Column: An ode to toilet paper, elusive friend, until we meet again

Veni Fields [Courtesy]

VIRGINIA BEACH — If anyone had told any of us at New Year’s that we would be discussing on a global level one of our most intimate purchasing habits without even blushing about it …  

But strangely, here we are.

Enter a nanosized invader whose magnified image recalls World War II sea mines, and, poof, a star is born. 

So is an unexpected equalizer. 

For some of us, the worldwide toilet paper wipeout hits a little too close to home.

If TP had a voice, I imagine it singing Toby Keith: “How do you like me now?”

I never thought about it much, but I always liked TP just fine. I am loath to think I ever took it for granted. Times change, and you realize a few things.

It’s safe to call what recently happened to me – and to a lot of others – one of the most humbling experiences of my adult life. 

There I stood in a Harris Teeter paper product aisle just before the pandemic became a pandemic, looking straight at a nice big package of small white rolls, thinking about the rumors of what might come.  

Get an extra pack, I told myself. Just in case. Then I told myself not to be ridiculous and headed to the dairy aisle. Hindsight.

In a couple of weeks, my normal supply went from eight rolls to six. Then three. Then one. 

Approaching the inevitable, considering alternatives, I tried – and failed – to console myself with the fact that TP hasn’t always been around, that there are places in the world today where water, not paper, is preferred. We don’t even have to bring up what has been – and in some places still is – used instead of either.

Here is a quick, Wiki-aided history that isn’t too disturbing:  

Apparently, the first recorded use of paper for delicate purposes was in parts of Asia in about the sixth century, with mass production taking place around the late 1300s. 

A modernish source for this factoid is Science & Civilization in China, a series about ancient China.

In the U.S., credit goes to New York inventor Joseph C. Gayetty for the first commercially produced toilet paper in 1857, which consisted of moistened sheets he called “therapeutic paper” and came 500 in a package. 

So says, which is a website that really exists.

Those sheets, which came flat, were watermarked with their inventor’s name. 

Let that soak in for a moment.

Another crafty New Yorker, Seth Wheeler, obtained a patent for the roll and dispenser in 1883, both of which were mass marketed by the Scott Paper Company in 1890. 

But wait. The first “splinter-free” TP didn’t arrive until 1935, courtesy of the Northern Tissue Company, now known as Quilted Northern, and part of Georgia-Pacific, one of the leading manufacturers of the product today.

I consider splinter-free a key advancement in TP technology. 

Since I brought all this up, I happen to be a Scott girl.

I grew up on a farm with a septic tank that was installed at some point between when the homestead was built as a nursing home in 1864 and 1945, when my grandparents bought it. 

Scott was thin, so it went well with the septic system and children who tended to wad. Too much of anything in those old pipes meant we were forced to endure what my grandfather called the “Company B,” the outhouse behind the barn, until whatever clogged things up was fished out by Arnold the Plumber, who always took days to fix the problem and caused my grandmother no end of grief.

Whenever Grandma tried something pink or blue and new and fluffy, we ended up needing Arnold the Plumber, so call it tradition. It’s been Scott and me ever since.

Until a couple of weeks ago, that is, when the pandemic caused the Great 2020 TP Global Hoarding Event. 

I hadn’t stocked up, and the inevitable happened. TP aisles in a 20-mile radius were empty, and Amazon was so sorry for the inconvenience, but there was none there, either. 

I was mortified. I had to ask about TP online.

But then I was shocked. And touched. 

While my notifications were blowing up with sightings and offers of extra rolls people had on hand, my doorbell rang. There stood my next-door neighbor with a nine-pack of bathroom manna from heaven. She had seen my post.

I burst into tears. It was partly relief, but it was also the kindness of good people all around me in a bizarre and scary time, where our emotions and our attention are batted around like ping pong balls. None of us know how to do this whole pandemic thing because none of us ever have done it before.

Another historical side note: This isn’t the first time TP has gone missing on a national scale. The last time was in 1973. 

It occurred during a meat shortage that coincided with a fuel shortage, spurred by an oil embargo that October by the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries. Writers for the Johnny Carson late night show picked up a line by a Wisconsin congressman, Harold Froehlich, who had issued a statement quipping, “The next thing we’re gonna have to worry about is a potential toilet paper shortage.”  

Carson had 20 million viewers. The rest is history. 

As this will someday thankfully be.

I have learned a couple of valuable lessons, as maybe we all have. And I have a new appreciation for Mr. Whipple, the advertising giant and grocery store manager who admonished shoppers for 20 years in TV ads, “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin!”  

He’s back, bespectacled and with his eternal cheeky grin, as if nothing has changed. Oh, but it has. He’s a meme now. You may have seen him. 

Mr. Whipple 2.0 shows up with three bold words beneath the package he lovingly holds and taunts us with a question from another Toby Keith song that the TP-deprived have come to appreciate in a whole new way. 

“Who’s your daddy?”

Fields is a contributor to The Independent News. Her joiurnalism has appeared in The Virginian-Pilot and other publications.

© 2020 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

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