Tangled up on the sofa wrestling with the dog two nights ago, television playing in the background, my attention was caught by a commercial wherein a woman in a bowling alley threw her ball for a resounding strike, bringing the product name Cottonelle to the screen as she turned to the camera and said, “I need a clean alley all the time.” My mouth was still gaping in surprise when a quick cut brought up another toilet paper commercial, this one presenting a lovely housewife in pearls and low heels announcing that Charmin is, “another way to keep your underwear clean.” I had to look out the window to make sure I hadn’t drifted out of orbit and landed on planet Mars.
It appears that freedom among advertisers has evolved to include a kind of low-brow tabloid language exemplified by Cottonelle and Charmin in selling their toilet paper. Or am I just behind the times and seeing another case of technology leading us down a road to where nothing is left unsaid or unshared, where social networks have encouraged the sharing of every thought and action and where people say and show anything and everything? Or maybe I’m simply going off on a rant about nothing more than a few graphic details about toilet paper and how we use it. Apparently a great many people are curious about it because the very first website I clicked on stated at the top that the number of questions concerning toilet paper was amazing. Well heck, I’m gonna jump right into the mix.
Long before the luxury of ultra strong and uniquely balanced triple ply, snowy white toilet paper enriched with aloe, people depended on an assortment of devices to handle the problem. We’ve all heard the corncob and Sears catalogue stories but they represent only the tip of the iceberg. Vikings used discarded sheep’s wool, coconut shells were the choice in early Hawaii, lace was popular with French royalty and snow and tundra moss did the trick for the Eskimos of yore. Mussel shells were useful for coastal peoples and one source describes the ancient Greeks using stones and pieces of clay. The Romans had a good idea with sponges on the end of sticks kept in jugs filled with salt water. Probably the worst choice in history was my own. Out in the woods on a camping trip as a kid I grabbed up a handful of leaves that turned out to be poison ivy.
It was the Chinese in about the year 600 who first came up with the idea of making paper especially for use behind closed doors. It must have been intended for people with large bottoms because it was made in sheets measuring 2x3 feet. In the US, “Gayetty’s Medicated Paper” was the marvel of 1857, a paper of pre-moistened sheets of manila hemp medicated with aloe and dispensed from a Kleenex-sized box. The name Joseph Gayetty was printed on every sheet and Mr Gayetty claimed for his toilet paper the bonus of hemorrhoid prevention. The toilet tissue on a roll familiar to modern culture came about around 1880, but since toilet paper was still a sensitive subject, out of embarrassment the Scott Company left their name off of it, deciding instead to customize, or name it for their customers. As a result the Waldorf Hotel gained fame in the toilet paper arena. Scott didn’t take credit for their product until 1902.
Getting people to buy toilet paper was a uphill battle, in large part because Americans were embarrassed by anything pointing to bodily functions. Customers didn’t want to ask for it by name. Germans had a similar embarrassment about the subject and one company came out with advertising copy saying, “Ask for a roll of Hakle and you won’t have to say toilet paper!” Widespread acceptance of the product was slow in coming, but eventually boosted by more and more homes with sit-down flush toilets and indoor plumbing systems. The Hoberg Paper Company hit a bullseye in 1928 with something called Charmin. Once again, the key was advertising. They gave the package a feminine logo depicting a beautiful woman, conveying softness and femininity. This allowed the avoidance of talking about actual purpose and merely asking for a package of Charmin. It wasn’t until decades later that the beautiful ladies on the package were replaced by babies and bear cubs.
Twenty-six billion rolls of toilet paper, worth about 2.4 billion, are sold yearly in the US alone. The average American uses 50 pounds (23 kilograms) per year, fifty percent more than the average of other Western countries. All around the world, in place of toilet tissue, water is still one of the most common methods of cleaning. India, the Middle East and a number of Asian countries continue to rely on a bucket and a spigot.
And Japan? The future does not look too rosy for the now familiar roll of toilet paper. Supermarket and drugstore shelves are piled with the stuff but a growing number of Japanese people have come to depend upon something called the Washlet, and it won't be long before homes equipped with this convenience outnumber those without. Attached to seat and tank, the Washlet works like a bidet, but includes a heat controlled air blower for drying, a heated seat and even a sound device to cover embarrassing sounds. After many years of using a Washlet in Japan, the return to toilet paper was an uncomfortable lesson in my reacquaintance with American life.