Toilets: Then and Now, Part 06; History of Toilet Paper

(toilet paper is a very modern product of convenience)

I've learned that life is like a roll of toilet paper. The closer it gets to the end, the faster it goes.

—Andy Rooney

A Few Words about the History of Toilet Paper

"I know a gentleman who was such a good manager of his time that he would not even lose the small portion of it which the calls of nature obliged him to pass in the necessary house; but gradually went through all the Latin poets in those moments. He bought, for example, a common edition of Horace, off which he tore gradually a couple of pages, carried them with him to that necessary place, read them first, and then sent them down as a sacrifice to Cloacina: this was so much time fairly gained and I recommend you to follow his example . . . ."
—Lord Chesterfield to his son in the 18th century

The reality is that toilet paper hasn’t been around very long. We can be pretty sure that those living before the late 19th Century weren’t able to drop by their local stores to pick up a case of triple-ply, or flushable moist wipes. Rather, the innovation of the roll of toilet paper is a very modern product and convenience which today has arguably become a normal and common household commodity.

The first commercial toilet paper was marketed in 1857, when Joseph C. Gayetty of New York City began selling an unbleached, pearl-colored pure manila hemp product at 300 sheets for 50 cents. "Geyetty's Medicated Paper—a perfectly pure article for the toilet and for the prevention of piles" had Gayetty's name watermarked on each sheet.

Just how did we go from nature’s fruitful leaves to the multiple choices that we are bombarded with every time we enter the tissue section at a grocery store today?

Evidence seems to suggest that original material used in place of toilet paper ranged anywhere from leaves and sticks, to cobs of corn, a sponge, or linen. It is believed that although the earliest form of toilet paper on a roll wasn’t introduced until 1880, people made do with many various items that stemmed from their environments.

Procedures were, and are, dependent on geographical resources

For example, those living in the Northern parts of the world, in particularly, the Eskimos, used tundra moss when available in the summer months, and handfuls of snow during the balance of the year. Those living in coastal areas or tropical settings used mussel shells or old coconut shells, those living in the colonial times of America, when farming consisted of seventy-five per cent of the U.S. practicing workforce used cobs of corn, or hung paper products in the form of mail order catalogs; such as, that of Sears Roebucks, Montgomery Ward, etc.). In ancient Rome, the popular item was a sponge attached to the end of a stick immersed in salt water.

Even more inconceivable, many societies in the Eastern parts of the world saw it socially correct to use their left hand. Some theorists believe that this is why most cultures use their right hand when meeting, or greeting, people or when picking up food with their hand and eating from it. This previous form of hygiene is still transgressed in those cultures today, as they find it rude and socially incorrect to shake the left hand of another person.

Toilet paper from other perspectives

Regardless of what was used, or how disgusting our associations of toilet paper and the bathroom may be, the product itself has made life easier for everyone and has made finding things to clean ourselves up a thing of the past. Today there are over 5,000 different companies producing bathroom tissue around the world trying to make our lives more convenient, clean, and efficient.

Although toilet paper carries an amazing historical past, and its significance to our lives occurs more often each day than the toothbrush, hair spray, or shower; we too often forget about its importance in our lives.

Whether it is due to the bad reputation that some people have about its association with the toilet and what goes on there, or just the simple fact that we have it so readily available, this multiple purpose paper makes things more convenient for everyone and ultimately helps us feel better; but it also is an important factor in keeping all of us cleaner and more hygienic, and therefore, healthier—as long as everyone includes a proper washing of the hands after the procedure is completed!

Today you can go to a gas station and find the cash register open and the toilets locked. They must think toilet paper is worth more than money.


France is a place where the money falls apart in your hands but you can't tear the toilet paper.

—Billy Wilder

"We have been conditioned not to talk about it," said Jack Sim, the Singaporean businessman who founded the World Toilet Organisation, which runs the annual event. "We have had women's liberation, sex revolution, workers' revolution, we can talk about everything now—the toilet is the last taboo which must be broken."

—Compiled from several sources of information including:

"EVER WONDERED about the history of toilet paper?" by Howard Bennett;
The Washington Post; June 1, 2009.

"Commentary: What toilets say about a culture";
NPR Special with Madeleine Brand; August 22, 2003.

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