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Common Threads: Media, Science, Technology, and Other Magic

May 2020: The COVID-19 Chronicles

A Brief History of Toilet Paper

Even before the global COVID-19 pandemic, I had begun reflecting upon and writing about the mundane and glamourless staple of modern life that is toilet paper.

The practice of using toilet paper is so common in the world today that it seems difficult to imagine a place or a time without it.

According to the editorial contributors to Wikipedia, the paperless online encyclopedia, what Romans called papyrus—from which our word paper is derived—had been made in Egypt as far back as 2000 to 4000 years BCE. Modern paper was invented China possibly as early as the year 105.

Paper’s first documented toilet use was in China in 589 CE. The practice of using toilet paper didn’t reach the western world until about the 16th century, about a century after the invention of the printing press (around 1440) had propagated printed paper pages that found second use in toilets, despite the toxicity of their inks.

United States Patent 459,516

United States Patent 459,516
(click for larger image)

It wasn’t until 1843 that wood pulp was introduced to the paper-making process. Modern toilet paper was introduced in New York by Joseph Gayetty in 1857, sheets perforated from the roll was patented in 1871, and the dispensers and center roll were patented first in 1883 and improved in 1891 by Seth Wheeler of Albany, New York. (The illustration on the latter patent should settle the many inane debates about which way the roll should be installed, at least by anyone not attempting to discourage abuse by small children or cats.) By the 1930s, the manufacturing process had been refined to the point that the Northern Tissue Company claimed that its toilet paper was “splinter free”.

Interestingly, the last decade included the aftermath of a purported healthier alternative to toilet paper, wet wipes, which were introduced in the 1990s. The practice of flushing them down toilets after use as the manufacturer had intended led to the creation of many giant fat accumulations—some the size of a school bus or larger—that have come to be called “fatbergs” and have clogged public sewer systems, mostly in the United Kingdom.

One reason why I bring up these terrifyingly-massive sewer-clogging blocks of fat is that they evolved as an unintended consequence of something that was intended to improve society but clearly wasn’t fully thought out.

Their inadvertent creation has become a fitting metaphor for the mess we’re in today.

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