Celebrating the invention of toilet paper

Here’s an amusing story – today is the birthday of toilet paper! On this day back in the year 580 AD, the Chinese invented toilet paper (well, at least according to historyorb.com they did). I doubt the accuracy of this fact, as various sources give widely differing historic accounts of this rather personal product. It is, however, too good a topic to let pass, so I will accept it as true for now.

To make things more interesting, I have also found a site claiming that today is the day back in 1871 when toilet paper was first sold on a roll in the US, and that today is, in fact, National Toilet Paper Day in the States.

So whichever way you look at it, toilet paper’s shadow looms large over this day.

Spotlight on toilet paper – basic commodity or luxury item?
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Of course, when you start thinking about “the first use of toilet paper”, the second thought that enters your mind almost immediately, is “what did they use before?”. Well, whatever was available, it seems – grass, leaves, moss, corncobs, coconut shells (I cannot quite get my mind around that one!), snow, sheep’s wool… The Romans, fancy buggers that they were, used sponges and salt water.

It does seem to be a generally accepted fact that it was the Chinese who introduced the use of paper for cleaning up after ‘the act’. The earliest recorded reference to the use of toilet paper seems to come from the Chinese scholar Yan Zhitui, who wrote in 589 AD: “Paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from the Five Classics or the names of sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes.” (According to Wikipedia.)

On a roll

Rolled and perforated toilet paper, similar to what we know today, only saw the light of day in the mid 19th century, with American Zeth Wheeler taking out a patent for it in 1871. It seems the commercial potential of purpose-made toilet paper was marred in the early days by the fact that people were too embarrassed to ask for it, or to be seen buying it, so Wheeler’s first company, the Rolled Wrapping Paper Company, failed to turn a profit. Things have obviously changed since then, with toilet paper today being a multi-billion dollar industry.

The future

It’s interesting to speculate about the future of bathroom hygiene.  Will toilet paper remain the product of choice in the Western world? A toilet known as the ‘Washlet’ (a toilet equipped with a bidet and air blower) is growing in popularity in Japan, while many countries in the Middle East and Asia prefer water cleaning. As we continue to exhaust the world’s natural resources, and manufacturing costs continue to rise, will a product as humble as the toilet roll become too much of a luxury item for many people to afford?

Interesting thought… Considering that the average American reportedly uses almost 60 squares of toilet paper a day, and the market for the product is booming in developing countries, it really is a huge volume of wood pulp that simply goes down the toilet – thousands upon thousands of trees are consumed daily by the toilet paper industry.

Over or under?

OK, time for a quick amusing fact:  In brand new research published in the US, a survey was done to find out whether Americans prefer their toilet paper to hang over or under the roll. The result? A staggering 75% of respondents preferred the paper hanging over the roll. Women appear to be even more adamant about this, as do people over the age of 60. Nevada turned out to be the ‘over-hanging’ capital of the US, with almost 100% preferring the over-the-roll option. For more have-to-know information, you can read more on the survey results here.

So how do you roll?