Unrolling the History of Toilet Paper

By Karen O. RSS Wed, April 1, 2020

With the practice of social distancing and stay-at-home orders in place, people have been racing to stores to stock up on essentials, and one essential item in particular has become an infamous target for panicked shoppers – toilet paper. With such a sudden increase in demand, the supply chain has struggled to keep up, and store shelves are often left empty. Many stores have begun enforcing purchasing limits to ensure more equitable access to this precious commodity along with other grocery essentials. It’s understandable that families want to be well-stocked on this common household item, but it may make you wonder – how did toilet paper come to be an essential household item?

As with so many inventions, China is credited with the first known use of toilet paper as early as the 6th century A.D., and in the 14th century, giant sheets measuring two feet by three feet were manufactured for the Imperial Court of the Ming Dynasty. For us commoners, toilet paper was not produced until the late 19th century. Around 1857, John C. Gayetty invented and sold “Gayetty’s Medicated Paper” in the United States at $0.50 for a package of 500 flat sheets. At that price, these sheets of toilet paper, medicated with aloe and watermarked with the inventor’s name, remained a luxury item. However, with the growth of plumbing within the home, Scott Paper Co. Limited, established in Philadelphia in 1874, saw a new manufacturing opportunity and became the first company to put toilet paper on a roll. Early manufacturing processes sometimes left splinters in the finished toilet paper – ouch! It wasn’t until 1935 that Northern Tissue became the first company to advertise a splinter-free product. Fortunately for us, manufacturing processes have continued to improve and ever more comfortable products have been sold.

Since these inventions, companies have continued to grow and to offer a variety of products. Affordable, soft, quilted bath tissue is a far more appealing alternative than catalogs, pamphlets, leaves, and whatever else may be lying around the house. While we are grateful for the invention of this everyday comfort, there are important environmental concerns over the manufacturing and consumption of toilet paper. Fifteen percent of deforestation is the direct result of bath tissue manufacturing, and although the United States only constitutes four percent of the world’s population, we are responsible for around 20 percent of global toilet paper consumption! In recent years, in response to such concerns, bath tissue companies are offering greener products –using recycled materials to produce the toilet paper, reducing the chemicals used in manufacturing, and offering tube-less rolls.

Want to learn more about this everyday product’s complex history and its impact on our world today? Check out Science Reference Center and our databases for some interesting articles on the history of and manufacturing of toilet paper. Also, check out Hoopla for ebooks about the whole process – from tree to toilet.

While you may feel the urge to hoard toilet paper to get you through the upcoming weeks, remember to save some for your fellow shoppers. Also, let’s be thankful that we have toilet paper (without splinters!) while being mindful of our impact on the Earth’s forests.

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Very informative. Thank you for wiping away my ignorance!
Jamie - Philadelphia
Monday, April 6, 2020

I didn't know TP had such an interesting history!
Tim - Philly
Saturday, April 11, 2020