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The History of Toilet Paper, Explained

Sep 6, 2018·by Jessica Rotondi

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Think about it: Aside from your phone, what’s one other thing you use every single day?

Still stuck? We’ll give you a hint: 84 million rolls of it are manufactured daily, and the average person goes through 100 rolls a year.

Yes, that’s right: toilet paper. In a digital age, it’s still something you definitely want made of paper, not pixels. Nobody likes to find themselves sitting next to an empty toilet paper roll. But how do you ensure you don’t run out?

And what did we ever do before two-ply was a thing, anyway?

We took a deep dive into the history of toilet paper to answer these questions and more.

How Much Toilet Paper Should I Use?

The average American uses 50 pounds of toilet paper a year. That’s 57 squares of toilet paper every single day, or roughly 100 rolls a year. That means a family of 4 would need 400 rolls a year, or 16 24-pack cases of toilet paper.

The world’s largest roll of toilet paper weighs two tons (yikes!) and contains a million square feet of soft, absorbent TP. The 10-foot high, 8.5 feet wide roll, made by Charmin, is open to the public in Branson, Missouri, for those who want an epic bathroom break. For the rest of us, there’s ordering toilet paper in bulk at Boxed.

Do You Roll Toilet Paper Over or Under?

How you roll when it comes to TP has been a point of debate between roommates and family members since the dawn of plumbing, and people tend to feel strongly about how to hang toilet paper. TV therapist Dr. Gilda Carle even created a Toilet Paper Personality Test in which she polled 2,000 men and women on their toilet paper habits and ultimately claimed that people who roll their toilet paper “over” are more assertive, while those who roll “under” are more passive in their relationships.

While it’s hard to imagine your relationship personality hinging on how you let your toilet paper hang out, “over” purists can point to the original 1891 patent that states that the end of the roll should hang off the top, not underneath. (Take that, Aidan from undergrad!).

No matter how you roll, we can all agree that having toilet paper, regardless of its orientation, is better than getting stranded without it. Stock up on toilet paper in bulk and save when you get it delivered FREE* in two days or less at Boxed.

Who Invented Toilet Paper?

Since the Chinese invented paper, it’s no surprise that the first documented use of toilet paper is from that country in A.D. 851, when a visitor noted of local customs, “They do not wash themselves with water after they have done their necessities, but they only wipe themselves with paper.” Paper took a backseat to cloth during the Ming Dynasty, when the emperor had special fabric sheets cut into squares expressly for the purpose of cleaning up one’s behind for the imperial court. Swanky.

The Greeks wiped themselves with the same materials they used as tablets: stone and clay. The Romans, for all their empire-building, fared worse: They used communal sponges on sticks stored in brine. If sharing truly is caring, then they cared a lot about one another.

Europeans in the Middle Ages contented themselves with grass and straw -- definitely softer than rocks, but a bit scratchy nonetheless. This was the age of outhouses and privies, when whatever one used could be tossed into a literal black hole and forgotten.

The first flushable toilet was created by the grandson of Elizabeth I, Sir John Harington, in the 1590s. It was installed in one of her homes and could be used by up to 20 people between flushes. You can see why it didn’t quite catch on.

The first patent for a flushing toilet was filed over two centuries later, when Alexander Cumming, a British inventor, submitted his patent in 1755. Cumming’s invention was approved upon by Thomas Crapper (you can’t make this stuff up), who added a tank-filling device called a ball cock back in the 1860s that we still use today. In fact, calling toilets “crappers” can be attributed to American servicemen serving in England during World War I who saw Crapper’s name on his invention and brought the term home to the U.S. after the war. Charming.

So, Are You Going to Tell Me Who Invented Toilet Paper?

Yes, we’re getting there! With the rise in flushable toilets came a demand for a better way to wipe -- and products that wouldn’t clog narrow pipes. Previous generations had settled for corn cobs (hardly septic safe), graduating to newspapers and catalogues as print media became more readily available (talk about soiling your name in the press!).

Joseph Gayetty, a New York entrepreneur, thought he had a more soothing solution. In 1857, he introduced hemp sheets infused with aloe which he claimed prevented hemorrhoids. He stood behind his claim so much, he had his own name printed on each sheet. Sales floundered, mostly because Americans were embarrassed to buy a product meant for their behinds… and because they still had other things, like the Sears catalogue, at their disposal for free. (Aren’t you grateful for ecomm?)

Toilet paper as we know it was introduced by the Scott brothers, Clarence and Edward Irvin, in 1890. They created paper stored on a roll designed specifically for when nature called. Two-ply toilet paper was introduced in 1942, when St. Andrew's Paper Mill in England began marketing it as the ultimate in comfort.

Today, we don’t have to share sponges or corn cobs; we can get toilet paper delivered in bulk to our homes in two days or less. Which is a good thing, because we’re not sure we’ll be able to look at corn in the cob in the same way again.


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