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Kamloops News

THOMPSON: Let's talk toilet paper

April 20, 2020 - 12:08 PM

May I have a couple words with you about a very personal matter? Toilet paper. Yes, it’s not something we like to talk about very much…but, it’s simply not a conversation we can leave behind.

There wasn’t always toilet paper. Our ancestors - more often than not - used what was available…and some things no doubt worked better than others. Choices ranged from water, snow, leaves and moss to corn cobs, sheep's wool and rabbit fur…which reminds me of that old joke involving a bear and a rabbit.

If you lived in ancient Greece, you would have used clay and stone. I dunno…Greek to me. In Rome it might have been a stick with a sponge on one end soaked in salt or vinegar...called a tersorium. I use might because archeologists and anthropologists don’t agree on whether these tools were personal cleaners…or the world’s first toilet brushes.

The Chinese had rice paper squares as early as the late-1300s if you were a member of royalty or perhaps someone they liked. But in the western world toilet paper - believe it or not - is a relatively recent phenomenon invented by a New York entrepreneur ten years before Canada became Canada.

Joseph C. Gayetty proudly offered 1,000 sheets of white paper softened with aloe for $1 to Americans in 1857. I say proudly because his full name was watermarked on each sheet. Not exactly your name up in lights on Broadway, but apparently one man’s embarrassment is another’s pride.

Gayetty sold enough to stay afloat, but 37 years later in 1894, his leading competitor surfaced…offering people sheets for free. It was the first Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog, whose cover promised - in what was no doubt one of the earliest unintended double entendres - a “Book of Bargains: A Money Saver for Everyone.” Free is hard to beat.

Indeed, households nationwide would peruse the catalog for bargains…before relegating the remaining pages to America’s outhouses, which heavily outnumbered homes with indoor plumbing. Three years later, the company charged a quarter for the catalogs…which could be applied to orders over $10.

Gayetty’s business didn’t go down the tubes right away, but by 1890 the invention of toilet paper on rolls and a series of trademark infringement lawsuits conspired against Gayetty’s business..and it turned to…well, enough said.

The Scott brothers - Clarence and E. Irvin - not only thought of putting toilet tissue on a roll…they supplied every first-class hotel in America with the stuff and then put it in drugstores. Slowly, over the next decade people began asking for “a roll of Scott’s.” It might have been the Gay Nineties, but people didn’t discuss private matters openly…especially bodily functions.

It would take decades - accelerated by new-fangled indoor plumbing that actually flushed your business down the drain - before those clever fellows on Madison Avenue found a better way to sell toilet paper.

They branded it as a female product (women did most of the shopping), put a beautiful woman on the packaging and gave it a charming name…Charmin. Still a very personal purchase, in 1932 Charmin started selling economy packs of four rolls…convenience without embarrassment as often.

Four decades later, America and Canada couldn’t imagine being without toilet paper. So, when Johnny Carson made a joke about a toilet paper shortage on the “Tonight Show” on December 19, 1973…the very first incidences of hoarding started on Dec. 20. What better Christmas could you have…assured of a closet full of toilet paper because you bought every roll in sight?

Same thing just happened with our Coronavirus pandemic. Some Americans and Canadians bought shopping carts full of toilet paper…were they expecting diarrhea?

There’s a lot of misinformation and disinformation on the Internet…can you imagine that? Last year, Fortune Magazine ran a story that claimed “the average American uses 3 rolls of toilet paper each week—and it’s devastating forests.”

Turns out the magazine took the work of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) - an environmental advocacy group - and just ran with it…not checking for truth or accuracy. The mistake: assuming a roll of toilet paper weighed what NRDC said…90 grams…that’s 3.17 ounces. But the most widely sold rolls weigh almost a half pound…7.8 ounces or a smudge over 221 grams.

But lots of writers and editors didn't question the math…and repeated the wrong number in lots of articles that still roam the Internet. Hey, Americans get blamed for enough stupid, selfish things…we don’t need to make stuff up.

The fact is Americans and Canadians use about the same amount of toilet paper…slightly more than one roll a week per person…about 28 pounds of the stuff every year.

Toilet paper, notwithstanding, one of the best inventions for cleaning bums is a bidet…around since the early 1700s and was even used by the French royal family. The bidet was named after a type of horse…a “cob”…a short, sturdy mount…and given how you straddle one…it sorta makes sense.

Bidets have long been popular in Europe, South America, the Far East and Middle East…not so much in North America. However, they are becoming more common today. I happen to like them…the newest models are called Washlets…with Japanese maker TOTO spraying its way to the top in the bottom-cleaning biz.

These models clip on to your existing toilet and cost $300-$500. Well worth it, I say. Several years ago when we stayed at the Aria Hotel in Las Vegas our master bath had one. I spent more time on it than I did at the craps tables (sorry, couldn’t resist). It not only had directional warm and cool spraying water…it had a warm and cool air blow dryer. I’m surprised DisneyWorld doesn’t have these things as an amusement ride!

Now, all said, will Washlets wipe out the market for toilet paper? No, I don’t think we can ever leave toilet paper behind.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.

News from © iNFOnews, 2020

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