toilet paper: from the gompf stick to the roll

From the gompf stick to the roll: why we use toilet paper

Edward Weston,  Excusado (Toilet) , 1925

Edward Weston, Excusado (Toilet), 1925

At times, while sitting on the toilet, I’ve been overcome by the paralyzing fear of having run out of toilet paper. Not just in the bathroom, but run out entirely. What do you do when there are no more rolls left in the house? Are you stuck in the bathroom, a hostage to uncleanliness, hoping that a family member or roommate will eventually come to your rescue? Do you call a friend? At what point do you begin to explore other options? Are there tissues in the house? Paper towels? Are those flushable? Will it be a mark of shame for your entire life?

I remember as a kid being entirely revolted by the idea of Romans using a gompf stick, essentially a stick with a sponge on one end soaked in salt water, to clean up after defecating. In elementary school we learned that early American settlers used corn cobs to do the trick, like some kind of gross reanimation of the original vegetable.

So against that backdrop, toilet paper is certainly an improvement. But how did we even get to toilet paper? Who looked at a tree and thought, “you know what? I bet I could wipe that on my butt and it’d feel great.” Apparently the first cosmetic use of “toilet paper” was in China in the 6th century (Needham, 1986). This came as a byproduct to making paper: basically, if you can turn trees into pulp and make paper, you can make it into soft plushy toilet paper, too.

It wasn’t until 1857 in the U.S. that it was sold as a marketable solution. We can thank that early entrepreneur for getting us away from old Sears and Roebuck catalogues and corn cobs to Ultra Soft (the predominant use of the word Ultra is worth exploring in toilet paper advertising. I suspect it’s not much more than, “it sounds better”). And like all successes in capitalism, it saturated the market (gross).

That leads us to now: where “Every day, about 270,000 trees are flushed down the drain or end up as garbage all over the world,” as the WWF claims ("Don't Flush," 2017). Back in 2009, “the United States spen[t] more than $6 billion a year on toilet tissue—more than any other nation in the world” (Rodriguez, 2009). We use a ton of toilet paper, and that’s probably an understatement.

Takashi Yasumura ,  Rolls of Toilet Paper and a Plastic Flower, from the series Domestic Scandals , 1998

Takashi Yasumura, Rolls of Toilet Paper and a Plastic Flower, from the series Domestic Scandals, 1998

This really gets to the fundamental hubris of our humanity. We’re claiming that the comfort of our butts is greater than the life of a tree, or rather, millions of trees. I’m your average city dwelling hypocrite, and even to me that calculus strikes me as pretty ridiculous. I know we do this everyday with all our objects of leisure and productivity--cell phones, plastic bags, HDTVs, individually wrapped string cheese; we’re asserting our supremacy over the natural world daily and without a thought through the waste we create from the natural world--but somehow it seems even more vulgar and blatant with toilet paper. Take a look at a tree: they’re beautiful and complex. We’ve all learned their critical function in keeping us breathing. They support vast ecosystems and biodiversity. They even talk to each other through a complex relationship with fungi (Mcfarlane, 2017). And we grind ‘em up and wipe ‘em on our butts. 

I’m not suggesting you just go ahead and stop cleaning up after yourself, but maybe it’s time to seriously consider the bidet. I know, it’s gross. And any temperature of water seems wrong. And what do you do after you get your butt wet? Don’t you then need to dry it off? What do you dry it off with? Or do you just have to sit there air-drying? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, and quite honestly I’m a little terrified of the answers. But, for the shameful ignominy we inflict upon our trees, it might be time to try.

Works Cited

"Don't Flush Forests down the Toilet." WWF. World Wildlife Fund, n.d. Web. 08 May 2017.

Macfarlane, Robert. "The Secrets of the Wood Wide Web." The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 19. Jan. 2017. Web. 08

     Apr. 2017.

Needham, Joseph (1986). Science and Civilization in China: Volume 5, Chemistry and ChemicalTechnology,

     Part 1, Paper and Printing. Taipei: Caves Books, Ltd.

Rodriguez McRobbie, Lisa. "Toilet Paper History: How America Convinced the World to Wipe." Mental Floss.

     N.p., 07 Nov. 2009. Web. 08 Apr. 2017.