Perhaps one of the signs that the pandemic was coming our way, well before we’d experienced lockdown, was the national crisis over toilet rolls. Not only was there ‘panic on the streets of London, panic on the streets of Birmingham’ (lyrics by the band, The Smiths), but there was panic in Helston too. Loo rolls were being pulled off the shelves as fast as the supermarket workers could stack them. From a local perspective, CornwallLive asked the question ‘why are people panic buying toilet roll?’ We were baffled about it in our household, and wondered if people perhaps were confused between coronavirus and norovirus…
When I walked through the museum with my Lockdown Lens, the stack of toilet rolls in the old shop caught my eye. I had never noticed them before, but the sight of them made me smile, and made me curious about the history of toilet paper, and my memories of toilet paper.
I can remember the crinkly toilet paper, something akin to baking parchment, packed in sheets in thin cardboard boxes. Probably something like the Jeyes on the shelves of the shop. I don’t remember it at home, but I do remember it as the paper of choice in the primary school I attended. I seem also to think that it was doubled up for brass rubbings, or maybe that is mere artistic licence?
At Uni, I lived in a house with two other girls, both called Karen. We were on a tight budget, but one of the things ‘History Karen’ insisted on was that we bought Andrex. Anything else, in her opinion, was false economy. I have to say, I’ve been loyal to the golden retriever ever since. And who doesn’t love the old TV adverts?
Until the looming threat of lockdown and the panic-buying, I can’t say that I’ve given toilet paper much thought. My friend in Sydney, where supplies really did get to critical levels, even had a spreadsheet to assess usage and supply levels. She didn’t run out, and I was never brave enough to ask what the alternatives might have been.
Toilet paper wasn’t mass produced in the western world until 1857, by Gayetty. Today, the average annual consumption per person is 5kg, according to the fascinating TissueWorld Magazine. Astonishing when something like 70% of the world doesn’t even use tissue. In Western Europe it’s nearer 16kg.
Perhaps one of my favourite social history links to toilet paper is the American Farmer’s Almanac. This publication has been going since 1818, but it is still printed today with a hole in the top-left corner, ready to hang on a nail in the outhouse. Back in the day, the farmers would just slam it against the wall.
When you’re next in the museum, peer into the old shop and look at the display of toilet paper. Perhaps you will remember some of these facts, or recall some of your own memories.
We’d love to hear about them.
Citizen Curator Volunteer