Toilet paper debate is over, and 'over' wins 2015.11.25


Were you one of the many Facebook users who received a message a while back from a friend that was about something important for a change? Instead of an invitation to play some new time-wasting game or the latest Kardashian family news, it settled an argument that’s been going on for generations: Which is the proper way to hang a roll of toilet paper? With the paper coming over the top of the roll or from under the bottom?

A patent application from 1891 settles the question, at least for those of us who favor the paper coming over the top. Seth Wheeler, who some call the father of modern toilet paper, received a patent that year for a toilet paper roll with tear-off sheets.

 The drawings submitted with Wheeler’s application clearly show the paper coming over the top of the roll. Since the Patent Office approved the patent on December 22 of that year, that can be considered the seal of approval on the proper way to hang the roll. After all, nobody ever got a patent for hanging the paper in what must now be called the wrong way.

Wheeler, who went on to receive patents for a multi-roll toilet paper holder and a process to decorate the paper with a diamond pattern, was the owner of the Albany Perforated Wrapping Paper Company. The New York firm became the first to sell toilet paper on a roll.

According to Wikipedia, paper was first used for the same purpose as modern toilet tissue as early as the 6th century AD in China, with paper manufactured specifically for that particular use in the 14th century. Toilet paper was produced commercially in the United States beginning in 1857, with a patent for a roll-based dispenser being granted in 1883. Wheeler’s invention and patent came along eight years later, and the “over or under” debates probably started shortly after that time.

Some countries can’t even decide what to call what we refer to as toilet paper or tissue. Names such as “bum wad,” “loo roll/paper,” “bog roll,” “toilet roll,” “dunny roll/paper,” “arsewipe,” and several other terms I won’t even try to get past the editor are among those being used elsewhere.

Prior to paper coming into popular use, wealthy people used wool, lace or even hemp for wiping purposes, according to Wikipedia. Poorer folks used “rags, wood shavings, leaves, grass, hay, stone, sand, moss, water, snow, maize, ferns, many plant husks, fruit skins, seashells and corncobs, depending upon the country and weather conditions or social customs.” I’m sure I’m not the only one thanking Seth Wheeler at this point. 

Toilet paper itself has been changing over the last 20 years. Colored paper, once available in hues such as pink, lavender, purple, green, beige and lighter shades of blue, green and yellow, has all but vanished from the United States, but is still available in parts of Europe.

Another change that affects all users is the continued shrinkage in the number of sheets on a roll and even the size of the sheet itself. For many years, the standard size of a sheet was 4 1/2” x 4 1/2”. In 1999, Kimberly-Clark reduced the length of a sheet and most manufacturers followed.

 Later, the width was also reduced, leaving the sheet size of most brands at 3.7” long and 4.1” wide, a reduction of 25% in total sheet size. If you find yourself using more sheets than you used to, that might be the cause. It certainly had to have increased sales to those planning to decorate homes, trees and cars with toilet paper. Although paper manufacturers don’t officially condone this use of their product, I haven’t noticed any of them criticizing the activity, either.

And finally, back to that “over or under” debate. Most people seem to prefer the paper oriented the way they grew up with, continuing the ways of their ancestors. This isn’t a problem until someone preferring one way marries into a family that prefers the other. Then, it’s fun to listen to the arguments. Surveys show the “over” method is the choice of 60 to 70 percent of consumers. The rest obviously never saw Seth Wheeler’s patent application.

I think that’s enough on toilet paper for today. Now, if we could only do something about that creepy British woman in the Cottonelle commercials who is always urging people to “go commando.” I’d prefer she just go away.