The Wipe Out: Corona Virus and Toilet Paper

How an everyday item makes us feel better about the uncertain future.

Photo by hermaion from Pexels

I never thought very deeply about toilet paper until the Corona virus, when this simple everyday object unexpectedly took center stage. Not only did I know next to nothing about the Corona virus, but I didn’t really know anything about toilet paper, either.

What was it about the panic of Corona virus that compelled people to pull plush marshmallow bricks of toilet paper off the shelves? There is an element of the absurd, the darkly comic about the premise. There is virtually no relationship between the virus and toilet paper — not even a hint that maybe it would cause an inconvenient loose stool at the wrong moment that would necessitate a large amount of toilet paper. (Toilet paper for Cholera, at least, would have made rational sense.)

I needed to understand toilet paper. And to understand toilet paper, I needed to look back to the past. How did we even begin using this stuff?

It’s saddening that we’ll likely connect China with Corona virus, rather than their vast an rich cultural history, but we may have them to thank for toilet paper.

According to Wikipedia, “…the first documented use of toilet paper in human history dates back to the 6th century AD, in early medieval China. In 589 AD the scholar-official Yan Zhitui (531–591) wrote about the use of toilet paper.

Toilet paper, it seems, wasn’t just a fluke or a passing fad, but in China to stay. “It was recorded in 1393 that an annual supply of 720,000 sheets of toilet paper was produced for the general use of the imperial court at the capital of Nanjing.”

Don’t ask about what less royal people did. Materials gathered from wood chips, plants, or even stone or seashells — or corncobs! All these were up for grabs. It’s like trying to imagine a world where you supply your bathroom from an arts and crafts store. Ancient Romans preferred a “sponge on a stick” soaked in salt water or vinegar. I used to wonder why so many of the statues and portraits of people in the past were so serious, and now I know: because everyone was wincing from their latest trip to the bathroom.

It would not be until centuries later in 1857 when Joseph Gayetty would begin producing toilet paper on a grand scale for the masses, called Gayetty’s Medicated Paper. (No doubt, a vast improvement over the Roman version “Medicated Sponge On A Stick.”) This early iteration of toilet paper was not without its hazards, and needed time to evolve into the more luxurious paper our pampered heinies know today. Advertisements touted competing toilet paper as “splinter free”. (Imagine ordering your toilet paper using a sandpaper grit measurement.)

With fear of splinters and a desire for cheap product, the free Sears and Roebuck catalog had been the toilet paper de rigeur, so much so that it was common for it to be printed with a hole in one corner so it could be hung in “water closets.” The advent of indoor plumbing changed everything. With more advanced and delicate septic systems for home owners, tough toilet paper needed improvement.

Enter Charmin.

According to Mental Floss, “On the advice of its ad men, the company introduced a brand called Charmin and fitted the product with a feminine logo that depicted a beautiful woman. The genius of the company was that by evincing softness and femininity, the company could avoid talking about toilet paper’s actual purpose.

Here is the beginning of marketing for the modern era. The use of toilet paper and its necessity before this moment had always been tacitly understood. You only ever saw, or needed it, in the same space that a toilet itself would be. Each bathroom was like a trip to Las Vegas, and whatever happened in the bathroom, stayed in the bathroom.

But the advertising world, with Charmin’s brilliant advertising campaign, transferred the image of the fairly innocuous toilet paper roll into a completely different meaning. Now, it was no longer a tool used to clean a hidden and barely mentioned part of us after a hidden and barely mentioned act. They transferred it from the outhouse to a public space. They made it visible and gave it a face, a face of ultimate comfort: a woman, with all her feminine softness. Something we associate with home, with mother, with our most private moments.

A place that makes us feel safe, and cared for.

CNBC spoke to experts to discuss the how and the why of people mass buying toilet paper to defend themselves against an invisible virus. In their interview with Dmitrio Tsivrikos, he says “toilet paper has become an ‘icon’ of mass panic… People are drawn to the large packaging that toilet paper comes in when they are looking to regain a sense of control.”

And why does it provide us with that sense of control? Is it as easy as believing it’s merely an affect of “shopping therapy?”

In the safe confines of a small bathroom, where the space is clearly defined, where most of our associations come from childhood, where a comforting parent is waiting right outside the door, it is toilet paper that awaits us in our greatest moment of relief.

Is it any surprise, that when we feel at our most vulnerable, we are reaching for the prop that makes our fantasy of safety complete?

The inimitable roll of toilet paper, of course.