An Absorbing History Of Toilet Paper
by Richard Smyth
Published by Souvenir Press, London 2012
Toilet paper has to be one of the things which most of us would hate to have to live without. A walk into any supermarket will show a bewildering display, shelf after shelf of different brands proclaiming the virtues of absorbency, texture, moistness and perfumed additives to this essential adjunct to hygienic modern life.
It hasn’t always been like this, as I have hideous memories of the ghastly IZAL toilet paper that was used in my primary school in the 1960s/70s: shiny and completely useless on one side, matt and incapable of absorbing moisture on the other side, so no matter which call of nature had driven you to use the bathroom facilities, you were guaranteed to be incapable of dealing effectively with the aftermath. My great grandmother lived in a house which did not have indoor plumbing and I can vividly recall visiting her and having to use the “privy” at the end of the garden, which had neatly torn squares of newspaper impaled on a nail to use in place of toilet paper.
I had never given much thought about how people managed bathroom visits between Roman times (when the trusty sponge stick stored in vinegar had to suffice) and the invention of toilet paper, so “Bum Fodder” has been a revelation and a source of endless amusement to me. I had no idea that references to Rabelaisian type humour actually included pure toilet humour, but several of Rabelais’ stories do in fact relate the exploits of Gargantua, a giant who proves to be something of a connoisseur when discussing what works best in the post-toilet cleansing procedure.
No matter how bizarre a substance, humans appear to have used it in an attempt to find something which is acceptable in terms of comfort, cost and functional efficiency, from sponge, cloth, wool, moss, corncobs, leaves and shells or even handfuls of snow, right up the invention of paper by the Chinese in 100 CE and the development and usage of toilet paper as we would recognise it in the sixth century AD. Joseph Gayetty is credited with marketing toilet paper in the USA in 1857, although in Britain, G.W. Atkins & Co claimed to have been producing it since 1817 and proclaimed they had a Royal Warrant to do so.
Filled with detail about toilet practices through the ages and their depiction in literature and the modern media, and written with a real sense of fun, this is a book to delight anyone with a sense of humour, an inquiring mind and a reasonably strong stomach. No matter what your question about the origin, production, use and disposal of the product in question, the answer is likely to be contained within the covers of this book. Older teenagers would love it, and it has certainly been a smash hit in our house, where it has been perused by readers aged from 49 to 14.