Coronavirus starts a toilet paper run in North America 

Toilet paper
image via

Washing your hands often, not toilet paper, is the best way to avoid coronavirus, according to WHO.

Asians and Africans generally use water. Rich Romans favored rose water soaked wool. And much of the Western world has turned to paper to clean up for some 150 years.

No wonder worldwide panic over COVID-19 has sent North Americans rushing to stock up on toilet paper even though World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines don’t say anything about it.

In fact, washing your hands often with soap and water is the best way to avoid the dreaded coronavirus, according to WHO.

But in the mad rush to stock up on cleaning supplies, people have stolen face masks from hospitals, hoarded hand sanitizers and then dashed to buy toilet paper rolls.

“Many store shelves across Canada and the United States have been stripped bare of TP, as though it will soon be worth its weight in gold,” as Global News put it.

“Retailers in the US and Canada have started limiting the number of toilet paper packs customers can buy in one trip,” according to CNN.

Toilet paper and paper towels are one of the top six products being stocked by Canadians, according to  Dig Insights, a Toronto-based market research and analysis company. The other five being Dry Goods, Soap, Canned Food, Sanitizing Wipes and Hand Sanitizer.

ALSO READ: How India lover Elizabeth Schneider survived dreaded coronavirus (March 12, 2020)

While rush for toilet paper, of all things, is quite understandable in today’s world, one wonders what people did before TP became an everyday essential.

People down the ages have found innovative ways to wipe themselves from using water to salt soaked sponges to balls of sheep’s wool.

“Patrons of public restrooms in ancient Rome used a sponge soaked in salt on the end of a stick,” according to an article published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology.

“Wealthy Romans favored balls of wool soaked in rose water,” said the article titled Toilet Tissue. “During the Viking age in England, balls of discarded sheep’s wool were also used.”

Even today, several Asian and African countries use water for cleaning purposes. The concept of using toilet tissue is considered inappropriate.

The history and invention of toilet paper, however, is interesting in its own way. I would start by introducing the invention of flushing water toilet, then paper and then toilet paper, as this was how things unfolded over the centuries.

Flushing water toilet
The toilet that we use today was not invented in a single effort but evolved in design over centuries. Several small modifications were made one at a time.

Many people often associate Sir Thomas Crapper, a British plumber born in 1836 and who built toilets for Queen Victoria, with the invention of flushing water toilet. Apparently, this is a myth.

A research article “Man And Myth – Behind Sir Thomas Crapper, ‘Inventor’ Of The Toilet’”, clears the mist, thus: “In her account of the development of the toilet, Lillian Thomas supports the idea of gradual evolution with descriptions of archaeological finds.

“She does not mention any inventors, but writes about ancient Egyptian toilet pans, a sewage system in Crete that was constructed in 3000 BC, and a Chinese toilet from the Han Dynasty that had a seat and used running water.”

Otherwise too, flushing toilets have been around for several years and to limit the invention to the 19th century does not sound correct.

Toilet Tissue attributes the invention of the first flush toilet to Sir John Harrington “a godson of Queen Elizabeth,” in 1596 noting it’s “a distinction often attributed to the plumber Thomas Crapper.”

Invention of paper
The invention of paper goes back to about a couple of thousand years ago when “a Chinese official named Ts’ai Lun came up with a way to make lightweight sheets for writing and drawing that was much quicker and much less expensive,” according to ‘Make: Paper Inventions’ published by Make: Community.

This invention, however, was kept secret from the outside world for about a thousand years. “It wasn’t until the invention of the mechanical printing press – centuries after the Chinese developed printing – that people in Europe accepted the idea that paper was the wave of the future,” the ebook elaborates.

Invention of toilet paper for royals and commoners
Reading from research papers, it seems as if the invention was kept for the elite, at least at the beginning.

Toilet Tissue goes on to explain this, too: “In 1391, the Chinese Bureau of Imperial Supplies began producing 720,000 sheets of toilet tissue per year for the emperor. Each sheet measured 2 X 3 ft.”

Interestingly, it was not until 1857 that a first tissue was packaged for the use in toilets, according to Toilet Tissue.

Produced by Joseph Gayetty in New Jersey,  this first tissue was “called ‘The Therapeutic Paper’ because it contained an abundance of aloe that was a curative addition.”

The highly commercial form of the paper roll for toilet purposes of the commoners did not come until the late 19th century and early 20th century.

“The Scott Paper Company, in 1880, was the first company to produce and manufacture a tissue on a roll specifically for use as toilet tissue,” Toilet Tissue noted.

“In 1896, Scott discarded the private labels and became the first company to sell toilet paper under its own name.”

Looking at the chronology of the events, one may say that the popularity of indoor plumbing in 1900s, may have given a push for more ubiquitous use of toilet paper as a commodity.

The product was also suitable considering that it would not clog a toilet. Today, the toilet paper industry is worth billions of dollars.

“Globally, the tissue is the fastest-growing sector in the paper industry…The tissue sector is expected to grow almost 6 percent annually from 2018 to 2022,” according to the NRDC/ report The Issue with Tissue.

“The US tissue market generates $31 billion in revenue every year, second only to China, and Americans, who make up just over four percent of the world’s population, account for over 20 percent of global tissue consumption.”

And, August 26 is marked National Toilet Paper Day.

It is a separate story, though, as to how green is toilet paper. And helpful or not in fighting COVID-19, surely one can’t do without it today!


  1. Mohammad, it is not true! You are talking about some poor places you probably have seen. Middle class Indians do the same way the Japanese do. In good toilets, there will be a water spray faucet and liquid soap. Believe me, it is cleaner than using tissue paper.

  2. Mohammad Azharuddin

    India is a toilet. They have no toilets there. No one uses any sanitary products like toilet paper, hand wash, soap, etc. If anyone ever goes to India, they cannot go the entire time they are there and will have to immediately board the next flight back so they can go relieve themselves. They have cell phones but no toilets.

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