On a roll: Flushable toilet paper -- From taboo invention to essential product

The COVID-19 outbreak had a dramatic effect on consumer behavior worldwide. Items typically considered mundane suddenly exploded in their demand. One of these items was a forest product, toilet paper.

Toilet paper plays an essential part of modern life by increasing sanitation in a convenient manner. These handy tissue paper products are built to deliver strength, softness and absorbency, all in one easy package. It is no wonder why society has deemed this a crucial product. Not only is toilet paper an important item, but tissue products are a sustainable agricultural product.

Throughout history, people have used various materials and items to clean themselves. A quick search will show you that the first products designed specifically to wipe one's posterior date to the beginning of time, with objects ranging from clay and stone to leaves and sponges. Colonial Americans were known to wipe with corncobs, and later switched to old newspapers catalogs and farmers almanacs.

In 1857, a young entrepreneur in the United States named Joseph Gayetty designed aloe-infused moistened sheets made from manila hemp dispensed from “Kleenex-like boxes.” He guaranteed his sheets would prevent hemorrhoids. Unfortunately, Gayetty’s invention did not take off because Americans had grown accustomed to wiping with paper catalogs that came in the mail for free.

Sit-down flush toilets attached to indoor plumbing systems became a staple in houses being built toward the end of the 19th century. The New York State Tenement House Act of 1901 was one of the first such laws to require that new buildings be built with indoor toilets. The proliferation of this building standard created a need for a product that could be flushed away with minimal damage to the pipes. Immediately, toilet paper advertisements bragged that their product was endorsed by both doctors and plumbers.

Brothers Edward, Clarence and Thomas Scott were credited as being the first to market toilet paper sold on a roll in 1879. The Scotts had a goal of making paper goods and quickly realized domestic bathroom plumbing was taking off. Because this item was still considered taboo in the Victorian era, they knew they would face adversity convincing people to buy it. At this point in time, people would not ask for it in stores because it was considered impolite. Even the Scott brothers, founders of Scott Paper, were too embarrassed to put their own name on their product. They needed a marketing idea.

The Scott brothers developed a distinctive plan to get pharmacists and buyers to purchase perforated toilet paper on a roll in 1890. They gave each pharmacist an exclusive interest by allowing them to create their own custom packaging. Hotels and upscale department stores, such as the Waldorf Hotel and Macy’s in New York, and retailers offered their own designer toilet paper made by Scott. They eventually produced private label brands for over 2,000 companies.

Around 1903, Scott Paper chose to cease all private brand marketing and began marketing their own private label. To avoid any prolonged distasteful reaction, they advertised their toilet paper as a medical product to help stop the spread of dysentery, typhoid and cholera. By 1913, Scott's sales exceeded $1 million for the first time and in 1915 was traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

In the early 1900s, toilet paper was still being marketed as a medicinal item, but that was soon to change. In 1928, the Hoberg Paper Company introduced a new toilet paper. With a ladylike logo and advertisements focusing on its softness rather than its purpose, this toilet paper was quickly adopted as a necessity in everyday households. The toilet paper was described as "charming" by an employee, and from there the name Charmin was born. This was considered a big advancement in the toilet paper industry, and the product was extremely successful. In the 1930s, the Northern Tissue company touted their toilet paper as "splinter-free," making it a pain-free experience for its user.

Another factor in the increased popularity of toilet paper in the United States was innovation in papermaking. The American paper industry implemented the sulfate pulping process in 1910, and the United States was able to become a major paper product manufacturer because it no longer needed to import wood pulp from Canada.

As a result of these technological paper-processing developments, many paper mills in the United States converted from cotton fibers to wood pulp. This increased domestic papermaking ability made it easier to produce toilet paper in the United States.

By the 1940’s, America could no longer conceive of life without toilet paper. This proved to be true in December 1973 when Johnny Carson, host of the national late-night television show, joked about a toilet paper shortage during his opening monologue. Instead of laughing, viewers across the country ran out to their local grocery stores and wiped out toilet paper shelves, creating a national shortage.

Innovations in toilet paper products have led to new product applications to meet the changing demographics of on-the-go millennials and today's families. Today, the manufacture of toilet paper is a large paper products and forest products industry. In the Western world, its use has made life much easier and more hygienic for people of all socioeconomic statuses. Thankfully, this innovation was adopted in America, leaving the last question for the us to ponder, “What is the correct orientation of a toilet paper roll, over or under?”

Whitney Wallace is an LSU AgCenter associate area agent for forestry in the Southeast Region.

6/29/2020 9:12:25 PM
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