Seems as if we have taken paper for granted

What a week it’s been. Daylight Savings Time, Friday the thirteenth, and Spring Break beginning, to say nothing of Coronavirus and all of its attendant mayhem. My social media has been overrun with constant updates of new cases, new guidelines from state and federal health departments, and endless photos of empty shelves around the nation. Still, I’m thankful on many counts. Our local stores don’t seem to be hit as hard as the major metro areas, and the employees are still as cheerful and helpful as always. Most people I’ve seen around here are still calm and optimistic while keeping a healthy (pun intended) grip on reality. And I’m really thankful for the learning opportunity this all presents.

I’m not talking about disaster management, pandemic outbreak control, infectious vector identification, or even gangs of monkeys fighting over food in the absence of tourists to feed them. Nope, thanks in part to the steady stream of memes crossing my Facebook page, I’ve been learning about that most scarce and sought after resource, Toilet Paper. As I looked out the window at the old, unused outhouse, it dawned on yours truly that, even though most of us have heard of using the Sears catalog, most of us haven’t given an iota of thought to what people used before that. So, without further ado, allow me to share my newfound knowledge with you, dear reader.

The earliest written reference to toilet paper (presumably not written on toilet paper) was in China, in the sixth century AD. By the 14th century, it was being manufactured specifically for toilet purposes. During the Ming dynasty, if you were a member of the royal family, you could expect your 2’ x 3’ sheet of toilet paper to be perfumed, and have the texture of soft fabric. The Imperial household went through 15,000 such sheets a year, and the entire year’s supply for the rest of the court at Nanjing was 720,000 sheets.

Now, mind you, dear reader, the rest of civilization at this point was making do with wool, hemp, rags, shavings, leaves, grass, hay, moss, even stones, potsherds, shells, and bags of pebbles. Don’t ask exactly how they used the bags of pebbles. I have the feeling we don’t want to know. Romans used a vinegar-soaked sponge on a stick (ew), while folks of more limited means simply used their hands (EW). One crazy dude named Rabelais in the sixteenth century even suggested a goose’s neck. (Triple EW. Possibly OW.)

Finally, in the eighteenth century, thanks to cheaply printed items, paper became more widely used. In 1747, Lord Chesterfield wrote to his son about a man who bought “a common edition of Horace, of which he tore off gradually a couple of pages, carried them with him to that necessary place, read them first, and then sent them down as a sacrifice to Cloacina…” Maybe Joseph Gayetty felt bad about using the printed word for such a purpose, or maybe he was just allergic to ink, but in 1857, he introduced Medicated Toilet paper, made from hemp and aloe.

In 1879, the Scott paper company figured out how to put the paper on rolls, although perforated paper wouldn’t be available until 1890. Also in 1890, the Sears catalog first came out and was widely used for its alternative purpose in rural America. Apparently the Sears company was well aware of this early attempt at recycling, and eventually, in 1930, began to print its catalog on less-glossy (more-absorbent) paper.

Bear in mind, dear reader, the luxury to which we are accustomed. As recently as 1935, one of Northern’s selling points for its TP was that it was “Splinter-Free.” Two-ply paper didn’t come along until 1942. It’s even possible to obtain soft, strong TP with the faces of people we don’t like on it (most notably, Hitler and Bin Laden). Even this current shortage isn’t the first time … in 1973, Johnny Carson