A Brief History of Toilet Paper


Imagine with me the sound of a voice as it cries out for help. The voice is coming from the inside of a bathroom. It belongs to some poor soul who finds himself in the very unfortunate position of being seated upon a commode with need for but no access to toilet paper. Now imagine that that voice belongs to the country of Venezuela.


This is no joke. This is an honest-to-goodness problem I discovered while reading the Business section of “The Week.” Venezuela has a critical shortage of toilet paper. I am ten IQ points and one Economics degree short of understanding the reasons why; something about the late Hugo Chavez and “price controls” he put in place in an effort to make goods accessible to the poor. Venezuela’s scarcity index is presently 21%, which means that one out of every five of the most basic items needed by consumers is missing from stores’ shelves. A world without TP: tell me this would not put an end to political apathy in the US.


When my husband, a forester by trade, is put in the position of justifying his industry’s existence to someone categorically opposed to the cutting down of trees, toilet paper is his go-to for establishing some common ground. Toilet paper is a staple. I think we can all agree on this one. What I find remarkable is the speed at which it became such.


My mother is not even old enough to meet eligibility for Social Security and wont be for 6 more months, and she remembers life before toilet paper. Home without running water. Her family had an outhouse until she was 6 or 7 years old. They were wiping with pages from a Sears catalog back when “Reduce, reuse, recycle” was a way of life, not a bumper sticker.


I didn’t give toilet paper a second thought as a child unless Mr. Wipple was chastising a costumer (that hypocrite), unless I visited a home that used toilet paper that was colored, scented, or covered with a crocheted southern belle cozy, or unless my mother got to talking about her outhouse-using childhood. It sounded so antiquated, but now I have my own children, and they think that running out of the flushable wet wipes constitutes a run-to-the-store-at-midnight type of emergency. “We didn’t even have those wipes when I was a kid,” I explain. They ask me what we used, and when I say, “Regular-old dry toilet paper,” they look at me with pity and bewilderment, like it is the most pedestrian form of personal hygiene they’ve ever contemplated. Like I said, “pages from a catalog.”


I celebrate the 4th of July with the hope that my children will always know such opulence, but there is a kernel of fear that they may not, that we are ill-prepared for a Venezuelan style economic downturn. It has been an intense few months at the Anderson house. We have so much. So much to lose. What do we do? I suggest that we take more time to learn from our past, from our neighboring countries’ mistakes, that we choose our leaders wisely, and just to hedge our bets, maybe pick up a few rolls on the way home.













4 Comments on “A Brief History of Toilet Paper

  1. I don’t know if you recall this, but Grandmother had a roll that played music as you unraveled it. Quite festive, I must say.

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