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The History Of Toilet Paper

10 November 2022

Jennie Hollingsworth

Toilet paper: the unremarkable product we all took for granted. The everyday item we never knew how fiercely we’d elbow aside our neighbour to get to. The run-of-the-mill object we could never imagine that, by its scarcity, would threaten to propel us back to the dark ages…


…until a certain age-defining event beginning with the letter ‘L’ (ssh! whisper it – lockdown) sent crowds scurrying, hunting, bulk buying, and stock piling large quantities of the sacred stuff to ensure its continued presence in their lives.


If the press photos, furious commentary, and supermarket ‘hold your fire’ cries about empty aisles and over-flowing trollies have shown us anything, it’s that toilet paper is a product that, in many countries, we neither will nor can do without. But for those of us who do use toilet paper (and in some parts of the world, we know this isn’t the case), has it always been a staple of our lives? Has toilet paper ever not existed? And if so, what came before? What about the future? With sustainability being high on our collective agenda, how do we safeguard the continuance of a product typically derived from cut-down trees.


Here phs Direct takes a deep dive into the world of our favourite essential item, toilet paper. And if you’re looking to source toilet paper supplies for your commercial business or organisation – look no further than our comprehensive range of products.


The invention of toilet paper


Although human beings have cleaned their bottoms for as long as they’ve walked this earth, “quilted”, ‘three-ply” and “ultra clean” weren’t always a hallmark of toilet hygiene. It was only following the industrial revolution that the first mass-manufactured, commercially packaged toilet paper became available. Many innovations have followed since, right up to our present day “silky soft” variety, yet in the past people relied on significantly less luxurious ways of cleaning their bums. Things such as leaves, moss, seashells, salt water, sponges, corncobs and newspaper have all been used throughout history and around the world to keep out rear-ends fresh.


Paper originated in China in the second century B.C., however its first use for cleansing wasn’t recorded until the 6th century. It was also the Chinese who first mass-produced what we could conceivably call toilet paper in 14th century, when it was created for the needs of the Chinese Emperor family and manufactured at a rate of 10 million packages of 1,000 to 10,000 sheets per year. However, it took the Western world until 1857, when industrialist John Gayetty marketed the first commercial “medicated paper for the water-closet”. Further innovations followed, such as the first perforated toilet paper to be sold on rolls in 1890, splinter-free toilet paper in 1935 and “two-ply” or layered paper appearing in 1942.


Today, the variety and choice of toilet paper available is vast, with several types of paper, embossed patterns, decorations, and textures, moistened or perfumed, colours, sizes, single-ply, two-ply, three-ply, and even four-ply all on offer.


What is toilet paper made of


Modern day toilet paper is mostly made from the bleached pulp of a combination of virgin hardwood and softwood trees. The main materials used to produce toilet paper include:


  • Hardwood tree pulp (e.g., oak, maple) – containing short fibres, which give the paper softness
  • Softwood tree pulp (e.g., fir, pine) – containing long fibres, which provide the paper strength
  • Chemicals for extracting fibre
  • Bleach (e.g., chlorine dioxide)
  • Water to soak the mixture and connect all the ingredients


How is toilet paper made


The trees are de-barked and shredded into chips, mixed with cooking chemicals, then fed into a big digester, which is essentially a large pressure cooker to break the woody material down into a fibrous pulp. The pulp is then cleaned and bleached to remove colour.


The pulp is mixed with water, and together the materials create a basic paper stock. The mixture is pressed onto a large screen, which drains off the water, leaving behind a nice white paper product. Large metal blades scrape the paper from the screen, and then the paper is spooled onto rolls. Finally, a machine cuts the rolls and perforates the paper


To advance decomposition of toilet paper once it is flushed, the paper used has shorter fibres than face tissues or writing paper. The manufacturer tries to reach the best balance between rapid decomposition (which requires shorter fibres) and strength (which requires longer fibres), hence using both hardwood and softwood trees.


How can toilet paper be eco-friendly?


Whilst toilet paper is made from renewable materials, it is nevertheless in high and growing global demand, with one tree producing about 800 rolls/180 kg of toilet paper, with around 83 million rolls being produced per day. Due to this environmental impact, companies are now looking at alternative ways to keep our bottoms clean.


Recycled toilet paper, such as that stocked by phs Direct, is becoming an increasingly popular alternative to paper made from virgin trees. It uses large bales of recycled office paper and newspaper, which is pulped and ink-removed before it is bleached and turned into toilet paper.


Toilet paper made from bamboo, stocked by phs Direct, is also gaining popularity as a sustainable alternative to using wood chips, and uses an identical production process to conventional toilet paper. Bamboo is a highly renewable resource that grows profusely throughout many parts of the world. It is the fastest-growing plant in the world and can grow almost one metre per day. Because it grows so quickly, bamboo can be replenished immediately after being used. As a result, the bamboo population can easily be maintained to avoid overconsumption.


At phs Direct, we offer a wide range of toilet paper products for your business’s needs, and our expert account managers can help you decide on what would best meet your requirements. Talk to our team to find out more.