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Our only good news: Toilet paper won’t run out

How Americans fell for toilet paper.

Packages of toilet paper sit on a pallet at a Kroger Co. grocery distribution center in Louisville on March 20. (Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg)

As the great toilet paper panic of 2020 worsens, Americans may be starting to contemplate life without it. But in fact, this now-essential household product was not adopted on a widespread scale until less than a century ago. And, initially, Americans resisted adopting it — until the flush toilet came along making it essential.

Humans have long wiped their rears with whatever was at hand. We used leaves, moss, porous stones and even seashells. The Romans, in their communal lavatories, used a sponge on a stick which they would swish in a pail of water and then pass on to their neighbor. Corn cobs were popular in the farm belt of the American Midwest. Much of the world today doesn’t wipe at all, but uses water from a jug or a bidet to handle this task.

The Chinese, who first created paper more than 2,000 years ago, immediately put it to use wiping. When cheap wood pulp-based paper became ubiquitous in the 19th century, people used newspapers, handbills and frequently pages from the very thick Sears Roebuck catalogue to wipe themselves. In 1857, a New York businessman, Joseph C. Gayetty, began manufacturing “paper for the water closet,” touting it in his ads as “The Greatest Necessity of the Age!” Gayetty’s great invention came in a package of sheets.

But it was Seth Wheeler of Albany, N.Y., who, in 1871, became the first person to have the idea of perforating a roll of paper so that it could be conveniently torn off in sheets. In a flurry of subsequent patents, Wheeler also invented the cardboard tube at the center of the roll, and a holder for his new creation. In short, this Edison of wiping created all the elements of the product that adorns our bathrooms today.

Yet, for as brilliant and intuitive as Wheeler’s invention might seem to us today, convincing 20th-century Americans to buy his disposable product presented great difficulties. After all, why pay for Mr. Wheeler’s fancy roll when so much paper was available free and could serve the same purpose?

Toilet paper was also a luxury because well into the 1940s, most Americans used outhouses — effectively holes in the ground — to do their business. You could dump the entire Sunday edition of The Washington Post (which was the thickest edition of the week) into these receptacles, and it wouldn’t make much difference.

But during this time, cities were building sewers and a municipal water supply, and more and more houses were acquiring another great necessity of the age — indoor bathrooms. The flush toilet, unlike the outhouse, was much more particular in what it could digest. Toilets are connected to the sewer using an S-shaped trap to block off sewer gases from backing up into the house, but this circuitous plumbing can easily block up. It is the flush toilet that finally made toilet paper a product that everyone had to have.

Wheeler died in 1925, and it was others, notably the Scott brothers, who for a while dominated the industry. They used modern advertising techniques to sell their brand, such as scary ads promising hemorrhoids if you used a rival’s less-expensive product. But the market was huge and growing, and soon other companies found ways to compete, offering softer multiplied layered rolls and even colored paper to match the bathroom’s decor.

The success has been stunning.

In the United States alone, toilet paper has become a $2.5 billion industry. It’s a product that most see as essential to their daily lives — which explains the present-day panic. And while the product has become softer and more rear-end friendly since Wheeler conceived it, his basic concept has not changed.

But there is good news for those worried about a shortage of toilet paper, in light of hoarding and empty shelves. Unlike some of the critical medical equipment and protective attire hamstrung by overseas supply chains, the paper industry has remained local and with ready access to its raw material, wood pulp and recycled paper.

We shall have many problems in the coming months, but a shortage of this “greatest necessity of the age” is not something we have to worry about.