November 05, 2019

The Evolution of Toilet Paper, a Bathroom Staple We Know & Love

Rai Cornell

It's a modern necessity that we use daily, but we rarely think about it: toilet paper. Today, there are countless toilet paper brands boasting features like ultra plush, ultra premium, and even "mega" rolls. Although Americans now have all sorts of TP options to choose from, toilet tissue used to be far simpler – oftentimes uncomfortably simple...

Reel Paper The Evolution of Toilet Paper, a Bathroom Staple We Know & Love

Even though the toilet paper we use today wasn't developed until the mid-1800's, people have been wiping themselves clean since the dawn of time. This begs the question: what on Earth did they use before the soft white stuff was invented?

Let's take a brief journey through history and explore the evolution of toilet paper!

Early Solutions to a Messy Problem

Toilet paper as we know it is a relatively modern innovation, which means that for thousands of years people had to come up with more (ahem...) creative ways to clean themselves.

When in Rome

Rome was a society to emulate, so naturally they had to develop a clever way to clean up.

Their solution was called a tersorium, a Mediterranean sea sponge attached to the end of a stick. Romans would use it to wipe, rinse it off, and then kindly leave it for the next person. It was simple and effective, but not very sanitary.

Just imagine using a tersorium in a gas station bathroom...

On the Farm

Farmers had access to quite a few different natural options for toilet paper. The most common – and most creative– of which was... a corn cob. Yes, you read that correctly.

Dried corn cobs were a popular way for farmers to clean up after using the outhouse. They were so popular, in fact, that many people preferred to use corn cobs even after other options had become widely available.

The Beginnings of Bath Tissue

Toilet paper had to show up some time. While the earliest iterations barely resemble modern toilet paper, historic experimentation with bathroom hygiene inspired many later products.

Chinese Ingenuity

Paper was developed in China as early as the 2nd Century. Shortly after this, they began to use paper to wipe. By the 6th Century, it had become widely popular among the Chinese to use wads of paper to clean up once they had done their business.

Imperial Toilet Tissue

The first material used solely as toilet paper was developed in 1391. Toilet tissue was created so each member of the Chinese Emperor family could wipe clean after relieving themselves.

As an added bonus, in true imperial fashion, each square was scented. Of course, that didn't make 14th Century chamber pots any more pleasant.

Always Keep a Book Handy

During the late 15th century, paper became more available with the invention of the printing press around 1440 seeing the rise of books, newspapers, and other paper-based materials. This gave more people the opportunity to own books and pamphlets.

(Possibly) more importantly, though, it provided them more material to wipe with. It wasn't toilet paper as we know it yet, but they were making progress.

Changing the Toilet Paper Game

Throughout the second half of the 19th Century, toilet tissue would start to become a staple of the water closet. As a result, it would begin to be produced on a much larger scale.

An Attempt at Commercial TP

In 1857, Joseph Gayetty created the world's first commercially sold toilet tissue. His loose, individual sheets of paper came treated with aloe and had his name printed across each sheet.

The Evolution of Toilet Paper, a Bathroom Staple We Know & Love

Someday, both of these ideas would become popular, but Gayetty was ahead of his time. Unfortunately, his brilliant invention failed as a result.

Toilet Paper... But On A Roll!

For years, toilet paper was sold in packages of individual sheets. In 1890, the Scott Paper Company ⁠– not to be confused with a certain small paper company from The Office ⁠– changed the game.

They began offering toilet paper on a roll.

The Unmentionable Necessity

Buying bath tissue was embarrassing in the early 20th century. Barry Kudrowitz of M.I.T. suggests that it was so embarrassing, in fact, that people would just say, "I'll take two," and they'd be handed a paper bag full of toilet paper. Of course, their discretion is understandable; what would they do if someone knew that they pooped?

It wasn't only consumers that were embarrassed by it, though. Producers also did not want to be associated with this new bathroom essential. They would go to great lengths to avoid being known as the TP company.

For example, starting in 1902, The Scott Paper Company only sold toilet paper under the name "Waldorf." This made sure that no one knew who it was really coming from.

The Toilet Tissue We Know & Love

The 20th century marked the beginning of an era of toilet paper innovation. Building upon earlier developments, toilet tissue in this era was improved into the comforting bathroom buddy we know and love today.

Now Splinter-Free!

In 1930, Northern Tissue was the first company to boast "Splinter-free" toilet tissue. Evidently, there was a risk of getting splinters in uncomfortable places before that.

The Toilet Paper Shortage Scare

In 1973, people were afraid that there would be a toilet paper shortage when Johnny Carson made a joke about it on his show. This prompted people to rush out and buy a lot of toilet paper, resulting in an actual toilet paper shortage.

Bath Tissue for the World

As we reach the present day, we see Reel Paper emerge. Reel Paper has changed the game by offering sustainable bath tissue and providing sanitary options for those without bathrooms in Africa.

Toilet paper has had a long, weird history full of corn cobs, embarrassment, and mass hysteria. We have come a long way since the days of wiping with a sea sponge, and we're relieved that today we're able to wipe splinter-free.

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