Friday, July 10, 2009

In Praise of Humble Toilet Paper

If you have traveled much outside the US of A, chances are that one of the things you missed most is one of the things you otherwise think about least. I speak, of course, of toilet paper.

Yes, common toilet tissue. The soft, multi-ply wonder with which we tenderly cleanse our nether regions once nature has taken its course. We don't think about it much unless we find ourselves looking with horror at an empty cardboard tube chuckling at us from beside the porcelain throne. Good thing other people have.

Yes, the good folks at Mental Floss offer this interesting history of one of our most underappreciated things: Why Toilet Paper Belongs to America. In this article, you will learn that over the years, people have used coconuts, shells, snow, moss, hay, leaves, grass, corncobs, and sheep's wool (hopefully, without the sheep still attached) to clean themselves. Later, advances in printing technology allowed us to use newspapers, magazines, and pages of books (ever been down on the farm and been thankful for the old Sears catalog in the outhouse?).

The article goes on to note that "...the idea of a commercial product designed solely to wipe one's bum ... started about 150 years ago, right here in the U.S.A." Yes, good old American know-how and marketing skill turned something utterly unmentionable into the must-have product we know today.

The problem with the widespread adoption of toilet paper was that it was used with something people didn't like to talk about. And also, not to put too fine a point on it, it tended to complicate the cleaning of outhouses. Thus it was that toilet paper didn't really take off until the end of the 19th century, when more and more homes began to be built with indoor plumbing and sit-down flush toilets. Modern indoor plumbing required a product that could be flushed away with minimal damage to the pipes, meaning that the old, free, standards like corncobs, moss, and sheep's wool had to be retired. Soon, ads for toilet paper boasted that the product was recommended by both doctors and plumbers, and in time we ended up with things like squeezably-soft Charmin and other tissues which attempt to outdo each other in their claims of softness.

I recall traveling in old East Berlin before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and discovering that one of the greatest shortcomings of Communist government was its inability to provide its citizens with decent toilet paper ... East German TP tended to be stiff and waxy, and to contain the occasional chunk of wood. I doubt that toilet paper caused the downfall of Communism, but it certainly must have been a contributing factor.

The article goes on to note that Americans spend more on toilet tissue than any other nation in the world - we shell out more than $6 billion a year, using on average 57 squares a day and 50 pounds a year. But other countries are catching up ... Dave Praeger, the author of Poop Culture: How America Is Shaped by Its Grossest National Product, says that "The spread of globalization can kind of be measured by the spread of Western bathroom practices," noting that when average citizens have enough money to be able to buy a luxury like toilet paper, wealth and consumerism have arrived.

And you can always jazz up your common toilet paper roll...

What'll they think of next?

So there you are - more than you ever wanted to know about something you never really want to think about. Wipe your cares away and look forward to the weekend!

Have a good day. Cartoon Saturday is coming.



Debbie said...

Nice transition...from politicians yesterday to toilet paper today!

bandit said...

as a young boy in the late fifties we would visit relatives who had no running water in the house. They had the out house inside the chicken coop and of course had the Sears catalog nailed up inside.

Amanda said...

LOL! What a funny post!

As you probably know, not everybody uses toilet paper (especially here in Palembang). Public toilets come with a paper. So, whenever we're out, I always have to make sure I've got several small packs of tissues with me. Somehow, I just can't bring myself to stash a whole toilet roll in my bag :)

John said...

So a bear and a rabbit are in the woods and find themselves taking care of nature's business near one another.

The Bear starts complaining about poop sticking to his fur. "I just hate that, don't you?" he says.

The rabbit says, "I don't know that I've ever had that problem."

"What!?" the bear shouts. "You mean that poop doesn't stick to your fur?"

"No," the rabbit says smugly.

Suddenly the bear reaches over, grabs the rabbit and wipes his butt!

The Mistress of the Dark said...

The USA is good for something

Anonymous said...

Well, Bilbo, you've once again provided that one of the universal subjects of humor is poop. Of course the other sure-fire laugh getter is flatulence. Recommend you write a dissertation on the forementioned sure fire subject during the coming week.

Unless you think we're already getting enough of the two sure fire humor subjects from the Washington Metro area already!

Eminence Grise

Leslie David said...

You know, I came looking for my daily dose of your pearls of wisdom only to be confronted with...toilet paper.

SusieQ said...

Following in the footsteps of its paper vanguard are PERSONAL WIPES. Let's hear it for PERSONAL WIPES!

Mike said...

When we were in Prague the consistancy of the TP like newspaper.

Mike said...

.................................. was ............