TP or not TP, that is the question

During the start of the coronavirus pandemic there were runs on certain items in the grocery store. Understandably, there were shortages of hand sanitizers and sanitizing wipes. What I struggled to understand were the runs on toilet paper.

I’ve traveled to several countries where toilet paper is scarcer than feathers on a fish and have been on month-long wilderness trips without many essential items including toilet paper. Me worrying about living without toilet paper is right up there with me worrying about how to live without the Kardashians.

If we can’t do without toilet paper during a pandemic, I worry whether we will be able to make any sacrifices in the next national crisis. Our parents and grandparents, sometimes called the Greatest Generation, made real sacrifices. During World War II the sacrifices ranged from serving in the military, to living with rationed items like sugar, meat, fats, cheese, butter, gasoline and coffee. We complain about the price of gasoline …imagine it not even being available. Imagine not being able to consume unlimited coffee. And we think toilet paper is something to worry about?

Although paper originated in China in the second century B.C., the first recorded use of paper for keeping our bums clean 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 … I dare not use for toilet purposes.”

In the western world toilet paper is a relatively new phenomenon. Paper became widely available in the 15th century, but modern commercially available toilet paper didn’t appear until 1857, when Joseph Gayetty of New York marketed “Medicated Paper, for the Water-Closet.” Before Gayetty’s product came on the market Americans improvised in ingenious ways.

Through the 1700s, corncobs were a common toilet paper alternative. Then, newspapers and magazines arrived in the early 18th century. “The legend goes that people were primarily using the Sears catalog in outhouses, but when the catalog began to be printed in glossy paper people needed to find a replacement,” says Barry Kudrowitz, associate professor and director of product design at the University of Minnesota, who has studied the history and use of toilet paper. Americans also nailed the Farmer’s Almanac onto outhouse walls. When the company realized the extent, they pre-drilled the famous hole into their publication, starting in 1919.

The first perforated toilet paper rolls were introduced in the U.S. in 1890, and by 1930 toilet paper was finally manufactured “splinter-free” resulting in today’s soft, strong and absorbent toilet paper found in virtually all American homes.

Despite accounting for about 4% of the global population, Americans use 20% of the world’s toilet paper. If you measured the toilet paper an average American uses in their lifetime it would roll, as the crow flies, from Saranac Lake to Chicago …although it might get wet crossing the Great Lakes. Not everyone in the world uses this much TP, though. For example, Italy, France and Finland use less than one-half of the amount we do. While pooping is universal, using toilet paper isn’t. Less than 30% of the world’s population uses toilet paper. That leaves a whopping 4 billion people who don’t. In some places, it’s because of access: People either don’t have money for TP, or there’s none to be had. In other places it’s cultural.

What do people use instead? In those parts of the world where they don’t use paper, water is the cleanser of choice. But what if they don’t have water or paper? Throughout time periods people have used a variety of natural tools and materials. In ancient times, wiping with stones and other natural materials and rinsing with water or snow was common. Some cultures opted for seashells and animal furs.

In today’s Adirondack backcountry

If you choose to wipe with toilet paper, I recommend packing it out in a Ziploc bag. Use toilet paper sparingly. In some circumstances, it is okay to bury it thoroughly in the cathole. Good decision making should dictate your choice.

There are some excellent alternatives to toilet paper. While at first, they may seem unappealing to the novice, they are quite practical once you become accustomed to their use. Natural alternatives are convenient, and you do not need to pack them out. Some prefer to use leaves — but make sure you are not picking poison ivy, poison oak, or nettles! Pinecones or sticks with a rounded end and no bark will work. Flat, rounded stones work well also. In the winter, snow works extremely well as it is hygienic and readily available (albeit a bit chilly.)

The Bible is the last word on many things including human waste disposal.

Deuteronomy 23:12-14:

“Designate a place outside the camp where you can go to relieve yourself. As part of your equipment have something to dig with, and when you relieve yourself, dig a hole and cover up your excrement.”

It can’t be any clearer than that.


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