A-Musings – On a Roll

Why people insist on pretending they are going to take a bath or a shower, when all they really need is a toilet is a mystery to me. People go searching for a washroom or, even worse, a bathroom, a powder room, or a comfort station whenever “nature calls”. Isn’t it amazing? I mean, what do they do in there, what call of nature do they obey, to need to wash and bathe afterwards, or cover themselves in talcum powder? I agree that a rigorous washing of the hands is called for, but hardly a total body wash. And as for bathroom tissue, well, who needs a tissue after bathing?

Since the dawn of time, upon the completion of a bowel movement, 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 in the U.S.A.

Very quickly, something disposable turned into something indispensable. The first products designed specifically to wipe one’s nether regions were aloe-infused sheets of manila hemp dispensed from Kleenex-like boxes. Their 1857inventor claimed his sheets prevented hemorrhoids. He was so proud of his therapeutic bathroom paper that he had his name printed on each sheet, which I assume afforded him some sort of dubious pleasure. Americans soon grew accustomed, however, to wiping with pages torn from catalogues, and saw no need to spend money on something that came in the mail for free.

In 1890, the Scott brothers popularized the concept of toilet paper on a roll. They built a steady trade selling toilet paper to hotels and drugstores, but it was an uphill battle to get the public to buy the product openly because people remained embarrassed by bodily functions. No one wanted to ask for toilet paper by name. It was so taboo that, in 1930, the German paper company Hakle began using the slogan, “Ask for a roll of Hakle and you won’t have to say toilet paper!”

Toilet paper’s widespread acceptance didn’t occur until a new technology demanded it. By the end of the 19th century, homes were being built with sit-down flush toilets connected to indoor plumbing systems that required a product that could be flushed away with minimal damage to the pipes. In no time at all, toilet paper ads proclaimed that both doctors and plumbers recommended the product.

Even in the early 1900s, toilet paper was still being marketed as a medicinal item. But in 1928, the Hoberg Paper Company, on the advice of its marketeers, introduced a brand called Charmin and adorned it with a feminine logo depicting a beautiful woman. Thus, by evincing softness and femininity, the company avoided talking about toilet paper’s actual purpose. Charmin was enormously successful. The brand even survived the Great Depression; in 1932, Charmin began marketing economy-size packs of four rolls; decades later, the dainty ladies were replaced with babies and bear cubs. Charmin still can be found on most supermarket shelves today.

By the 1970s, the West could no longer conceive of life without toilet paper. Amazingly, people in the USA spend more than $6 billion a year on toilet tissue – more than any other nation in the world, as usual. On average, they use 57 squares a day resulting in 50 lbs. a year. Today, the toilet paper market in the United States has largely flattened out. Real growth in the industry is happening in less developed countries. Toilet paper revenues in Brazil alone have more than doubled since 2004 driven, it is believed, by a combination of changing demographics, social expectations, and disposable income.

Globalization, it seems, can be measured by the spread of Western bathroom practices. When average citizens start buying toilet paper, wealth and consumerism have arrived, signifying that people not only have extra cash to spend, but they’ve also come under the influence of Western habits. But even as markets boom in developing nations, production costs are rising. Pulp has become more expensive, energy costs are rising, and even water is becoming scarce. In Japan, I recently encountered the “Washlet”, a self-contained toilet equipped with a bidet and an air-blower. All over the world, water, one of our most threatened commodities, remains one of the most common methods of self-cleaning; people in many places still depend on a bucket and a spigot.

The question is, if toilet paper becomes a luxury item, can we live without it? As our economy circles the drain, can we keep flushing our resources away? Maybe someone should appoint a visionary committee to determine when, where, how, and how often we should “wipe’n flush”?

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