The Greatest Necessity of the Age!

Sixth century Chinese government official and great advocate of education Yan Zhitui, in 589 AD, included among his many writings the following line: “Paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from the Five Classics or the names of sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes.” I get that. I think wiping the nether regions with the writings of a greatly admired person might be on par with breaking up with someone via text message.

But more importantly than communicating a cross-cultural understanding of disrespectful behavior, this may well be the earliest written record of the use of toilet paper. The Chinese were way ahead of the game in this aspect of personal hygiene.

toilet paper
I’m not worried about running out. My own great state of Missouri is home to the world’s largest roll of toilet paper, a two-ton testament to hygiene, created by Charmin and housed at the Ripley’s Museum in Branson. photo credit: derekGavey An Ecological Conundrum via photopin (license)

While the rest of the world still struggled through the problem of poop with wood shavings, hay, rocks, corncobs, frayed rope, hands, or in the case of the Ancient Romans, communal sponges dipped in vinegar, China was busy manufacturing millions of packages of paper designed for freshening up the often less than fresh parts of the human body.

Here in the United States, it wasn’t until 1857 that paper was produced specifically for that purpose. Joseph Gayetty introduced his “Medicated Paper,” soaked in aloe and advertised as “The greatest necessity of the age!” Gayetty even proudly stamped his name across every piece, apparently conceding that he was not a great sage.

His product was definitely overpriced, at the equivalent of $12 in today’s money for a package 500 sheets, which along with $50 shipping might currently be a bargain on Amazon. Most Americans opted instead for ripping a page of the latest catalog from Sears & Roebuck or The Farmer’s Almanac, which came with a hole drilled at the corner for easy hanging from a hook in the outhouse.

tp toll patent
Obviously this patent drawing has something to add to the over/under toilet paper roll debate, but as I tend to avoid controversy on this blog I’ll refrain from pointing out the correctness here. Seth Wheeler / Public domain

In 1871, Seth Wheeler finally patented the toilet paper roll of perforated sections similar to what is widely used today. A few years after that, the Scott brand began successfully marketing toilet paper rolls to hotels and drug stores, and with the rise of indoor plumbing came the growth of the toilet paper industry, resulting in better products that were occasionally even free of splinters.

Americans, along with much of the world, were finally pretty much settled on the idea of bathroom tissue. Really, we’d have a hard time doing without it. I’ve seen estimates claiming that on average each American uses anywhere from 23.6 to 100 rolls per year.

So let’s do a little math.

If the lower number is closer to the truth then that means that in the course of fourteen days, the average American would use about 9/10 of a roll of toilet paper. If the larger number is closer to true, then that jumps to about 3.8 rolls.

The average American household includes 2.5 people, which means that if we assume maximum usage, the average American household toilet paper need in the course of fourteen days is about 9 ½ rolls. The large club store closest to my house sells toilet paper in packages of 32 extra large rolls.

They can’t keep it in stock.

LaunchingSheep-CoverImage
As the not-so-sage author of a book classified by some as a “bathroom reader,” I want to reassure you that should you need to sacrifice a few pages, I anticipate no supply issues for replacement copies.

I have to assume this is because we recently got our first confirmed case of Covid-19 in the St. Louis area. The patient is a young woman who was infected while traveling in Italy. She is quarantined in her home and is thankfully doing well. As an extra precaution, her entire household is being kept in quarantine for the standard recommended fourteen days. There’s been no word on whether or not they have plenty of toilet paper.

I sincerely hope they do, because if they ask a neighbor to drop some on their porch, that neighbor might have a hard time finding any on the store shelves.

Fortunately, the US military has figured out a solution to the problem of toilet paper rationing as demonstrated in this (modest) linked video, that I don’t recommend watching if you’re squeamish about such things.

Still, I’d hate to think that anyone would have to resort to using wood shavings, hay, rocks, corncobs, frayed rope, hands, or for the love of all that is holy, a communal sponge dipped in vinegar. I suppose if the situation gets really desperate, quarantined people could raid their bookshelves. As long as they make sure to avoid commentaries on the Five Classics or the names of sages.

9 thoughts on “The Greatest Necessity of the Age!

  1. Aloe-infused TP must have seemed like a wonder product compared to rocks (still trying t figure that one out). We have several evergreens in our yard with large leaves…I may need to guard them well.

    As for corncobs and frayed rope? No wonder those old timers looked so grumpy in their portraits…those long hours of sitting must have been miserable.

    1. I, too, have been trying to figure out the rocks, but I don’t really want to try too hard. I’m just glad I tend to be a bulk shopper anyway. We should be good for a while at my house, and could even drop a few rolls onto a neighbor’s porch. If I needed toilet paper right now, I might be too embarrassed to buy it. I’d probably explain to everyone I met, ” Oh, this isn’t because of corona virus. My family just uses toilet paper all the time anyway.”

  2. The shortage of toilet rolls during this corona virus saga points to how large a percentage of the population use toilet paper rolls (and not facial tissues) to blow their nose. The arrival of toilet paper on the manufacturing scene is desperately late. I would never have survived in a civilization without it. I mean, what would people talk about?

  3. That was really interesting. I never really thought about the math of toilet paper, before. You know, that might be a good title for something, “Math of Toilet Paper.” Or not.

  4. Pingback: The Math Of Toilet Paper – Prudentia Sit

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