It's been awhile since toilet paper (or the lack thereof) has made headlines, which got us wondering: How much do we really know about this humble household staple that we usually take for granted? Where did it come from, how has it evolved, and how much of it do we really use? For that matter, why are we so obsessed with it when the rest of the world is happy to rinse off with water? (Okay, maybe we'll never understand that last one.) Here are some fun facts about toilet paper to ponder the next time nature calls.
The use of toilet paper has been traced as far back as 6th-century China. In 1393, while medieval Europe was still wiping with rags, wool, and hay, the Imperial Court in Nanjing was documented to have used 720,000 sheets of toilet paper, and we're not talking small squares — each sheet was roughly 2 by 3 feet. The emperor and his family alone used 15,000 sheets of "a particularly soft and perfumed" type of TP.
Whether it's been with leaves, corn cobs, or pages of the Sears catalogue, people have been wiping long before toilet paper was available or popular. But it was a New York man named Joseph Gayetty that invented sheets of aloe-infused hemp in 1857 that were specifically meant for cleaning up our nether regions. A few decades later, Clarence and E. Irvin Scott popularized toilet paper on a roll, but the embarrassed brothers didn't claim their innovative new product for years.
Ouch. Today's toilet paper is noted for its softness and smoothness, with fancy additives like lotion and aloe, but that wasn't always the case. It used to be far more rough and coarse, and nascent production techniques meant that your most delicate bits could be in for an unpleasant surprise. It wasn't until 1935 that the brand Northern Tissue (now Quilted Northern) began to specifically market "Splinter Free" toilet paper.
Despite Americans' burgeoning love affair with toilet paper, talking about it was considered uncouth. Until close to the turn of the century, magazines wouldn't accept ads for toilet paper, and it wasn't until 1975 that TV commercials could even call it toilet paper instead of the euphemistic "bathroom tissue."
In the 1950s, toilet paper in shades of pink, blue, and other cotton-candy hues started crowding shelves. It only made sense: New bathrooms were being outfitted with all manner of colourful, coordinated toilets, sinks, tubs, and tile. Colourful toilet paper eventually fell out of favour in the '80s, apparently when health officials started warning that the dyes could have adverse effects on users' skin and the environment.
Europe-based Renova, a luxury paper products company, sells scented three-ply toilet paper in a variety of colours, including red, fuchsia, and black. It doesn't come cheap, with a pack of six 140-sheet rolls selling for more than $8. Still, it has attracted some notable fans including Beyoncé, who reportedly requested the red rolls while on tour, and Kris Jenner, who is said to buy black toilet paper to match her black bathroom.
In late 1973, the iconic late-night talk show host joked about toilet paper potentially running out after reading media reports about a pulp-paper shortage. Carson's audience, wary from shortages touched off by the OPEC oil embargo, flooded stores to buy all the toilet paper they could find, keeping store shelves bare and reinforcing the notion of a shortage where there really was none.
In the raging debate about how best to hold toilet paper during a wipe — folding or wadding — 40% of people wad it, 40% fold it up, and 20% wrap it around their hand, mummy-style, according to a survey conducted by Kimberly-Clark. It seems that women are more likely to wad, while men prefer a neat, clean fold. The survey also found that 49% of respondents would choose toilet paper over food if they were going to be stranded on a deserted island.
It's an ongoing fissure in bathrooms around the world: Do you hang the toilet paper roll "over," with the loose end on top, or "under," with the loose end closer to the wall? With the latter, there's more chance that your dirty hand will have to touch unused portions of the roll, potentially spreading viruses and bacteria. In a similar vein, it's also better not to cover a public toilet seat with toilet paper, because the paper is way easier than the seat for germs to cling to, experts say.
Once upon a time, a square of toilet paper was 4.5 inches by 4.5 inches, but manufacturers aiming to squeeze more profits out of the product (apologies to Charmin) have increasingly shrunk squares a half-inch in each direction. Consumer Reports has also documented fewer square feet per roll for many brands.
The bride wore white, indeed. An annual Toilet Paper Wedding Dress Contest, sponsored by Charm Weddings and Quilted Northern, challenges TP creatives to design a wedding dress using nothing but toilet paper, tape, glue, or a needle and thread. Fabric is strictly prohibited, though unattached undergarments are allowed. Finalists are flown to New York City, and the winner gets $10,000 for their loo-inspired labour of love. (This year's contest has been postponed.)