The Most Ephemeral of Paper
By Diane DeBlois
I know I'm not alone in having formed a collection of toilet papers over the course of my first European travels in the 1960s. This was before the soft, bleached white sheets-separated-by-perforations-on-a-roll American style was as widespread as today; when there were gritty or shiny, slippery or crisp versions of folded or single sheets dispensed in odd ways in public lavatories in England, France, Italy, Greece.
As with much else, the first toilet paper was developed by the Chinese some 1500 years ago. The first commercial product in the United States appears to have been introduced in 1857 by Joseph Gayetty. Seth Wheeler of Albany, New York, obtained the first patents (for perforating paper in 1871, for perforated paper on a cardboard tube in 1883) and first marketed toilet paper in a roll in 1877.
Wheeler's Albany Perforated Wrapping Paper Company dominated the market into the early 20th century, in part because of their successful packaging. Illustrated is a flyer with images of boxes of a year's supply of toilet paper in either sheets or rolls. Individual rolls or packets were also in protective wrappers. An accompanying form letter and sample was aimed at wholesalers, offering to provide a year's supply gratis (worth one dollar) to prove the superiority of the product. "Assuming that in common with many others who have written us, you have found it difficult to obtain toilet paper of satisfactory quality, we wish to call attention to the enclosed sample of our A.P.W. brand. You will, no doubt, agree with us when we state that it is the finest toilet paper on the market." It’s worth pointing out that, true to the American penchant for excess, we now consume on average twice the amount of toilet paper quoted in 1904.
In 1894, Wheeler's 1871 patent was upheld by the Supreme Court against the claims of Oliver Hewlett Hicks of the Morgan Envelope Company, who had patented toilet paper holders designed to hold his oval rolls of perforated tissue. This legal precedent continued to be cited as evidence that gadgetry was not patentable. My own toilet paper is dispensed by one of these Morgan Envelope Company of Springfield, Massachusetts, devices -- leased to Harmony Mills. The cast iron face is embossed with three patent dates, the most recent: July 28, 1898. The design accommodates the standard modern paper roll, rather than Hicks' oval, but the roll is cleverly trapped in the holder until finished and the cardboard tube revealed so that it can be torn apart, and the release mechanism activated for a new roll -- a foil for paper thieves!
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