In America, toilet paper is one of those things we tend to take for granted, unless it’s not there. But have you ever wondered what people did before it was invented, and how long it’s been in use? The answers might surprise you.
Before Toilet Paper
Before toilet paper, people mainly used whatever was free and readily available for personal hygiene. Unfortunately, many of the options were quite painful: Wood shavings, hay, rocks, corn cobs, and even frayed anchor cables. Ancient Romans used a sponge on a stick that sat in a bucket of salt water and was shared by everyone (yuck). Leaves, rags, moss and rags were some of the less-painful (and probably more sanitary) options. Wealthy people used wool, lace or other fabrics.
The idea of toilet paper actually dates back to medieval China, when a Chinese emperor used 2-foot by 3-foot sheets of paper. Paper has been used for bathroom duty for thousands of years since then. In the late 15th century, paper became readily available, so newspaper was commonly used as toilet paper. In more modern times, Americans used the Sears & Roebuck catalog and The Old Farmer’s Almanac. In fact, photos of the Almanac from the 1800s and early 1900s show the book was made with a hole in the corner, so it could easily be hung up in the outhouse.
Mass-Produced Toilet Paper
The first commercially packaged toilet paper was made in 1857 by Joseph Gayetty. The paper was wet with aloe and had his name printed on every sheet. It was sold as a medical product, and claimed to prevent hemorrhoids. The product wasn’t very successful, because most people had a hard time paying the equivalent of $12 for 500 sheets when there were so many free options available.
The mass production of toilet paper continued, however, and perforated rolls like what we use today were patented in 1871 by Zeth Wheeler. The Scott brand made toilet paper rolls popular beginning in 1890, because it was sold to hotels and drug stores. Many people were uncomfortable buying the product, because Americans were embarrassed by their own bodily functions at the time. Toilet paper was literally uncomfortable until the 1930s, in fact, because it contained splinters.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, indoor plumbing and flush toilets were becoming more common, so Americans were forced to deal with their issues and buy toilet paper that would not cause clogs or damage to pipes. Another big advancement in the toilet paper industry came in 1928, when the Hoberg Paper Company introduced Charmin toilet paper, gave it a feminine logo, and advertised its softness instead of its purpose. The product was extremely successful, and toilet paper quickly became a necessity instead of a luxury item reserved only for royalty or the very wealthy.
Of course, the real question is, does the roll go over or under?
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