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The PlantPaper Blog

A Brief History of Toilet Paper

Humans are the only species on the planet that wipes.

No other species on the planet wipes. This is a function of our anatomy—we stand upright, with protruding, muscular backsides that allow us to sit comfortably and run quickly—but also of our psychology. The desire to keep clean is an important part of who we are and how we think of ourselves. That desire has in turn been an important driver of social and technological change.

What did people use before toilet paper?

Over the last several millenia, people have used all kinds of tools to get the job done. Ancient Greeks used stones and shards of ceramic inscribed with the names of their enemies; Romans used bits of sea sponge fastened to sticks, which they stored in bowls of salt water.

Early toilet paper. Roman ceramic toilet paper.

These Ancient Greek ceramic ‘gaming pieces’ were a Roman equivalent to toilet paper.

Xylospongium. A history of toilet paper.

A major advancement over the Greek ceramic shards. The Xylospongium was an early Roman alternative to toilet paper; A sponge on the end of a stick.

 

In the 9th century CE, Tang Dynasty emperors began using large sheets of soft fabric to wipe. Five hundred years later, French aristocrats caught on to the idea, but used pieces of fine lace to get the job done. More recently, and more accesibly, corncobs, newspapers, Sears catalogs, phonebooks, and pages from unloved books of poetry were pressed into duty.

In the 14th century, 10 million packages of 1,000 to 10,000 sheets of toilet paper were manufactured every year in the Zhejiang province.

 When did TP usage as we know it begin?

It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that Joseph Gayetty, an American inventor, created the first commercially available toilet paper. Made of manila hemp—a versatile fiber derived from the leaf-stems of a species of banana tree—Gayetty’s Medicated Paper was a leading toilet paper brand until the early 1900s.


Joseph Gayetty, American inventor of the first commercially available toilet paper.

In the late 19th century, the Scott Brothers commercialized toilet paper made from trees. Unlike Gayetty’s banana leaves, trees required the use of harsh chemicals and huge amount of water to break down hard wood into soft paper. But with ready access to trees and little understanding of the deleterious effects of such chemicals on the human body—not to mention the planet’s ecosystems—the Scott Brothers forged ahead, eventually making their way into homes across America.

 

Our ideas about what it means to be clean have evolved, but our toilet paper has not.

More than a hundred years later, not much has changed. Toilet paper is still stuck in the early twentieth century. There’s been no meaningful innovation in the industry, except that it’s gotten all the more efficient at destroying old-growth forests—in other words, streamlining the tree-to-toilet pipeline.

Big TP brands don’t want to change.

Why so little innovation? Because the same small handful of big companies who’ve been making toilet paper the wrong way for 100 years are still running the show—including the Koch Brothers, who own Soft n’ Gentle, Quilted Northern, Angel Soft and Brawny. Cutting down forests is central to their business model, and they’ve shown no willingness to make meaningful changes.

There’s nothing clean about TP made from trees and bleach.

Making toilet paper from trees is an idea whose time should have long since passed. It simply doesn’t make sense to start with a fiber so strong it requires harsh chemicals—a gallon of them per roll—to turn it into paper, chemicals that end up in our bloodstreams and waterways. These chemicals, including bleach and formaldehyde, have been shown to enter the body through micro-cuts, causing UTIs, yeast infections, anal fissures, and hemorrhoids.

The fluffier and whiter your toilet paper, the more likely it is to contain high amounts of such chemicals.

If we think we’re taking good care of ourselves by buying fluffy, white, tree-based papers, we’re not. We’re wreaking havoc on our most precious environments. What feels soft in the hand isn’t soft on the body. And it doesn’t do the one job it’s meant for—helping us to stay clean and healthy. Not to mention the irreversible damage to the planet. 

There is a better way.

Made from a blend of soft, organic, fast-growing grasses—never from trees–PlantPaper is softer, stronger, and smarter. Made entirely without the use of bleaching agents and other harmful chemicals, PlantPAPER is a 21st century solution to an age-old problem. Featuring a signature embossed dot matrix pattern—silky on one side for dabbing, grippy on the other for grabbing—a 20% larger sheet size, and thick, absorbent, 3-ply FSC-certified bamboo, PlantPAPER keeps you clean and leaves no trace.

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