Coming Clean

The history of toilet paper is (insert your own joke here). Now, don’t you feel better? I have no doubt that you took the opportunity to make a dirty joke. While you were thinking up your joke you probably went to the bathroom, and so now you’re relaxed and paying attention. It’s what every writer wants: the most desirable reader is one who is relaxed and paying attention.

We don’t really pay much attention to toilet paper. It’s not something we think about very often. We buy it once a week or so, we use it every day, and we take it for granted. We experiment until we find one we like, and then we settle into that comfortable mindset of reaching out and finding the kind that handles our particular needs. If we are of an economic bent, we have also calculated some sort of cost/benefit ratio that fits our budget goals.

Measuring high on our calculus of well-being is sitting down on the throne and seeing a full roll in front of us; an annoyingly low score is when one perches on porcelain and notices that there are only a few squares left. Everyone knows the Seinfeld episode where Elaine gets caught in a movie theatre bathroom stall, one which suffers from a paucity of TP. Much to her chagrin, the occupant of the next stall cannot “spare a square” and won’t give her any. This leads to a tale of vengeance, which in the wrong hands could have been a very naughty pun indeed.

According to some sources, the Chinese, while searching for democracy, invented the early progenitor to toilet paper. Yan Zhitui, a 6th century “scholar/official,” wrote that any paper documents devoted to furthering human rights should be used instead to “wipe the bum clean of any such impurities.” In the picture above we see that this early toilet paper was little more than flat sticks. In a precursor to Communist Party privilege, high ranking officials enjoyed toilet paper sticks that had first been polished and perfumed by young girls, while commoners, intellectuals and other detritus were forced to use prickly rose stems.

Modern toilet paper comes in all sorts of patterns and colors, and in a variety of thicknesses. The good stuff is generally thicker and softer, while the cheap stuff is thin and scratchy. Back in the 1970’s, I was a young man back-packing through Europe. I travelled in a country that shall not be named, and had the misfortune to discover that the toilet paper used there was more like wax paper. Without going into too much detail let’s just say that its absorption parameters were less than desirable.

There are all sorts of novelty toilet papers on the market, some looking like money, disreputable newspapers or printed with the faces of out of favor politicians. In France the Union Jack is a popular toilet paper, while in the UK, the French blue/red/white “Tricolore” is a big seller. Someone I know wants to produce toilet paper imprinted with the face of her boss.

Commonly, one obtains a satisfactory length of toilet paper, and then, before it is put to use, the enthroned either wads it into a bunch or folds it into a square or a rectangle. A philosophical friend and I once engaged in an energetic discussion of people who were either “wadders” or “folders,” the former emerging as impatient types who were irrational and wasteful, while the latter were logical, organized and successful. The wadded mass of TP was a “one-time use only” solution, while a neat rectangle lended itself to refolding, and could be used for more than one pass; clearly folding is more advantageous.

I will make two more points, and then I will, as it were, put the matter behind me. First is the matter of orientation, or the question of ‘over’ or ‘under.’ According to statistics that I have just made up, 96.3% of all toilet paper in the US is mounted horizontally; the rest of the rolls are mounted vertically (?) or just left sitting on the floor. The decision regarding how the new roll will be mounted is not a random one; one is either an ‘over’ or ‘under’ person. If you install the roll so that the first new square comes down next to the wall (‘under’), then you do whatever your mother tells you to do, and you haven’t yet learned to think for yourself. If, on the other hand, you place the new roll on the roller so that the first new square comes down over and out towards you and is in plain view, you are a rational person who uses evidence and logic to make decisions.

If you follow the first method, you cannot see the next square, since it is hidden from view. You have to rotate the roll away from you so that the needed square moves down until it comes into your line of sight, some distance below the roll, and is almost always in shadow. In fact, you may have to rotate the roll quite a bit until the first square becomes visible, which wastes time. Next, in order to grab it, you must pinch one of the sheets against the wall, which is entirely unsatisfactory. Finally, you must hope that when you rip off a length it is what you want, because the rip line is out of sight and you don’t know what’s going on. Will it rip at the line I wish? Will it rip in an uneven manner, leaving me not only with tattered bits of TP in my hand, but also tattered bits left behind on the roll? This is just sad.

If you follow the second method, the ‘over’ method, then you can see the next square because it is clearly in plain view, in the light, and you can directly grab it. If the first square is not visible, then you make the positive motion of rolling it towards you instead of away from you; don’t you want the toilet paper to come to you? Then, when one has pulled out the desired length, one simply rips along the visible line, and voila! the defecator is ready to go.

It is plain to the meanest intelligence that the first method is negative while the second is positive. The former method is the embodiment of inefficiency and uncertainty, while the second method is the epitome of rationality, efficiency and control.

It should be clear which method I use.

The second and last item of importance to discuss is the matter of value and risk. As mentioned earlier, the toilet paper purchaser has much to choose from, and the rational purchaser takes cost into consideration. There are those who feel that the prudent choice is for single-ply TP, since it is the cheapest. This is a false economy.

My wife studied art history at college, earning a bachelor’s degree from Boston University, and she also did post-graduate work at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. Art history students bear the greatest burden because they have to carry the largest and heaviest books. Over the years she purchased and wore out a variety of bags. Finally she invested in a high quality leather bag by Coach. Yes, this cost more than the others, but it has outlasted all the cheaper bags by far.

When you prepare your wad or folded rectangle of toilet paper to plunge into battle, you decide, in essence, what caliber of weapon to use. If you use single-ply, it may require a half dozen or more sheets, sometimes many more. Indeed, some single-ply TP is so thin and delicate, an ephemeral gossamer, that the tiniest puff of air would blast it to bits. The tiniest molecule of moisture turns it to watery mush. Is this what you want? Or would you rather have the equivalent of Kevlar, a mighty and impenetrable shield to protect you and your loved ones from harm?

Here I will introduce the distasteful but crucial concept of Toilet Paper Failure (TPF). This is the unspeakably horrible situation when the toilet paper rips apart, and one’s finger passes from the neutral zone into the danger zone, contacting that which the toilet paper is to remove. This is too awful, too heinous to imagine, but it has happened to me. (It took a solid half hour of washing my hands over and over with very hot water and soap before I felt ready to rejoin the company of humankind.) By god, it will never happen to me again.

At our house we use a triple-ply TP, and three sheets are enough to provide a buttress of protection. I will not bore you with statistical details, like sheets per month, or cost per bathroom visit, but trust me when I say that I have calculated all that and more. It is cheaper to buy thicker TP, since the number of squares of thin single-ply needed to equal the stopping power of the thick stuff and prevent TPF is many times higher than the number of multi-ply squares required. It even takes more time and trouble to roll out those extra sheets of flimsy single-ply, so we are saving time and reducing both frustration and risk by using the thick stuff.

In the end, single-ply is simply a bad choice.

Much of my essay is aimed at those who buy toilet paper for chains of hotels or restaurants, or public places like airports, athletic stadiums or parks. So, if you do institutional purchasing of toilet paper, and you are one of the boneheads, the morons who buy the cheap, single-ply crap, think about what you’ve learned today. Buy instead the good stuff, the multi-ply stuff, to use in the bathrooms of your domain. Then I won’t have to assemble my elite squad (Toilet Paper Team 6),  and wrap your house with 4-ply.


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