Some might believe the idea of writing 1500 words about toilet paper to be a complete waste of time. Of course, that means that reading 1500 words about toilet paper would be an even bigger waste of time. But before you click away from what, on the surface, would seem to be a throwaway post, I want to engage your mind and stir your soul about the importance, the efficacy, and the sheer wonder of this absolutely essential household product.
Have you ever contemplated what our civilization would be like without toilet paper? We’d be stuck using old copies of the New York Times or Washington Post - sort of like spreading shi*t on sh*t, although if newspapers wish to survive, perhaps they could start a movement to ban bathroom tissue. Think of the extra millions of copies newspaper companies would sell. People might not read them, but in our modern society, products with more than one purpose have a better chance of surviving.
Still think I’m off my nut?Au contraire, bon ami. I believe there is a direct correlation between the economic health and spiritual well being of a society and the quality and selection of the bathroom tissue it offers.
It is unknown when humans even began to care about cleaning themselves after defecating. The fossil record is silent on the issue and archeological evidence from paleo-human campsites is lacking.
It was probably some Cro-Magnon woman who got tired of sleeping with a stinky man and pointed out the advantages of cleaning oneself after doing his business. Since we all know that women’s stools don’t smell, this is logical (neither do women stink when they sweat, or perhaps men don’t notice it because female perspiration is an aphrodisiac to most of us).
It was the Chinese who first figured out in the second century AD that their invention of paper had applications far beyond the ordinary purpose of being a surface upon which writing might be stored and shared. A fanatically clean society, the use of paper to wipe one’s bum must have seemed a much better option to the Chinese than bamboo grass which, unless you are careful, is capable of cutting the flesh like a Ginsu knife. (The Greeks apparently used a sea shell to scrape the area clean. Try that without letting out a yelp of pain.)
Paper was used in various forms and shapes by succeeding cultures. But it was a highly discriminatory product. Only the rich could afford paper while the middling classes and poor were stuck with other, decidedly less comfortable and efficient products.
It took American ingenuity to invent egalitarian toilet paper. Wikpedia says it was a fellow by the name of Joseph Gayetty who developed the first commercially available TP in the world in 1857. The product had a few drawbacks, however. It came in small sheets for one. Then there was the problem of splinters, since the process of manufacturing soft, smooth, quilted, or multi-ply paper was a few decades away. It doesn’t take much imagination to experience the pain that would be felt if one were to be unfortunate enough to have a splinter lodged in your anus. True love would be your wife assisting you in removing it.
It wasn’t until 1935 when Northern Tissue advertised “splinter-free” bathroom tissue that the modern technological age began and industrial society was poised to reach its peak of perfection. I shudder to think that I might have been born in an era without Charmin or other premium brands of TP.
It should be noted that there is still something of a stigma attached to the product. Why this is so relates to our shame regarding any discussion of the private parts of the body. That, and the indelicate nature of what the product is used for. But really, when you think about it, why should shame be attached to a wonderfully useful product for which everyone has need? There isn’t a soul alive or dead who could honestly say that they were indifferent about the necessity of utilizing this product. It as universally essential to daily life as Hellman’s Mayonaise or Plochman’s Yellow Mustard.
Hopefully, this attitude is changing thanks to a groundbreaking series of commercials for Charmin TP that features animated bears who are actually seen almost using the product. That, of course, is the final barrier that needs to be broken. Once the Charmin Bears are seen wiping, we will have a new normal for bathroom tissue commercials. There will be a scramble among Northern, Scott, and the other giants of the industry to show their product in use. I await this day with much anticipation for it will be then that toilet paper can come out of the water closet and breathe the fresh air of a deserved, respected notoriety.
We have few jokes about toilet paper in our culture. That’s because of its ubiquitousness, as well as the superb quality of the tissue that is generally available even to the poorest among us. I did find a rather funny Chuck Norris/Jack Bauer truism. Playing off the idea that some toilet paper has celebrities printed on the roll:
They once made a Chuck Norris toilet paper, but it wouldn’t take sh*t from anybody.
Socialist societies overflow with TP jokes. That’s because when such a basic necessity is part of a command economy, there will never be enough and its quality will be a joke. This brings to mind P.J. O’Rourke’s masterpiece Holidays in Hell where his visit to the Soviet Union in the early 80’s was painted as a nightmare of shortages, and standing in line for hours just to purchase a couple of rolls of toilet paper.
This incredible report from a sociologist in Russia describes how the Stalinist state designed one kind of toilet paper:
My view is that the development and usage of toilet paper has a much neglected ‘cultural’, as opposed to crudely ‘economic’, aspect. I remember using something called ‘Izal’ - a sort of hard, crumply, medicated affair, prone to splitting under excessive pressure. It was clearly designed and manufactured by an anally retentive Methodist sworn to clean living, clean air and clean bums. It came in boxes especially designed to keep use of paper to a minimum. Each sheet had to be withdrawn singly and was usually the devil’s own job to extract. Sort of thing one found in the lower middle class household of Stalinist persuasion that I inhabited during my childhood years…. It never did me any harm, honest.
And Obama wants our government to have a big say in the design of cars?
If you read between the lines of this old Russian joke about toilet paper, you can catch the utter helplessness that people feel in a society that is incapable of addressing their most basic comforts:
A woman walking in the street is carrying a bag full of rolls of toilet paper.
A passer-by opens his mouth, “Hey, mother, where did you buy it?”
“Buy? Are you crazy? Where could I buy it nowadays? They are five years old. I am taking them back from the cleaners.”
And, of course, there are dozens of variations on the newspaper Pravda (Truth) being better utilized for duty in the water closet than actually finding out what was going on in the Soviet Union at the time. Those humorous anecdotes also say something profound about a society where attacking the state by smearing excrement over its propaganda organ is a way to fight back against the stultifying nature of Communism.
In contrast, the bidet - that most elegant and efficient of hygienic aids - would probably make the average Soviet citizen of the period contemplate bloody revolution. But frankly, I’ve never gotten the hang of the contraption and prefer the less ritzy, but more utilitarian paper alternative.
I hope you come away with a greater appreciation of bathroom tissue, and a more enlightened grasp of the spectacular successes of American society after reading this. If not, I’m sure you can find some shells somewhere.