A Square to Spare
Roll Out the Charmin
By Deborah Salomon
When all is said and done, when the tragedies have subsided and coronavirus has faded, this icon of the pandemic will survive: toilet paper.
Raise a glass to Quilted Northern. Chisel Charmin in marble. Curtsey to Cottonelle. Whatever happened to Kimberly-Clark’s Delsey, the industry standard for decades?
Whichever you choose, don’t call it “paper.” The correct appellation: bath tissue. I could not find a single brand bearing the word “toilet,” either.
My first reaction to the shortage was . . . what genius predicted it and started hoarding? Pre-hurricane, pre-snowstorm and pre-asteroid collision, bottled water, milk, bread and diapers disappear from shelves. Yet threatened with a lockdown, somebody thought: Wait a minute; no office or school, restaurant or store restrooms. Boo-hoo for the loo. In other words . . . going, going, gone. That prognosticator then multiplied homebound persons by five or so daily “gos,” calculated how many sheets per visit per gender, tossed the calculator and dashed to Walmart.
Math wasn’t my favorite subject. But whatever the, er, bottom line, the solution was HOARD.
The second mystery was the shortage itself. Manufacturers assured a panicked population that their stockpile had not been . . . wiped out. Truck drivers weren’t on strike. The raw materials needed to produce reams were plentiful. Yet not until late June were stores, uh, flush with supply.
Peanut butter a-plenty. Ditto PopTarts. Two-ply, scarce.
Right about now I usually investigate the history of my subject, for perspective. I did. You don’t want to know. Not even the Romans with their public latrines and marble residential potties had TP. Paper, remember, was a highly prized commode-ity reserved for manuscripts. By the 14th century the Chinese produced scented paper wipes for Imperial tushes. But not until 1857 did American Joseph Gayetty market “medicated paper for the water closet,” exorbitantly priced at 50 cents ($16 today) for 500 folded sheets. The first rolls appeared about 1890, initiating that still-unsolved conundrum: pull from under or over?
Since then, the industry has spun off more flavors than Oreos.
Remember the swipin’ ’70s when TP was a décor item? Colors ranged from violet to blue to green before being discontinued when dyes were cited as irritants. Prints included flowers, bunnies, stars. Etsy still offers custom messages and seasonal imprints, including “Hap-pee Holidays.”
Which reminds me: In 1970, while touring the Tower of London, I experienced the results of English tea overconsumption. A guard pointed me to the nearest WC. Not only did the TP (in folded sheets, from a dispenser) feel like waxed paper but upon it was imprinted some royal seal. Then, in 1994, The Grateful Dead played a concert near the Vermont town where I lived. We were warned: Deadheads would swarm the environs, stay for weeks, sleep in parks, beg for grilled cheese sandwiches, smoke weed and steal toilet paper from public restrooms.
Why, nobody could figure out — for a while.
Presently, the emphasis is on quality, although I’m torn between very soft and very strong. Aren’t they the same? And do we need such explicit TV ads, usually around dinnertime? Sure, the cheeky Charmin bears look cute, but their app for bathroom games and Pooptastic emojis are rather . . . execrable.
This is a certainty: Squishy mega-rolls of snowy whiteness likened to clouds and kittens will forever remind Americans of the virus that sickened and killed millions worldwide.
A real bum-mer. PS
Deborah Salomon is a writer for PineStraw and The Pilot. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.