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Toilet Paper History: How America Convinced the World to Wipe

Linda Rodriguez

by Linda Rodriguez – November 7, 2009 – 12:24 PM

Since the dawn of time, people have found nifty ways to clean up after the bathroom act. The most common solution was simply to grab what was at hand: coconuts, shells, snow, moss, hay, leaves, grass, corncobs, sheep’s wool—and, later, thanks to the printing press—newspapers, magazines, and pages of books. The ancient Greeks used clay and stone. The Romans, sponges and salt water. But the idea of a commercial product designed solely to wipe one’s bum? That started about 150 years ago, right here in the U.S.A. In less than a century, Uncle Sam’s marketing genius turned something disposable into something indispensable.

How Toilet Paper Got on a Roll

toilet-paper-1The first products designed specifically to wipe one’s nethers were aloe-infused sheets of manila hemp dispensed from Kleenex-like boxes. They were invented in 1857 by a New York entrepreneur named Joseph Gayetty, who claimed his sheets prevented hemorrhoids. Gayetty was so proud of his therapeutic bathroom paper that he had his name printed on each sheet. But his success was limited. Americans soon grew accustomed to wiping with the Sears Roebuck catalog, and they saw no need to spend money on something that came in the mail for free.

Toilet paper took its next leap forward in 1890, when two brothers named Clarence and E. Irvin Scott popularized the concept of toilet paper on a roll. The Scotts’ brand became more successful than Gayetty’s medicated wipes, in part because they built a steady trade selling toilet paper to hotels and drugstores. But it was still an uphill battle to get the public to openly buy the product, largely because Americans remained embarrassed by bodily functions. In fact, the Scott brothers were so ashamed of the nature of their work that they didn’t take proper credit for their innovation until 1902.

“No one wanted to ask for it by name,” says Dave Praeger, author of Poop Culture: How America Is Shaped by Its Grossest National Product. “It was so taboo that you couldn’t even talk about the product.” By 1930, the German paper company Hakle began using the tag line, “Ask for a roll of Hakle and you won’t have to say toilet paper!”

As time passed, toilet tissues slowly became an American staple. But widespread acceptance of the product didn’t officially occur until a new technology demanded it. At the end of the 19th century, more and more homes were being built with sit-down flush toilets tied to indoor plumbing systems. And because people required a product that could be flushed away with minimal damage to the pipes, corncobs and moss no longer cut it. In no time, toilet paper ads boasted that the product was recommended by both doctors and plumbers.

The Strength of Going Soft

In the early 1900s, toilet paper was still being marketed as a medicinal item. But in 1928, the Hoberg Paper Company tried a different tack. On the advice of its ad men, the company introduced a brand called Charmin and fitted the product with a feminine logo that depicted a beautiful woman. The genius of the campaign was that by evincing softness and femininity, the company could avoid talking about toilet paper’s actual purpose. Charmin was enormously successful, and the tactic helped the brand survive the Great Depression. (It also helped that, in 1932, Charmin began marketing economy-size packs of four rolls.) Decades later, the dainty ladies were replaced with babies and bear cubs—advertising vehicles that still stock the aisles today.

By the 1970s, America could no longer conceive of life without toilet paper. Case in point: In December 1973, Tonight Show host Johnny Carson joked about a toilet paper shortage during his opening monologue. But America didn’t laugh. Instead, TV watchers across the country ran out to their local grocery stores and bought up as much of the stuff as they could. In 1978, a TV Guide poll named Mr. Whipple—the affable grocer who implored customers, “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin”—the third best-known man in America, behind former President Richard Nixon and the Rev. Billy Graham.

Even still, the toilet paper market in the United States has largely plateaued. The real growth in the industry is happening in developing countries. There, it’s booming. Toilet paper revenues in Brazil alone have more than doubled since 2004. The radical upswing in sales is believed to be driven by a combination of changing demographics, social expectations, and disposable income.

“The spread of globalization can kind of be measured by the spread of Western bathroom practices,” says Praeger. When average citizens in a country start buying toilet paper, wealth and consumerism have arrived. It signifies that people not only have extra cash to spend, but they’ve also come under the influence of Western marketing.

America Without Toilet Paper

Even as the markets boom in developing nations, toilet paper manufacturers find themselves needing to charge more per roll to make a profit. That’s because production costs are rising. During the past few years, pulp has become more expensive, energy costs are rising, and even water is becoming scarce. Toilet paper companies may need to keep hiking up their prices. The question is, if toilet paper becomes a luxury item, can Americans live without it?

The truth is that we did live without it, for a very long time. And even now, a lot of people do. In Japan, the Washlet—a toilet that comes equipped with a bidet and an air-blower—is growing increasingly popular. And all over the world, water remains one of the most common methods of self-cleaning. Many places in India, the Middle East, and Asia, for instance, still depend on a bucket and a spigot. But as our economy continues to circle the drain, will Americans part with their beloved toilet paper in order to adopt more money-saving measures? Or will we keep flushing our cash away? Praeger, for one, believes a toilet-paper apocalypse is hardly likely. After all, the American marketing machine is a powerful thing.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Toilet paper image courtesy of Cary Norton

February 25, 2010 Posted by | Advertising, Men of a Certain Age, Shopping | Comments Off on Toilet Paper History: How America Convinced the World to Wipe

Ray and Debra Barone are gone, check out their new shows

“Men of a Certain Age” TNT, Monday nights at 10 pm
“The Middle”
ABC Wednesday nights

Ray Romano, Scott Bakula, and Andre Braugher play old time friends in different stages of their lives. Ray Barone is gone. I was still uncomfortable watching “Joe” have sex. I kept expecting to see Doris Roberts burst in with a plate of spaghetti.

Joe is recently divorced from the never-recognizable Penelope Ann Miller. He has two kids and his interaction with them and their peers is also very entertaining. Joe grows from his conversation with a boy bothering his teen aged daughter. At first you think he’s going to kick the boys ass but he actually sees himself in the kid and gives him some great advice. Then, tells him if he doesn’t leave his daughter alone, he’ll kick his ass.

Scott Bakula plays the swinging man-whore. He dates different woman, sleeps with many and never settled down. As he ages he seems to be realizing that he’s missing something. His buddies have kids and responsibilities but all Terry has is Terry. Owen (Braugher) told Terry that the reason he’s always late is because he never slows down enough to actually LOOK at himself in the mirror. Interesting analysis of his friend.

Owen is probably the deepest character of the show. He has a happy marriage with a strong woman but he works for his father, an ex NBA star. His father never will think Owen is “good enough” and he treats his son worse than the other employees because he wants to make sure nobody thinks he’s playing favorites. It’s very sad to watch the interaction with Owen’s father and Owen’s children. It gives you a glimpse into his childhood and it was full of criticism and perfection. His marriage is one of the best things about this show. They are cute, playful and also respectful and supportive of each other. Nice to see a good marriage on TV. We don’t see enough positive examples of marriage.

On the other hand, watching Patricia Heaton on “the Middle” is refreshing compared to the logical Debra on “Everybody Loves Raymond.” She drinks, she ignores her kids, she drinks, she works outside the home and she has an attitude that would have made Ray Barone cry. Her husband is played by the “Scrubs” janitor, Neil Flynn and I still need a few more episodes to determine how I feel about him. The kids are great. REAL kids with issues. The youngest boy reminds me of Dewey on “Malcolm in the Middle” and the teen-aged girl is a great actress. The episode with her school picture retakes was hysterical. How many of us just cannot take a decent school picture? My kid is one of them but I never went for the retakes.

It’s great to see Ray Romano and Patricia Heaton leave Ray and Debra Barone behind. I wish them luck in both shows. I knew Patricia was an actress but never realized that Ray was an “actor.” I’m very impressed with his work on “Men of a Certain Age.”

January 24, 2010 Posted by | Advertising, Big Bang Theory, Breaking Bad, Men of a Certain Age, Sitcoms, TV Drama | , | Comments Off on Ray and Debra Barone are gone, check out their new shows