How to live without toilet paper?

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Bottom line: The coronavirus has led to sporadic shortages of toilet paper nationwide. (Photo illustration / Lowell Anderson)

Our ancestors used leaves, moss or corncobs after they had to go No. 2.

But modern Americans, accustomed to wiping our bottoms with cloud-soft two-ply, were shocked last month when stores ran out of toilet paper. And many of us were stuck trying to find alternatives; baby wipes, paper towel, Kleenex, whatever would do the trick.

“I was totally oblivious,” said Laurie Olson, who co-owns S.P. Olson Heating & Air Conditioning in Alexandria and is in charge of buying toilet paper for their home and their business.

Normally, she buys T.P. in huge quantities, “three bales at a time,” in exchange for a Target gift card, she said. Three weeks ago, she decided it was time to buy again, as their household was down to two rolls. But, like many others during that time, she walked over to the toilet paper area and received a rude surprise — empty shelves.

“I was kind of taken aback,” she said. “Within two days of that, the news of the toilet paper hoarding broke.”


At home, they parceled out their remaining rolls until a kind friend handed her one of the two packages in her own cart while shopping. Then, an alert employee spotted packages at a local store she hadn’t thought of shopping at.

She bought some for the business. It was paper, but not the cushy stuff she was accustomed to.

“You could use it as a serious exfoliant,” she said, only partly joking. Still, she was thankful. “You hate to tell your employee to bring your own from home.”

The Chinese had it first

So how did toilet paper become such an integral part of our lives?

The Chinese used it at least as far back as AD 589, according to, the website for BBC History Magazine, BBC History Revealed and BBC World Histories Magazine.

That year, an official named Yan Zhitui wrote that he “dare not use” any paper inscribed with quotations from Confucian texts, or the names of sages, for “toilet purposes.”


Throughout history, people have used whatever was available to them to clean as best as they could. Sometimes that was sand. Sometimes it was snow.

In the 1800s, the Sears Robuck catalog came in handy.

“It came free in the mail and even had a handy hole in the corner to make it hang easily on a nail in the outhouse,” according to

A New York inventor, Joseph Gayetty, is credited with marketing hemp paper with aloe aimed at those with hemorrhoids, beginning in 1857. It wasn’t a great success, according to

Along came three Scott brothers, Thomas, Edward and Clarence, who began selling toilet paper not long after the Civil War. In 1879, they founded the Scott Paper Company and sold the first toilet paper in rolls in 1890.

Other inventors later added perforations, and in 1942, an English company made it softer by creating two-ply toilet paper.

Back in the early 1900s, Americans shied away from discussing intimate bodily functions, according to

Flushing away the forest

Hoarding aside, toilet paper has a controversial side.


In 2019, the Natural Resources Defense Council and proclaimed it had an “issue with tissue,” contending that by using toilet paper, people are flushing away Canada’s boreal forest.

“The average four-person household in the U.S. uses over 100 pounds of toilet paper a year, far outpacing the rest of the world and driving a dangerous ‘tree-to-toilet pipeline’ whereby trees are converted into pulp, turned into toilet paper, and flushed away,” its report said.

It urged consumers to buy toilet paper with recycled content, minimal toxins used in bleaching, and whether, if the tissue is made from virgin forest fiber, it is sourced from Forest Stewardship Council-certified forests.


Pluses to toilet paper shortages:

  • No arguments about leaving the empty tube in the holder.

  • No arguments about whether to unroll it from the top or the bottom.

  • No fun games where the kiddos put one end in the toilet and flush to watch the whole roll unravel.

  • You’re less likely to have your trees teepee’d. And if you do? Well, more for your stash.

Some good news

The local big box stores won’t say over the phone whether they have toilet paper on hand nowadays, although one did let slip that it goes as soon as it arrives. Most have imposed a limit on one package per customer.

And good news from Elden’s Fresh Foods: Their stock, while still limited to one package per customer, is back on the shelves after being kept behind the customer service desk to prevent a rush.

“We have sold tons and tons of tissue,” said customer service manager Michele Doty. “We are blessed to have recouped our supply.”


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