How Toilet Paper Works


The Evolution in TP Technology
An ad for Gayetty Medicated Papers, the first toilet paper available for sale in America.
An ad for Gayetty Medicated Papers, the first toilet paper available for sale in America.
Wikimedia Commons

It all started with a guy named Joseph Gayetty, an entrepreneur who saw a clean business opening unlike any other. In the 1850s, he began selling boxed sheets of a hemp-based paper product that was infused with aloe, which he marketed as a hemorrhoid preventer.

He found limited success with his product, called "Gayetty's Medicated Paper" (50 cents for 500 sheets), in large part because people were so used to using the free catalogs. It also didn't help that the subject was taboo — no self-respecting American would ever go to a store and ask for a product meant to wipe poop from their nether regions [source: Wolf].

Another three decades passed before boxed toilet paper made the revolutionary leap to rolls thanks to Scott Paper, which pioneered the concept in 1890. Yet because of the aforementioned cultural poo taboos, the company refused to be associated with the product, leveraging the names of its partners instead.

Less than a decade later, another innovation rolled in — perforations, which made it much easier to neatly tear away single sheets instead of ripping apart the roll. Why is TP perforated in squares that are just 4 inches (10 centimeters) long? Well, the product has plenty of uses other than bum wiping, such as lipstick blotting and nose cleaning, which don't require 12-inch-long sheets.

Even with the advent of rolls, the paper itself still needed some improvement. It was coarse and rough, very unlike today's cushy versions. Consider this: Until the 1930s, it was still common practice to market TP as "splinter-free." Suddenly, rocks and snow don't seem like such bad options after all, do they?

Early rolled toilet paper was just a single layer, meaning you had to fold it over a few times or risk seriously soiling your hand. In 1942, St. Andrews Paper Mill in England created the first two-layer or two-ply TP [source: Wolf]. These days, of course, you can find toilet paper in two-ply or even four-ply form.

So, with all the discomfort around the concept of cleansing our bums, how did toilet paper ever roll into the lives of everyday folks? Two words: indoor plumbing.

Around the turn of the 20th century, Americans were finally getting consistent access to indoor plumbing and flushing toilets. Suddenly, catalog pages and newspapers weren't feasible options for wiping — and flushing — unless you were cool with clogged toilets. Enter toilet paper.