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anne mikolay 2018As I social distance during Covid-19 and watch the world’s goings-on through my window, there’s one question that weighs upon my mind. It’s a mystery really, quite baffling. Why is American society suddenly preoccupied with toilet paper?

I don’t get it. Covid-19 is a respiratory virus. Why, then, is there a toilet paper panic? A run on toilet tissue would be understandable if all Middletown residents were scheduled for colonoscopies this week. Of course, that’s not the case, but toilet paper continues to disappear from supermarket shelves. There have been reports of intestinal symptoms early on with coronavirus, but extreme gastrointestinal distress and diarrhea are not common coronavirus symptoms, so why are people hoarding toilet paper? WHY?

While toilet paper may be necessary for the necessary (look it up), it is not necessarily the only item that can meet that particular necessary function. (Sorry...sentences like this are to be expected from a sheltering-in-place writer seeking amusement.) I digress. Back to the matter at hand, or at bottom, as it were. Sometimes, to comprehend our present, it helps to review the past. Let us then briefly review the evolution of bathroom etiquette.

Our very adaptable ancestors created new uses for the commonplace in their lives. (Spoiler alert: gross!) “Getting back to nature” was evidently the unspoken credo of the masses, who systematically employed leaves, grass, moss, corn cobs, petals, snow, sand, and rainwater for self-cleaning purposes. Our wealthier ancestors indulged in lace, animal fur, and cloth. Ancient Greeks utilized shards of clay or pottery, if you can believe that (it’s a wonder they could sit down!), and Romans favored shared sponges on a stick in communal toilets (it’s a wonder they wanted to sit down!). The first to use paper in the bathroom were the medieval Chinese. In the 14th century, the Chinese emperor issued a decree calling for bathroom paper measuring two feet by three feet (perhaps a communal item, or exclusively for a possibly large man).

Generally, people used paper, mostly magazines, for their personal cleaning purposes. The Sears catalog reportedly hung on hooks in outhouses across America. In 1857, New Yorker Joseph Hayetty produced the first commercially packaged toilet paper. Hayetty’s “Medicated Paper,” made of aloe infused hemp and priced at $12.00 for 500 sheets, did not exactly take the common market by storm. The Sears catalog remained far more economical! In 1871, entrepreneur Zeth Wheeler patented perforated toilet paper rolls. In 1890, the Scott brand followed and became popular with hotels, drug stores, and apparently, with my grandparents (Scott was the only brand my parents purchased). The introduction of indoor plumbing in the late 19th century and early 20th century demanded toilet paper that would not clog or damage pipes; the Hoberg Paper Company answered the need with their Charmin paper popularized by its softness. Toilet paper then emerged a necessity rather than a luxury in American households.

History shows the evolution of our personal cleaning products  from the natural to the manufactured. Manufacturing of toilet tissue continues. Hard-working truckers (shout out to each and every one!) keep the supermarkets stocked. Supermarket employees (shout out to them, too!) daily stock the shelves. Things run smoothly, perhaps a bit more slowly than usual, but continuously nonetheless...until we, the panicked consumers, step in and mess it all up.

I remain baffled. Why are people hoarding toilet paper? Are they driven by fear of long-term sheltering in place or the possibility of a sponge on a stick? All I know is there’s definitely a reason my dad referred to toilet paper as “the most important paper in the world.”

By the way, “the necessary” is a euphemism for the outhouse.