What came first, Paper for Printing or for the Toilet?

July 8, 2020

Since COVID-19 struck like a venomous cobra killing thousand daily, toilet paper has become a very popular item in the United States and from what I am learning, the world.

March through May, I didn’t see much Costco toilet paper at the store where I shop. That started to change in June, and on Wednesday, June 17, 2020, I saw more of Costco’s Kirkland brand toilet paper in one place than I have ever seen before.

The Costco I shop at added more storage at the back of the store for toilet paper on the heavy metal shelves the chain uses that soar 30 feet from the floor to the ceiling.  At the checkout stand, I asked the clerk if that mountain of toilet paper was enough to satisfy demand, and she said, those shelves had to be filled three times a day to keep up.

The pandemic is in its fourth month and demand for toilet paper doesn’t seem to be ending. What are shoppers doing with all the toilet paper they are buying, insulating their houses with it?

On the way home, I thought about the history of toilet paper. I already knew that China invented paper just like they did the printing press centuries before they both showed up in Europe, but what about TP.

History.com says, “Although paper originated in China in the second century B.C., the first recorded use of paper for cleansing is from the 6th century in medieval China, discovered in the texts of scholar Yen Chih-Thui. In 589 A.D, he wrote, ‘Paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from the Five Classics or the names of sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes.’

“By the early 14th century, the Chinese were manufacturing toilet paper at the rate of 10 million packages of 1,000 to 10,000 sheets annually. In 1393, thousands of perfumed paper sheets were also produced for the Hongwu Emperor’s imperial family.

“Paper became widely available in the 15th century, but in the Western world, modern commercially available toilet paper didn’t originate until 1857, when Joseph Gayetty of New York marketed a ‘Medicated Paper, for the Water-Closet,’ sold in packages of 500 sheets for 50 cents. Before his product hit the market, Americans improvised in clever ways (don’t ask).”

Why did it take more than five hundred years for toilet paper to reach Europe and the United States from China?

I wonder if China had a toilet paper shortage like we did in the U.S. after the Chinese learned about COVID-19, and first warned the world on December 31, 2019. I found one answer dated in February from the South China Morning Post reporting that in Hong Kong there was a fear driven rush to buy all the toilet paper one could drag home.  Guo Yukuan, a senior researcher with the China Society of Economic Reform, a state-backed think tank, said the panic buying was irrational. “This is purely driven by panic and stress,” Guo said. “China’s production capacity [for toilet paper] can supply not just Hong Kong but the whole world.”

Next time, before you flush, thank the Chinese for inventing toilet paper.

Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine, Crazy is Normal, Running with the Enemy, and The Redemption of Don Juan Casanova.

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