Science and History of Toilet Paper

In 2005 I was asked by Milestones – a museum of social history in Basingstoke in Hampshire – to give a talk on The Science and History of Toilet Paper. This was subsequently featured in Renaissance South East News, a newsletter for museums and libraries. To accompany the talk, the museum kindly lent me one of their exhibits – a 1930’s toilet paper dispenser complete with original toilet tissue!

I had first worked on this topic back in 1998 when I wrote a feature for Focus magazine entitled Everything you ever wanted to know about Toilet Paper. Researching the article put me in touch with two other people interested in this subject. One was David Woodcock, a historical researcher and writer who was at the time Associate Curator of Domestic Technology at the Science Museum in London, and Stella Mitchell who runs a museum of British popular culture called the Land of Lost Content.                        

David has amassed quite a collection of old toilet paper advertisements. These range from rather bland catalogue entries for the Army and Navy stores in the early 1900’s to full page 1950’s adverts suggesting that children were too scared to tell their parents how much they hated hard paper, and how they craved the new softer stuff! David very kindly allowed me to use some of his earliest examples to illustrate my talk at Milestones.

Stack of toilet rolls artfully arranged in a different layout
Photo: Sharon Ann Holgate

Stella also has an impressive collection, but this is of old rolls and packs themselves! She very kindly allowed me to show pictures of her collection in my Milestones talk. Some of the brand names and designs look rather amusing to modern eyes, with the ‘Robin Hood’ paper – complete with a drawing of the famous character in his jerkin and tights – and ‘Everest’ – suitably illustrated by a mountain peak – being two of my favourites.

I would be happy to give my talk again at other museums, libraries or to interested groups.