There’s a great Seinfeld episode from the 1990s in which George Costanza delivers an impassioned lecture to one of his dates about how toilet paper has remained the same for centuries and will continue unchanged for the foreseeable future. His date’s unexpected enthusiasm notwithstanding, George was a little off on this one. Unspooling somewhere near the intersection of medical hygiene and technological innovation, toilet paper has slowly but surely evolved over the decades and centuries, incorporating the latest in engineering trends, new materials and fabrics, and sustainable practices.
Going backward in time from the present to centuries past, the following is a brief history of how toilet paper has evolved over the years:
Eco-friendly, sustainable toilet paper
A popular recent trend in toilet paper is the use of eco-friendly, sustainable sources. The most common commercial toilet paper uses tree-based materials (usually cotton), which utilizes an extraordinary number of trees (27,000 every day) and water (37 gallons a roll). Clearly, this is not sustainable on a number of levels, not the least of which is the disruption of natural ecosystems.
A new generation of companies, such as Seek Bamboo, use bamboo toilet paper to spearhead the cause of sustainability in bathrooms and households. Promoting plastic-free bathrooms, sustainable households, and zero-waste product kits, Seek Bamboo offers a multitude of commercial options for sustainable living, including all-natural dryer balls, eco-friendly laundry detergent, and many others.
Softness over functionality
One of the biggest sea changes in toilet paper innovations was arguably the opposite of innovation. In the 1930s, companies like Charmin cashed in on the indoor plumbing revolution to offer consumers the idea of softness and style over functionality. This led to
the artificially induced softness and glossy embossed designs that incorporated bleach and chemicals. Sustainability wasn’t really on the public radar in the 1930s, much less a commercial concern for industrial manufacturers, so the primary goals were inexpensive, glamorously packaged and marketed toilet paper rolls.
In 1935, the company Northern Tissue invented a process called “linenizing,” which produced “splinter-free” toilet paper (which sounds like a wonderful development for everyone involved). Shortly after that, in 1942, two-play tissue took off and multi-color toilet paper options hit the market in 1954.
In the middle of the 1800s, disposable paper and dedicated paper products burst on the scene, spawning the age of convenience. This led directly to Seth Wheeler’s 1871 invention of perforated sheets of toilet paper. Prior to this, toilet paper was distributed in tissue boxes similar to how we package Kleenex today.
In the 17th century, American colonists largely repurposed mail-bound paper products, such as newspapers and magazines, into toilet paper. This brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “junk mail.”
The earliest known toilet paper
Historians believe toilet paper evolved within a few hundred years of the invention of paper in China. Interestingly, prior to that, ancient humans and prehistoric people used a variety of objects and materials, including hygiene sticks made of bamboo sticks wrapped in cloth. So the human species has kind of come full circle with the use of bamboo in the bathroom.
The first recorded documentation of paper being used for bathroom activities comes from Korea in 589 AD. Originally, TP came in large sheets and was considered too rare to be used by anyone outside of an emperor’s family.
While Seinfeld’s George Costanza may wax philosophical about the history and future of toilet paper, the truth is it really does have a long and fairly elaborate lineage. The United States has mostly resisted the urge to switch to Bidets but that doesn’t mean there has been no innovation in the industry.
As mentioned above, the push towards sustainability in household products is currently driving a new generation of eco-friendly toilet paper. It isn’t the first innovation in the history of toilet paper, and contrary to Costanza’s diatribe, it won’t be the last.