper, which were cut into pieces and threaded onto a string that was kept in the privy.

Toilet paper is a fairly modern invention, making its debut around 1880 when it was developed by the British Perforated Paper Company. Made of a coarser paper than its modern incarnation, it was sold in boxes of individual squares. In America, the Scott Paper Company made its Waldorf brand toilet paper in rolls as early as 1890. The first rolls were not perforated, and lavatory dispensers had serrated teeth to cut the paper as needed. It was a nearly “unmentionable” product for years, and consumers were often embarrassed to ask for it by name or even be seen buying it. Timid shoppers simply asked for “Two, please,” and the clerk presumably knew what they wanted. To keep things discreet, toilet paper was packaged and sold in brown paper wrappers.

During the 120 years since its introduction, toilet paper has changed little, although it’s now perforated, and may be scented, embossed, or colored. Recently, toilet paper manufacturers increased the number of sheets on a roll, allowing consumers to replace the roll less frequently.

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