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2/9/2010
LET’S TALK ABOUT TOILET PAPER

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.

By: Rick Moran at 11:52 am
17 Responses to “LET’S TALK ABOUT TOILET PAPER”
  1. 1
    Surabaya Stew Said:
    12:17 pm 

    Wonder what the editors/writers of the Good Book would have made of toilet paper? To quote Deuteronomy 23:13 from the King James Bible:

    And thou shalt have a paddle upon thy weapon; and it shall be, when thou wilt ease thyself abroad, thou shalt dig therewith, and shalt turn back and cover that which cometh from thee.

    The New Living Translation of the Bible puts it in language for the FaceBook generation:

    Each of you must have a spade as part of your equipment. Whenever you relieve yourself, dig a hole with the spade and cover the excrement.

    Guess our biblical forbearers didn’t wipe! Thanks God for modern times….

  2. 2
    CZ Said:
    12:51 pm 

    Very enlightening essay. Thanks.

    Now if you will, please excuse me while I go wipe my michael reynolds.

  3. 3
    Allen Said:
    12:57 pm 

    This brought a laugh and a memory of my first visit to the Soviet Union. It was the late eighties and I was checking into my hotel in Leningrad. They handed me the room key and a roll of toilet paper. I was earnestly informed I should return the toilet paper when I went out and would receive it back when I returned, to prevent it from being stolen. It seems windshield wiper blades were also a very hot commodity. Even the KGB folks had to remove their wipers when they parked.

  4. 4
    Jim Said:
    1:07 pm 

    Rick

    I really enjoy your “off topic” adventures…thanks!

  5. 5
    Jim Wilson Said:
    5:26 pm 

    Years ago I started making lists of things I was thankful for around Thanksgiving time and toilet paper was high on the list along with flush toilets and orange-scented air fresheners (I’m allergic to perfumes for the most part, but citrus doesn’t hate me). I thank Heaven and Capitalism for, respectively, the inspiration to invent such things, and the invisible hand that makes them affordable.

    Tracing the origin of toilet paper is an exercise Adam Smith would’ve approved of…after he got over his horror at the indelicate nature of the subject matter. After all, how could toilet paper exist without a kagillon, if not three kagillion other inventions and umpteen bazillion hours of labor to make it possible. One could argue that cheap toilet paper is a relatively large proportion of the sum of human endeavor from the beginning of time–perhaps as much a a billionth of a percent. How I thank all those who came before and made a commonplace, civilized comfort possible!

    And thanks in advance to the guy who comes up with a way to make it obsolete! Long live creative destruction!

    Holy Jesus! You’re loonier than I am, Jim.

    ed.

  6. 6
    still liberal Said:
    6:39 pm 

    Just like you conservatives to still think of paper as a solution. We have gone “green” you know. We are in the digital age now and paper is just so 20th Century.

    Excuse me. I am now going to take a dump and wipe my butt with a Kindle. ;-)

  7. 7
    pcbedamned Said:
    6:46 pm 

    And to think, here in Socialist Canada, with our Socialized Health Care, our Socialized Banks, our Socialized Day Care, our Socialized ______ etc., we too have all of the toilet paper we will ever need. It even goes on sale somewhere every week for ridiculously low prices so you can stock up on the good stuff (you know, Cashmere, Royal, Charmine, etc.)
    On a side note, my favorite toilet paper joke is the ‘Happy Days’ episode when Marion tells Richie in a whisper to ‘buy TP’ in which he replies that it is ok to say toilet paper. Still makes me laugh 30 some years later…

  8. 8
    funny man Said:
    6:49 pm 

    Talking about unusual issues; I think we Germans have the highest number of words related to Poop (but it could also be the Russians). Thanks for making me laugh.
    Here is another issue that makes me smile since I’m sure none of you were ever aware of this problem:
    http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/0,1518,676559,00.html

  9. 9
    jms Said:
    9:20 pm 

    … not to mention the utility in festive public tree decoration.

  10. 10
    Jim Said:
    9:21 pm 

    …As far as obsolescence is concerned I recently read there is a move is hyper-green circles to replace the toilet with a simple bucket and handfuls of sawdust to stifle odors and jump start the conversion from waste to fertilizer (they say it works). The result becomes compost. I am not clear quite what they do while they are awaiting the transformation from excrement to fertilizer. Or what you do with the large quantities of fertilizer you generate. The article didn’t mention toilet paper, dare I assume they go au naturel in this area as well? This movement (pun? what pun?) must be true. I read it in a major newsmagazine. I do remember many years ago watching a talk show where an earnest do-gooder was touting the virtues of the toilet less house. He, too had a specially designed bucket in mind and the house had some vent system because he evidently was not so convinced that there would be no odor.

  11. 11
    Maggie's Farm Trackbacked With:
    6:59 am 

    Weds. morning links…

    A short appreciation and history of toilet paper
    Who knew this was a felony? I am a repeat felon.
    The New Dating Game - Back to the New Paleolithic Age.
    Everybody agrees that the Obama invitation is a trap
    The Federal Government is Working Ha…

  12. 12
    The gold digger Said:
    8:08 am 

    I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Chile, working in a small co-op with poor women who lived in the country. They routinely stole the office toilet paper. I finally learned to bring my own TP to the office. And lock it in my desk. Not to keep the country women from stealing it but to keep my co-workers from stealing it. Because of course the country women had stolen the bathroom TP so my co-workers wanted to use mine.

  13. 13
    Michael J Kubat Said:
    9:01 am 

    We had a TP joke (well, one of many) back in the bad old days of communist Czechoslovakia…

    The Czechoslovak aircraft industry developed a hot new fighter that could easily outperform anything that the West had. The trouble was that wings kept ripping off during maneuvers. Industry leaders and Party members met to resolve the issue. Many proposals were floated, all were rejected. Then a shy young man stood up in the back of the room.

    “Comrades, I think I have developed a solution.”

    “Oh, what’s that Comrade?” the head of the meeting asked.

    “Let us perforate the wings.”

    The top Party member got hot under the collar. “Comrade, are you trying to ridicule and sabotage the Party’s efforts to keep our socialist motherland safe from the neonazi/imperialist/fascist/zionist/capitalist conspiracy? If so, I’ll…”

    The head engineer bravely intervened. “Now, now, comrade political officer, the young man is new at the company, but he is a very bright engineer.” Turning to the young man: “Well, what is your evidence that perforating the winds would prevent wing failure?”

    “Well,” the young man says: “I base my conclusion on my experience with our toilet paper. It tears everywhere except at the perforations.”

    Nuff said…

  14. 14
    Everyman Said:
    11:00 am 

    Ah, but no mention of the latest sleight-of-hand from the TP industry; offering narrower paper on a smaller roll - still fully fluffy, of course, but inevitably smaller - at the same price, for an instant price increase of some magnitude that it is obviously hoped no one will notice.

  15. 15
    lionheart Said:
    12:23 pm 

    I’ve discovered an even greater invention: baby wipes by the case at Costco. Probably not as good as a bidet, but a hell of a lot more comfortable and sanitary than TP.

  16. 16
    The Lavatory Reader Trackbacked With:
    5:51 am 

    Cashmere Lavatory Paper - Luxury Is Nothing New…

    Recent news that the British supermarket chain, Waitrose, is now stocking cashmere lavatory paper has got the world in a twitter. It should be pointed out, however, that no cashmere fibres are included in the paper, but that the paper is covered in an …

  17. 17
    Ajax Harington Said:
    5:52 am 

    You’re forgetting Rabelais and the goose! See here: http://lavatoryreader.typepad.com/the-lavatory-reader/2010/02/cashmere-lavatory-paper-luxury-is-nothing-new.html

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