Quietly, while you weren’t looking, one of the deepest questions in human history has been answered.
It happened on Twitter, of course. Where else?
Chances are you have a strong opinion on this subject. You’ve probably fought with someone close about it. And now, at long last, a clear victor has emerged.
This news comes to us from Owen Williams, who seems to be more-or-less a normal guy. (His Twitter bio says he likes “learning and reading lots of things,” and that he’s a “writer, developer, tinkerer, and other stuff,” so, pretty much he’s like anyone these days.)
On May 16, 2015, Williams let loose the tweet that silenced a thousand arguments; Williams determined, once and for all, how to resolve the over-or-under toilet paper debate.
To be clear, this is the debate that has ended a million friendships: When hanging a new roll of toilet paper, should the loose sheet hang over or under the roll?
“The patent for toilet paper should settle the over vs under debate,” Williams tweeted over a picture of that fateful patent, which contained the plans for the most important invention of any era.
And, lo and behold, the toilet paper on the patent did roll forward, the loose end swooning over the front of the roll like a beautiful Victorian woman who accidentally saw someone’s ankle.
So there you have it, whether you use it in the bathroom, to TP the neighbor’s yard, or to create the latest in wedding dress couture– your paper should roll forward (or over).
Or should it? Surprisingly, the debate hasn’t been settled, as many under-rollers have fired back.
They argued, via Twitter (naturally), that the patent solved nothing, since it didn’t address the benefits of either rolling method. They ask, why should we let century-old patents play any role in our bathroom habits?
This is, of course, an absolutely ridiculous debate. We acknowledge this.
But since it was important enough to get Twitter’s attention (and since the debate still rages on), we decided that it was worth a bit of investigation.
We reached out to major toilet paper brands to see if they’d comment.
Bear with us, here, because the brands seemed extremely worried about offending their clientele. We pushed pretty hard (phrasing!), using all of our journalistic tricks to get answers, because hey, we’re thinking that this could be the piece that finally wins us a Pulitzer.
“There is no official position,” a representative of Charmin (who was obviously holding back laughter) tells Urbo. “It’s based on personal preference. It’s a really passionate debate, so we’re not going to go farther than that.”
Next, we reached out to Scott Products, and while a representative named Steven tells us that the company doesn’t have an official position, he notes that he personally prefers “over, not under, unless you have kids or cats that like to play with the roll.”
“When your kids start rolling it towards them, it won’t unroll if it’s under,” Steven says.
We had to ask: Given that clear advantage, why is “over” preferable? “For me, it’s more logical,” he says. “It should dispense over the top, like a waterfall.”
Even Cottonelle, a brand with a remarkably savvy marketing team, didn’t want to give us an official statement.
“If we weigh in, it would be personal opinion,” a representative of Cottonelle tells Urbo. “We don’t have an official position.”
Naturally, we pressed for the representative’s personal beliefs, since he clearly seemed to have an opinion.
“Over,” he says. “And I got that because years ago, they used to have prints. My father worked for a [toilet paper] manufacturer. The prints always looked better if rolled over. That is not an official position of Cottonelle.”
Brands have to play it safe. People take this issue very, very seriously.
We also reached out to Patrick Crowley, a self-described expert on toilet paper brands who occasionally writes for Toilet Paper World, a distributor industry blog. While he was initially confused—probably because people generally don’t call him in the middle of the afternoon with bizarre questions about hanging toilet paper—he eventually gave us a fairly strong statement.
“I’m in the ‘over’ camp,” Crowley says. “My wife is ‘over,’ too. If [the roll] were under, I’d probably switch it out. It just doesn’t look right.”
We asked Crowley whether he’d like to say anything to all of the under-rollers out there.
“Yeah,” he replies, “Get in line.”
Ouch. Well, the consensus is pretty clear; when pressed, people in the T.P. industry seem to prefer the “over” technique for aesthetic reasons, even if they concede that the “under” method provides some protection from pets and kids.
According to our sources, the pure beauty of a properly hung toilet paper roll is well worth the occasional mess.
But maybe there is something in that original patent application that could lend some additional insight.
Surprisingly, toilet paper wasn’t officially “invented” until the late 19th century.
What, you might ask, did people do before the invention of toilet paper?
According to Charmin, the technology dates back to the sixth century, when the Chinese used sheets of paper. Centuries later, in American households, outhouses were often stocked with Sears catalogs. An unsourced article on ThePlumber.com seems to support this claim, noting that Sears customers stopped using the publication in their outhouses when Sears switched to glossy paper (for obvious reasons that you probably shouldn’t think too hard about).
The big breakthrough in home tissue paper came when inventor Seth Wheeler decided to create tearable sheets of TP.
Wheeler filed his patent on Dec. 22, 1891, courtesy of Albany Perforated Wrapping Paper Company, the first business to sell perforated toilet paper.
However, it took a while to iron the kinks out of the plan.
Wheeler received his original patent for rolls of tearable toilet tissue back in 1871, but it took him another 20 years to get the darn thing right.
The 1891 patent that has been making the rounds on the internet lately was actually just for a minor improvement on the 1871 invention; the serration was clearly defined, allowing people to more-easily rip off a single square (as if anyone ever uses a single square).
Interesting side note: Back when Wheeler was ruling his sanitary kingdom, people called toilet paper “wrapping paper.” We don’t want to speculate on what exactly it was meant to be “wrapping,” but suffice it to say that this was the terminology.
With that said, consider this excerpt from Wheeler’s patent filing:
“My invention…consists in a roll of wrapping paper with perforations on the line of the division between one sheet and the next, so as to be easily torn apart, such roll of wrapping paper forming a new article of manufacture.”
Since Wheeler’s patent “settled” the Great Toilet Paper Debate, he’s enjoyed newfound, if posthumous, celebrity.
People are calling him “the inventor of toilet paper.” That’s nice, but it isn’t quite accurate.
Actually, Wheeler only perfected toilet paper. As we noted earlier, people in China used paper in the sixth century, although they’d often use whatever was available. Other contenders throughout history have included wood shavings, leaves, rocks, seashells, and, somehow, corncobs.
The ancient Romans, for instance, spiced things up by tying a sponge dipped in vinegar to a stick for easier access. (That’s why they ruled the world, at least until they didn’t). That’s not all they used though.
In 2012, anthropologist Philippe Charlier published a British Medical Journal article theorizing that flat stone discs displayed at the Fishbourne Roman Palace museum were not ancient Roman gaming pieces as was once thought. Instead, Charlier says the discs, which were excavated in 1960, were likely used as a primitive form of toilet paper.
Robert Symmons, curator of the museum’s collection, told The Telegraph, “When the article produced the theory they were used to wipe people’s bums, I thought it was hilarious and it just appealed to me … We hope the pieces will make people smile when they learn what they were used for.”
Symmons also noted, “They would have probably been quite scratchy to use … But in the Roman era, it was that or very little else.”
However, the Wikipedia page for toilet paper contains a wonderful note from Chinese scholar-official Yan Zhitui, who, in 589 A.D., wrote the following about choosing an appropriate paper:
“‘Paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from the Five Classics or the names of sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes.'”
The implication being, of course, that Yan Zhitui would use other paper for “toilet purposes.” So the ancients used corncobs, stones, paper, and more we all know which one won out.
We’re glad toilet paper won the evolutionary battle for the right to keep our unclean bits clean.
The toilet paper we know and love today goes back further than Wheeler, though.
It was a guy named Joseph Gayetty who really commercialized the stuff. “Gayetty’s Medicated Paper” hit the apothecary shops in 1857, when it claimed to be “the greatest necessity of the age.” No arguments here.
Gayetty’s first product was made out of Manila hemp paper, saturated with aloe. (Cottonelle does sell a similar product, but it doesn’t seem to be “saturated,” which is the key word.)
Nowadays we’re faced with any number of plys. You can even get toilet paper in multiple colors (black being a perennial favorite).
There are moist towelettes, medicated pads, and bidets, but we have yet to see a return to the glory days when toilet paper came in a stack, not on a roll, and every sheet was moist with aloe drippings.
On the other hand, gross.
Let’s not argue about who really invented toilet paper. And let’s not argue about which way to hang the roll; by all accounts, the “over” team wins.
But if you’re interested in more about Seth Wheeler, he seems to be operating a Twitter account from beyond the grave. Check out @SethWheeler1891 for pics of ancient bathroom accessories and a whole lot of tweets directly to famous people, essentially asking for publicity.
We may not have Gayetty’s aloe-infused toilet paper, but at least we have Twitter.