Thursday, August 16, 2012

From pine cones to paper--history of toilet paper, part 2

The gap in the histories I've found is fairly large once we get past the Romans and their sponge sticks. As you might know from desperate experience, a variety of materials can (and have been) used to wipe.

The Chinese are "widely" agreed to be the first people to make paper for that use (and by widely, I mean the internet articles agree). According to this site, a Chinese official in 589 BC mentioned using paper to wipe; later, an Arab visitor in 851 AD also confirmed that the Chinese were using paper. Things didn't get fancy until 1391, when the royal family would have 2 by 3 feet perfumed sheets made for themselves to wipe.

I'm going to make an enormous leap forward in time to 1857, when a New Yorker named Joseph Gayetty marketed the first known toilet paper as "Gayetty's Medicated Paper."


It same in single sheets, was imbued with aloe, and every square was monogrammed with his name.


Toilet paper doesn't appear on a roll, though, until 1871, when a gentleman by the name of Seth Wheeler, of Albany, New York, filed for a patent for perforated paper on a roll.

However, toilet paper on a roll really didn't get rolling (sorry) until the Scott Paper company picked it up in 1879. When they first released the product though, the Scott company did not want to soil their family name with such a vulgar product. Instead, they used the names of their distributors, which came out to some 2,000 different names. In 1902, they purchased the WALDORF (R) trademark (like the Waldorf hotels), and they subsequently started selling under that name. The company streamlined their processes, and by 1925 Scott Paper company was the leading brand of toilet paper in the world.

But how do you market something which you basically just use to wipe yourself, then throw away? How do you market a product that relates to a vulgar, lowly bodily function that people really don't like talking about? (1925 was after most of the big city clean-ups and the sanitization of the Americans, so shitting was becoming serious shaming territory.) Arthur Scott came up with one of their best slogans: "Soft as old linen." He tied a product that is generally tied with shit to a luxurious product and comfort.

Fortunately for the Scotts, indoor plumbing and hygiene awareness was on the rise. Riding this wave, the Scotts began to market their product as a health-promoting product. By marketing it as such, it allowed them to advertise in magazines such as Good Housekeeping. By talking through a medical lens, a lot of topics that are taboo become acceptable.

1930s advertisement
It was supposed to help stop the spread of dysentary, typhoid, cholera and others; whether it actually does, is up for debate. However, it might be more sanitary than using one's hand if using one's hand is not combined with rigorous hand-washing; conversely, toilet paper is less effective at removing feces from the anal region.

Their marketing worked; toilet paper was an official part of American life. During the Great Depression, Scott Paper did not have to lay off a single worker. Charmin is founded in 1928, when a female worker commented that the packaging was "charming." Charmin sought to appeal to women by making their packaging fashionable, with a woman's cameo.

Like a lot of history and a lot of our habits, much of our behavior has been influenced by a few clever men and good marketing campaigns.

Today, toilet paper is still commonly used in Europe and the US. Many of us are quite fond of it and struggle with trying to use other methods (myself included). However, toilet paper is responsible for 27,000 trees being cut down every day. Toilet paper, furthermore, can be quite taxing on sewage systems, frequently requiring more water to transport the waste. So next time you're somewhere and you have the chance to use a bidet or a lota, why don't you try it? Who knows, you might like it better.

Or maybe we should go back to the sponge on a stick?

More on washing later.


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