How the toilet paper habit can grow, and why India will remain a challenge
In Richard Smyth’s rather excessively droll history of toilet paper he notes the problems that its first manufacturers had in marketing their products.
The palace had not been properly used for decades, but was still perfunctorily maintained and fully furnished. It was all rather ghostly – and in one instance rather bizarre. Inside the bathrooms, next to the toilets, there were still boxes branded Jeyes Toilet Paper filled with pristine, but yellowing sheets.
It was a glimpse of a product very intimately linked to the British Empire. Jeyes was founded in 1875 and became famous for its disinfectant cleaning fluid, receiving a Royal Warrant to supply the British Royal Family in 1896. It is still around, though only making cleaning fluids now.
Toilet paper was seen as an extension of disinfection. In Richard Smyth’s rather excessively droll history of toilet paper he notes the problems that its first manufacturers had in marketing their products. Joseph Gayetty, who is generally credited with introducing dedicated toilet paper in the USA in 1857, sold it as ‘medicated paper’ with the vague suggestion that it would help with haemorrhoids.
Despite scepticism, the product soon caught on and there are many discreet classified ads in the Times of India in the late 19th century for recently imported consignments of medicated paper. It wasn’t till 1935 that the paper ran a small write up: “Now that the days when the bathrooms were thought too unimportant to be attractively planned and painted are passing, it is becoming increasingly necessary to plan every little detail with forethought…”
After this slightly embarrassed introduction, the article finally described the product: “This is an attractive toilet box made of white porcelain so constructed that it holds a whole packed of Jeyes Toilet Paper, and delivers each sheet automatically…. Easily kept clean and bright it is an attractive addition to the equipment of any modern bathroom.”
A toilet paper holder seems unremarkable today, yet as Smyth’s book reminds us, it was a minor revolution to display toilet paper openly. In the early days all kinds of concealing contraptions were created: “One particularly charming example was ‘Madam’s Double Utility Fan, which had a hidden compartment in its handle (pay attention, 007) containing one hundred and fifty sheets of toilet paper cut to fit the fan’s shape.”
The use of paper itself was not new. The Chinese, who invented paper used it for cleaning as well, as the great Arab traveller Ibn Battuta noted with some disgust. This was a new addition to the variety of substances humans have used for cleaning, from leaves, sponges, cloth, sand and stones to the more exotic, like mussel shells and corn cobs.
Smyth’s book notes that reticence on the subject has made tracing a clear history of personal hygiene hard, but as paper became more widespread the references pick up. Often it’s in a pejorative context, with writers claiming to use the publications of rivals for this purpose. Another theme is recycling of works used for reading in the toilet, though obviously this was restricted to those who could easily, and carelessly afford such reading matter.
The increasing cheapness of printing, particularly for commercial purposes, helped consolidate this use in the 19th century. Famously in the USA the catalogue printed by the Sears, Roebuck company for their mail order business, was handily reused for this purpose. Another almanac apparently even came with a pre-punched hole from which to hang it in the toilets.
Gayetty’s innovation was to use paper made only for this purpose. He was particularly keen to suggest potential problems from print: “Printer’s ink is a rank poison,” his early advertising warned, playing on fears of toxins connecting with intimate body parts. This idea of the purity of plain toilet paper was to become a major selling point for the product.
But the embarrassment associated with the product remained and, as with so many other products (like sanitary napkins) it took the crises of wars to change it. Military authorities had noted how crammed conditions in army camps lead to outbreaks of infection, and concluded that improved personal hygiene was needed. In 1905 the US Surgeon General declared that “the issue of toilet paper is now authorised where posts have sewer connections.”
That point about sewers was another reason why toilet paper usage grew. Paper clogged sewers had long been a problem, often requiring users to dispose of the paper in bins rather than down toilets. But development of better drainage and thinner toilet paper allowed easier disposal. In a letter to a friend in 1938 George Orwell gave an unexpected endorsement: “The best to use is Jeyes paper which is 6d a packet. The difference of price is negligible, and on the other hand a choked cesspool is a misery.”
American soldiers became major proponents for paper. In Nicholas Basbanes’ history On Paper: The Everything of its Two-Thousand Year History he writes of a World War II chaplain “who had gone through the pockets of ten Americans killed in battle had found more packets of toilet paper than any other item.” Americans also got more: “The British army stocked toilet paper on the assumption that the soldier would use three sheets a day; the American ration was twentytwo and a half sheets.”
The history of toilet paper shows how the habit can grow, though India would seem likely to remain a challenge. Our preference for water over paper has been so strong that stories are common about the problems Indians encounter abroad. Toilet paper was a sign of foreign tastes, as in Faluknama which was built in the 1890s to the highest standards of Western luxury.
For Indians toilet paper remained as awkward as it was in its early days abroad. A few rolls might be kept for foreign guests, or Westernised relatives visiting from abroad, but hidden away in bathroom cupboards until absolutely needed.
Buying them was also awkward, with retailers stocking them, if they did at all, in remote corners of their shops. In shopping baskets they had to be piled over with other products, which was a bit of chore given their unmistakable and bulky shape. And not a few people avoided buying them at all, instead swiping rolls that were left out in hotels, restaurants or offices.
India’s awkward relationship with toilet paper is one reason why it’s been made a joke in the recently released film Blackmail where Irrfan Khan’s character works for a company selling it. The company’s owner is evangelical about converting India from water to paper, delivering dialogues like “Jet spray, typical middle class invention... it’s disgusting! Aim hi karte raho.” and “The third World War will be fought for water and the only thing that will save it is toilet paper.”
Real life manufacturers seem hopeful the change will happen. Writing in Tissue World magazine in 2016 Sumit Khanna, the chief executive of New Delhi based Beeta Tissues, wrote (of all paper tissue products): “A little less than a dozen new paper mills have emerged in the last three years increasing the installed capacity to approximately 200,000 tonnes.” Depending on the region, he notes, the tissue market in India was growing at 20-25% annually.
Khanna starts his piece by talking about the bright prospects for India under Narendra Modi, and makes the connection with tissue usage when he writes that: “With the country inviting Foreign Direct Investment and a conducive environment which is getting generated for business activities, there is a sharp increase in the number of offices.” This, he feels, will increase usage of products like hand tissues in the Away from Home sector.
It might work with toilet paper as well, but whether this will be instead of water remains to be seen. The water shortages that often afflict large complex complexes could certainly increase use of wet wipes, and in that way increase familiarity with paper products in general. But against the hopes of Khan’s boss in Blackmail, it’s also possible that Indians could end up doing both, using both paper and water for ensured hygiene.
The one problem with this scenario is the potential environmental impact. Direct use of water might be criticised, as in that Blackmail dialogue, but the fact is that tissues represent a huge amount of water as well. As Basbanes describes, water is consumed producing the wood that is pulped to make them, and then the production process is hugely water intensive as well.
Manufacturers have been trying to source wood from sustainable and recycled sources – Khanna notes that the new Indian mills mainly use the latter. Yet the production will remain water intensive and so the question will remain as to what is best: just water, as in the traditional Indian way, or paper, which in a sense is concealed water usage, or both – but would that then be the worst solution of all?