A little dip back in time to see how the influenza pandemic was being characterized in the papers over a century ago. The article comes from the Sheffield Daily Telegraph, October 19, 1918, and the photograph from The Sketch a year later.
THE INFLUENZA SCOURGE. We are told that the best way to guard against influenza is not to worry about it. It is sensible advice, although probably it will have little effect, for the people who are given to worrying over what may happen to them will go on worrying. The people who will follow the advice will be those who would have done so in any case. It would be idle, of course, to try and soothe popular fears by minimising the severity of the epidemic. The whole world is in its grip, and not only is it widespread, but its form is often most virulent. In Sheffield last week, for instance, the number of deaths from influenza and pneumonia reached 300, and all over the country the mortality has been high. There is thus far no sign of any abatement of the scourge, and there are no measures known to medical science that can prevent its running its course. The only useful precautions are those that the individual can practise himself—living as healthily as possible both in mind and body, taking plenty of fresh air, food, and sleep, and keeping out of crowds. If, despite this, he gets it, let him go to bed at once; it is not a complaint that tolerates obstinate heroics. This world outbreak has completely mystified the medical profession. There have been similar pandemics but a writer in The Times is of the opinion that there has been none of these proportions since the Middle Ages. It has swept over the earth like a cyclone, and the causes of its spread are unknown. It is not to be ascribed to the war, although it is possible that its effect has been more pronounced on account of conditions that the war has produced. We do not know that there is even sound evidence of that, for in this country the national health was never so good, and although the sanitary conditions are worse through shortage of labour, that can scarcely apply to the United States where the epidemic is as bad as here. Perhaps the mental state of the people, which has been abnormal for over four years, may have lessened the resistive power, and provided a favourable reproductive nest for the disease germs. But the phenomena of the disease remain baffling, and call for profound and lengthy scientific study that has not hitherto been given to them. We have passed beyond the time when any intelligent mind would see in this world affliction a visitation from God for fighting a war in defence of our liberties. Pandemics are mysteries only because they have never been thoroughly investigated. We may be sure there are definite physical causes for them, and that it is not beyond the brain of man to trace them. The last thing we must do is to give way to superstitious fears.
Oddly, it seems to me, the world has gone mad for toilet paper. Almost as soon as schools and businesses began to close in reaction to the threat of Covid-19, and “social distancing” became a familiar term and practice, toilet paper disappeared from store shelves. I don’t know why that happened; I assume there are people somewhere who have reams of the stuff in their basements, secure in the knowledge that no matter what Armageddon might come, they at least will be able to wipe their bums.
We’re into the fourth week of this strange new reality, and there is still no toilet paper on the shelves of the grocery store in the small town where I live. Of course I don’t go there every day, so it’s possible stock came in, and it was all purchased by the time I again visited. And before the kind souls out there offer to drop a roll at my house, thank you, I’m alright; I found some at my local pharmacy. But the odd practice of hoarding something like toilet paper got me thinking about the product we so take for granted. Everyone jokes about people way back when using pages of the Eaton’s catalog – or the Sears Roebuck catalog, if you’re American – so I wondered, when did the toilet paper we know and love today become a staple of our world?
Paper, of course, was invented by the ever-innovative Chinese, and there are various references to its use in tidying up the nether regions. The earliest of these is accredited to a Chinese scholar named Yan Zhitui who wrote in 589 AD, “Paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from Five Classics [of Confucianism] or the names of sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes.” Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of the Ming Dynasty and a brutal tyrant who ruled as Emperor Hongwu in the 14th century, requisitioned many thousands of sheets of scented, extra-soft toilet paper with which to pamper his backside.
The rest of the world, for the most part, made use of whatever was at hand: leaves, hay, moss, even seashells, stones, or snow, depending on location and season. Eventually, paper came into widespread use as a bum wipe for more than just the Chinese, although not until sometime in the 18th century with the ready availability of broadsheets, cheap novels and news flyers. This frugal re-purposing continued to be the method of choice for cleaning the bottom well into the next century.
A quick google will tell you that the toilet paper we’re familiar with, or at least similar to what we use today (when we can find it), was invented by an American, Joseph C. Gayetty, in the late 1850s, and certainly you can find advertisements for his “medicated paper” in the newspapers of the time.
In fact, Gayetty was so confident in his “discovery” that he paid for his ad to be repeated down one complete column of the New York Times – twenty-one little boxes all asserting that “its merits as a household’s, traveler’s, and cleanly person’s comfort are making it popular everywhere.” Even better than that, Gayetty claimed, it was a “sure cure for Piles, and also guarantees the healthy who may use it against any touch of that afflictive and torturing disease.” Gayetty bet his bottom dollar on the product, and even watermarked his name onto every sheet.
Gayetty, obviously, was going for more than the cleanliness angle, perhaps reasoning that if not everyone was worried about the fastidiousness of their posterior, they surely cared about their health. His paper, he asserted, manufactured from a buff-coloured fibre known as Manila hemp and treated with aloe as a lubricant, would not only relieve but prevent hemorrhoids – “this distressing complaint” – and as an added bonus it dissolved in water, and would not “choke the water pipe.” While plumbers and homeowners might have been pleased with both features, Gayetty’s medical claims for his paper drew the skepticism of the scientific community of the day.
There were plenty of dubious curative products in the 19th century, and the learned gentlemen writing in journals like The Medical and Surgical Reporter in the United States and Britain’s The Lancet poo-poo’d what they termed Gayetty’s “quackery.” The Lancet called Gayetty’s claim of a curative property an “absurdity,” and noted, mockingly, that “it might be of use to the surgeons who take the rectal region under their care to know that the prognosis, pathology, and therapeutics of this malady are simplified in an uncommon degree, and that their occupation is now gone to the Walls.” The Medical and Surgical Reporter, similarly poking fun at Gayetty’s invention, wrote that “Empirism has changed tactics. Its usual bold effrontery is turned to attack the public in the rear. Mr. Gayetty of New York intends to take advantage of them by catching them with their breeches down, and bring them to the stern necessity of buying his “medicated paper for the water closet.”” And if that wasn’t enough ridicule, the Reporter included a delicious quote from The New Orleans Medical and Hospital Gazette, suggesting that poor Mr. Gayetty “not only place his autograph on each sheet of his invaluable paper … but that he furnish his millions of patrons with his photograph, in like manner. … We are really anxious to see the face of the man who is going to eclipse even homeopathy in the inestimable benefits he thus rubs into mankind; and then, again, it would be such a capital idea to be thus cheering up the sufferer by smiling on the very seat of his troubles.”
One wonders how Mr. Gayetty could hold his head up in public, as the butt of such ridicule. Yet his papers remained for sale in their tidy little packets, bought, used and subsequently flushed, until the 1920s. In the meantime, others had moved into the toilet paper market, although most companies focused on the wipes as an aid to hygiene rather than as curative marvels.
Before long, Mr. Gayetty’s boastful ads were joined by others touting the unmedicated sister product, plain old toilet paper (or the more delicate bathroom tissue), with names like Lion and Mouser – presumably they were “kitten soft”. Each manufacturer took a slightly different approach to selling the product, but most seemed to agree with the buying public that toilet paper fell within the realm of the unmentionable. Customers sidled up to the druggist’s counter and asked for the paper on the sly, and the druggist, complicit, surreptitiously slid the bum wad from its shelf out of sight below the counter and into a bag as if it were poop itself.
By the time ScotTissue ads appeared suggesting that customers need only murmur the brand name to their shopkeeper to have their nether-wipe wishes understood, toilet paper had undergone a transformation. People had choices. One could purchase one’s TP as a packet of stacked sheets, often with handy wire attached that allowed for hanging within easy reach of the loo, or as a single long strand, conveniently perforated to allow for easy tear-off of the required amount, and all spun tidily onto a cardboard roll. TheBrooklyn Daily Eagle’s January, 1895 edition ran a full page advertisement for the “sterling” department store Abraham and Straus listing its many products for those of impeccable taste: Alaska Sable full Circular Capes and Japanese Silk Piano Draperies, as well as “The Regent” toilet paper in roll form and “The Brooklyn” in sheets. Toilet paper had finally come out of the water closet, or perhaps in from the outhouse.
It would seem that a new age had begun, and yet, there was room for improvement. It wasn’t until 1935 that the Northern Tissue Company of Green Bay, Wisconsin advertised quilted toilet paper, but even more importantly than its supposed softness was its assurance to be “100% splinter free.” Oh.
Stay safe, everyone. And if there is toilet paper on the shelves of your store, buy only what you need.
The Lancet, October 1869
The Medical and Surgical Reporter, Vol . 1, No. 22
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 6 January, 1895
Bum Fodder: An Absorbing History of Toilet Paper, by Richard Smyth, Souvenir Press, September, 2017.
As the fight against COVID-19 carries on, I continue to see links with the Spanish flu pandemic, and increasingly with wartime itself. Some of you will know that while The Cowkeeper’s Wish tells the story of our maternal side, including the WW1 period, our first book together, The Occupied Garden, tells the story of our father’s family in The Netherlands in WW2.
Recently my aunt wrote to our family group that she and a cousin had shared the feelings they were re-experiencing from war. They were little children then, but wise enough to sense the fear and the tension that came from not knowing what would happen next. “Several times [lately] I have thought of our parents,” she wrote to my dad and her other siblings. “Mom in 1940 with three little ones and pregnant with a fourth. And now I understand more than ever Dad not willing to give up his radio [though forbidden by the occupiers], each day hoping to gain some knowledge about their near future.”
For people living under occupation, radios were a lifeline to the world outside, and to hopeful news about defeating the enemy. Can you imagine the times we are living through now, and how we would feel if we didn’t have radio or the internet or news of our progress in battling the virus? Much of the news is bleak, of course, and worse yet, false, so we need to be as careful consuming it as we are about washing our hands.
Last week Health Canada issued a warning about “drugs, natural health products, homeopathic products and medical devices … that make false or misleading claims to prevent, treat or cure COVID-19.” Dubious advice includes everything from drinking cow urine or bleach to consuming Chaga mushrooms and Vitamin C. The World Health Organization’s myth-busters page tells us “No. Spraying alcohol or chlorine all over your body will not kill viruses that have already entered your body.” And also states that “Garlic is a healthy food that may have some antimicrobial properties. However, there is no evidence from the current outbreak that eating garlic has protected people from the new coronavirus.” And while a bubble bath is a lovely way to relax and calm your nerves in troubled times — and also to get clean! — “Taking a hot bath will not prevent you from catching COVID-19.”
Revisiting 1918 via the newspaper archives, I see that plenty of ads turn up promising influenza cures. There was Dr. Chase’s Menthol Bag, which you pinned to the chest of your underclothes. “The heat from the body causes the menthol fumes to rise and mingle with the air you breathe, thereby killing the germs and protecting you against Spanish influenza and all infectious diseases.” Dr. Chase also offered “Nerve Food” to strengthen the heart, as well as Syrup of Linseed and Turpentine for the throat and bronchial tubes.
And there were Evans’ Pastilles, “made from a private formula … and free from poisonous alkaloids.” The ads warned that the flu thrived in heated, crowded theatres, but “the ill-effects of the germ attacks can be neutralised if one or two Evans’ Pastilles are allowed to dissolve in the mouth when the danger threatens.” Likewise there were “dainty white tablets” called Formamints, so harmless that “children and infants can take them freely,” and yet so powerful that they “destroy the most harmful bacteria that can menace life.”
A writer in the Whitby Gazette reported hearing from a distinguished London doctor that “a raw onion in a fever-stricken room soon decays, because it attracts the germs.” Another writer boasted in the Hamilton Advertiser that he ate a steady diet of onions, and “did not get the ‘flue’ in the recent epidemic; but,” he admitted, “there are others who
neither had onions nor the Spanish influenza.” A reader wrote in to the Coventry Telegraph, advising everyone to “eat two small onions, uncooked, every night, as a fine preventive. The efficacy of an onion is too well-known to need much persuasion.”
Interviewed years after her WW1 service, the Canadian nurse Mabel Lucas recalled her younger sister falling ill with influenza. Mabel was still overseas, and relieved that one of her old classmates had offered to care for the girl. “When she found out that they said there was no hope for her, she said ‘Can I do what I want to do?’ The doctor said, ‘Anything that you think will help.’ She made onion poultices and put them on [my sister’s] back and chest and even on the bottom of her feet. She kept them on for days. When I came home and would give her a bath, I could still smell onions. It was right in the pores. … She lived for years afterwards.'”
So, she survived the wars — both the First World War and the war against influenza.
In our family email group, perhaps inspired by my aunt’s reawakened memories of wartime Holland, my cousin made an interesting analogy regarding “Us Against COVID-19.” There are the people she calls “unseen heroes” — ordinary people who shop for friends and strangers in quarantine, or make food for others working long and extra stressful hours, or come up with ingenious ways to battle the enemy. And there are the collaborators, the people who refuse to stay in self-isolation or quarantine, who lie about where they’ve been or what their symptoms are, or who buy up large amounts of supplies: toilet paper, wipes, hand sanitizer, masks and gloves, with a plan to resell them online for a profit.
Then of course there are the resistance fighters: the healthcare workers and the truck drivers and the grocery store employees and the cleaners; the firefighters and the police and the postal workers; the gas station employees and the farmers and the staff at longterm care homes. The list goes on and on for the people who are on the front lines in varying ways, potentially exposing themselves to the virus every day, but providing essential services for the rest of us.
British Newspaper Archive
National Library of Medicine
Globe & Mail Historical Newspaper Archive, Toronto Public Library