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The History of Toilet Paper
Image credit: Julia Bujalski

Early Solutions

Before toilet paper was invented, humans used a variety of natural materials to clean themselves. Depending on climate, resources, and hierarchical customs, different cultures used different items. Some of the more widespread options included stones, animal furs, leaves, moss, and sponges. Many cultures also simply sluiced themselves clean with water or snow. Using cloth was relatively rare, since at the time all cloth would have been handmade, making it an expensive item – only the richest of citizens would have used cloth for such a lowly purpose. The Romans used sponges on a stick in their latrines; however, it is unclear if these devices were meant for cleaning the person or simply used functioned as a toilet cleaning brush. The Chinese used spatulas made from bamboo and other woods to clean up after themselves; various examples have been found in the latrines at Xuanquanzhi, a former Han Dynasty military base located along the Silk Road in China.

The Introduction of Paper

The Chinese invented paper in the second century B.C. However, it wasn’t until the 6th century that paper started to be used for personal cleaning. It caught on quickly and sometime around the 14th century, toilet paper manufacturing reached peak levels. In the Western world, paper became available sometime around the 15th century, but commercially available toilet paper didn’t originate until much later. Up through the 1700s in America, people commonly used corn cobs, discarded magazines, and newspapers as makeshift toilet paper. The Sears Catalog was especially well-known for this use. In fact, nailing magazines and catalogs to the outhouse wall was so common that Farmer’s Almanac began pre-drilling a hole in their publication for easy hanging in 1919 as a nod to this practice.

The Invention of Toilet Paper

Modern, commercially available toilet paper originated in America in 1857 when Joseph Gayetty created a brand new product, which he called "Medicated Paper, for the Water-Closet.” He claimed the product helped to prevent hemorrhoids. It was first sold in packages of 500 sheets for 50 cents. Then in 1890, Clarence and E. Irvin Scott successfully popularized toilet paper on a roll. However, it was an uphill battle to get Americans to accept toilet paper, mostly due to cultural embarrassment. It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century, when homes with indoor plumbing gained popularity, that the product really hit its stride. Why? Toilet paper met the newfound need for a disposable solution that could be flushed away without damaging indoor plumbing systems.

Softness and Other Improvements

For a while, toilet paper was advertised as a medicinal product. It wasn’t until the 1930s that softness became a factor. In fact, it took until the third decade of the 20th century for toilet paper to finally be manufactured as “splinter free” – yikes! Credit for the innovation of softer toilet paper belongs to the Hoberg Paper Company of Wisconsin, who rolled out their softer toilet paper in 1928 and used elegant, ladylike packaging to appeal to skittish Americans. Due to their “charming” packaging, the brand came to be known as Charmin, and it remains one of the most popular toilet paper brands on the market today.

Shortages & Hoarding

We all remember the famous toilet paper shortage that started in March 2020 in response to coronavirus-fueled panic buying. But did you know that the 2020 toilet paper shortage was not America’s first? In December of 1973, Johnny Carson made a joke about a toilet paper shortage during his opening monologue on The Tonight Show. While it was meant to be humorous, Americans panicked and ran out to purchase as much toilet paper as they could. This reaction demonstrates just how integral toilet paper had become to Americans in the 20th century. And that still holds true today. In fact, America spends over $6 billion on toilet paper today – more than any other nation – and the average American uses 50 pounds of the product each year!

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