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. The Brooklyn 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.