CLOSE
Original image
Cary Norton

Toilet Paper History: How America Convinced the World to Wipe

Original image
Cary Norton

Since the dawn of time, people have found nifty ways to clean up after the bathroom act. The most common solution was simply to grab what was at hand: coconuts, shells, snow, moss, hay, leaves, grass, corncobs, sheep's wool—and, later, thanks to the printing press—newspapers, magazines, and pages of books. The ancient Greeks used clay and stone. The Romans, sponges and salt water. But the idea of a commercial product designed solely to wipe one's bum? That started about 150 years ago, right here in the U.S.A. In less than a century, Uncle Sam's marketing genius turned something disposable into something indispensable.

How Toilet Paper Got on a Roll

The first products designed specifically to wipe one's nethers were aloe-infused sheets of manila hemp dispensed from Kleenex-like boxes. They were invented in 1857 by a New York entrepreneur named Joseph Gayetty, who claimed his sheets prevented hemorrhoids. Gayetty was so proud of his therapeutic bathroom paper that he had his name printed on each sheet. But his success was limited. Americans soon grew accustomed to wiping with the Sears Roebuck catalog, and they saw no need to spend money on something that came in the mail for free.

Toilet paper took its next leap forward in 1890, when two brothers named Clarence and E. Irvin Scott popularized the concept of toilet paper on a roll. The Scotts' brand became more successful than Gayetty's medicated wipes, in part because they built a steady trade selling toilet paper to hotels and drugstores. But it was still an uphill battle to get the public to openly buy the product, largely because Americans remained embarrassed by bodily functions. In fact, the Scott brothers were so ashamed of the nature of their work that they didn't take proper credit for their innovation until 1902.

"No one wanted to ask for it by name," says Dave Praeger, author of Poop Culture: How America Is Shaped by Its Grossest National Product. "It was so taboo that you couldn't even talk about the product." By 1930, the German paper company Hakle began using the tag line, "Ask for a roll of Hakle and you won't have to say toilet paper!"

As time passed, toilet tissues slowly became an American staple. But widespread acceptance of the product didn't officially occur until a new technology demanded it.

At the end of the 19th century, more and more homes were being built with sit-down flush toilets tied to indoor plumbing systems. And because people required a product that could be flushed away with minimal damage to the pipes, corncobs and moss no longer cut it. In no time, toilet paper ads boasted that the product was recommended by both doctors and plumbers.

The Strength of Going Soft

In the early 1900s, toilet paper was still being marketed as a medicinal item. But in 1928, the Hoberg Paper Company tried a different tack. On the advice of its ad men, the company introduced a brand called Charmin and fitted the product with a feminine logo that depicted a beautiful woman. The genius of the campaign was that by evincing softness and femininity, the company could avoid talking about toilet paper's actual purpose. Charmin was enormously successful, and the tactic helped the brand survive the Great Depression. (It also helped that, in 1932, Charmin began marketing economy-size packs of four rolls.) Decades later, the dainty ladies were replaced with babies and bear cubs—advertising vehicles that still stock the aisles today.

whipple
By the 1970s, America could no longer conceive of life without toilet paper. Case in point: In December 1973, Tonight Show host Johnny Carson joked about a toilet paper shortage during his opening monologue. But America didn't laugh. Instead, TV watchers across the country ran out to their local grocery stores and bought up as much of the stuff as they could. In 1978, a TV Guide poll named Mr. Whipple—the affable grocer who implored customers, "Please don't squeeze the Charmin"—the third best-known man in America, behind former President Richard Nixon and the Rev. Billy Graham.

Currently, the United States spends more than $6 billion a year on toilet tissue—more than any other nation in the world. Americans, on average, use 57 squares a day and 50 lbs. a year.

Even still, the toilet paper market in the United States has largely plateaued. The real growth in the industry is happening in developing countries. There, it's booming. Toilet paper revenues in Brazil alone have more than doubled since 2004. The radical upswing in sales is believed to be driven by a combination of changing demographics, social expectations, and disposable income.

"The spread of globalization can kind of be measured by the spread of Western bathroom practices," says Praeger. When average citizens in a country start buying toilet paper, wealth and consumerism have arrived. It signifies that people not only have extra cash to spend, but they've also come under the influence of Western marketing.

America Without Toilet Paper

Even as the markets boom in developing nations, toilet paper manufacturers find themselves needing to charge more per roll to make a profit. That's because production costs are rising. During the past few years, pulp has become more expensive, energy costs are rising, and even water is becoming scarce. Toilet paper companies may need to keep hiking up their prices. The question is, if toilet paper becomes a luxury item, can Americans live without it?

The truth is that we did live without it, for a very long time. And even now, a lot of people do. In Japan, the Washlet—a toilet that comes equipped with a bidet and an air-blower—is growing increasingly popular. And all over the world, water remains one of the most common methods of self-cleaning. Many places in India, the Middle East, and Asia, for instance, still depend on a bucket and a spigot. But as our economy continues to circle the drain, will Americans part with their beloved toilet paper in order to adopt more money-saving measures? Or will we keep flushing our cash away? Praeger, for one, believes a toilet-paper apocalypse is hardly likely. After all, the American marketing machine is a powerful thing.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Toilet paper image courtesy of Cary Norton.

Original image
NASA // Public Domain
arrow
Space
On This Day in 1962, NASA Launched and Destroyed Mariner 1
Original image
NASA // Public Domain

On July 22, 1962, NASA launched the Mariner 1 probe, which was intended to fly by Venus and collect data on its temperature and atmosphere. It was intended to be the first interplanetary craft—the first time humans had sent a space probe to another world. Unfortunately, NASA aborted the mission 293 seconds after launch, destroying the probe in the Atlantic. What happened?

First off, a bit of history. Mariner 1 was based on the pre-existing Block 1 craft used in the Ranger program, which was aimed at gathering data on our moon. Those early Ranger probes didn't do so well—both Ranger 1 and Ranger 2 suffered early failures in orbit. Mariner 1 was a modified version of the Ranger design, intended for a much longer mission to another planet. It lacked a camera, but had various radiometers, a cosmic dust detector, and a plasma spectrometer—it would be capable of gathering data about Venus, but not pictures per se.

The two previous Ranger missions had used basically the same launch system, so it was reasonably well-tested. The Ranger probes had made it into orbit, but had been unable to stabilize themselves after that.

Mariner 1 launched on the evening of July 22, 1963. Its Atlas-Agena rocket was aided by two radar systems, designed to track data on velocity (the "Rate System") and distance/angle (the "Track System") and send it to ground-based computers. By combining that data, the computers at Cape Canaveral helped the rocket maintain a trajectory that, when separated, would lead Mariner 1 to Venus.

Part of the problem involved in handling two separate radars was that there was a slight delay—43 milliseconds—between the two radars' data reports. That wasn't a problem by itself. The Cape computer simply had to correct for that difference. But in that correction process, a problem was hiding—a problem that hadn't appeared in either of the previous Ranger launches.

To correct the timing of the data from the Rate System—the radar responsible for measuring velocity of the rocket—the ground computer ran data through a formula. Unfortunately, when that formula had been input into the computer, a crucial element called an overbar was omitted. The overbar indicated that several values in the formula belonged together; leaving it out meant that a slightly different calculation would be made. But that wasn't a problem by itself.

The fate of Mariner 1 was sealed when the Rate System hardware failed on launch. This should not have been a fatal blow, as the Track System was still working, and Ground Control should have been able to compensate. But because that overbar was missing, calculations on the incoming radar data went wonky. The computer incorrectly began compensating for normal movement of the spacecraft, using slightly incorrect math. The craft was moving as normal, but the formula for analyzing that data had a typo—so it began telling Mariner 1 to adjust its trajectory. It was fixing a problem that didn't exist, all because a few symbols in a formula weren't grouped together properly.

Mariner 1's rocket did as it was told, altering its trajectory based on faulty computer instructions. Looking on in horror, the Range Safety Officer at the Cape saw that the Atlas rocket was now headed for a crash-landing, potentially either in shipping lanes or inhabited areas of Earth. It was 293 seconds after launch, and the rocket was about to separate from the probe.

With just 6 seconds remaining before the Mariner 1 probe was scheduled to separate (and ground control would be lost), that officer made the right call—he sent the destruct command, ditching Mariner I in an unpopulated area of the Atlantic.

The incident was one of many early space launch failures, but what made it so notable was the frenzy of reporting about it, mostly centered on what writer Arthur C. Clarke called "the most expensive hyphen in history." The New York Times incorrectly reported that the overbar was a "hyphen" (a reasonable mistake, given that they are both printed horizontal lines) but correctly reported that this programming error, when coupled with the hardware failure of the Rate System, caused the failure. The bug was identified and fixed rapidly, though the failed launch cost $18,500,000 in 1962 dollars—north of $150 million today.

Fortunately for NASA, Mariner 2 was waiting in the wings. An identical craft, it launched just five weeks later on August 27, 1962. And, without the bug and the radar hardware failure, it worked as planned, reaching Venus and becoming the first interplanetary spacecraft in history. It returned valuable data about the temperature and atmosphere of Venus, as well as recording solar wind and interplanetary dust data along the way. There would be 10 Mariner missions in all [PDF], with Mariner 1, 3, and 8 suffering losses during launch.

For further reading, consult this Ars Technica discussion, which includes valuable quotes from Paul E. Ceruzzi's book Beyond The Limits—Flight Enters the Computer Age.

Original image
Brown University Library, Wikipedia/Public Domain
arrow
This Just In
Lincoln’s Famous Letter of Condolence to a Grieving Mother Was Likely Penned by His Secretary
Original image
Brown University Library, Wikipedia/Public Domain

Despite his lack of formal schooling, Abraham Lincoln was a famously eloquent writer. One of his most renowned compositions is the so-called “Bixby letter,” a short yet poignant missive the president sent a widow in Boston who was believed to have lost five sons during the Civil War. But as Newsweek reports, new research published in the journal Digital Scholarship in the Humanities [PDF] suggests that Lincoln’s private secretary and assistant, John Hay, actually composed the dispatch.

The letter to Lydia Bixby was written in November 1864 at the request of William Shouler, the adjutant general of Massachusetts, and state governor John Albion Andrew. “I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming,” it read. “But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.”

Unknown to Lincoln, Bixby had actually only lost two sons in battle; the others had deserted the army, were honorably discharged, or died a prisoner of war. Nevertheless, word of the compassionate presidential gesture spread when the Boston Evening Transcript reprinted a copy of the 139-word letter for all to read.

Nobody quite knows what happened to Bixby’s original letter—some say she was a Confederate sympathizer and immediately burnt it—but for years, scholars debated whether Hay was its true author.

During Hay’s lifetime, the former secretary-turned-statesman had reportedly told several people in confidence that he—not Lincoln—had written the renowned composition, TIME reports. The rumor spread after Hay's death, but some experts interpreted the admission to mean that Hay had transcribed the letter, or had copied it from a draft.

To answer the question once and for all, a team of forensic linguists in England used a text analysis technique called n-gram tracing, which identifies the frequency of linguistic sequences in a short piece of writing to determine its true author. They tested 500 texts by Hay and 500 by Lincoln before analyzing the Bixby letter, the researchers explained in a statement quoted by Newsweek.

“Nearly 90 percent of the time, the method identified Hay as the author of the letter, with the analysis being inconclusive in the rest of the cases,” the linguists concluded.

According to Atlas Obscura, the team plans to present its findings at the International Corpus Linguistics Conference, which will take place at England’s University of Birmingham from Monday, July 24 to Friday, July 28.

[h/t Newsweek]

SECTIONS

More from mental floss studios