ETCETERA / Design Dinosaurs: 3. Hard Lavatory Paper

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The Independent Culture
MERCIFULLY, the 100 per cent manila or sulphite loo roll, glassine finished, 'medicated' with disinfectant and imprinted on every sheet with those purple letters (usually 'IZAL MEDICATED', or, sometimes, 'GOVERNMENT PROPERTY NOW WASH YOUR HANDS'), is nearly a thing of the past. It rustles as you hold it and scratches as you use it, combining smoothness and non-absorbency in a product for which a measure of friction and absorbency are arguably the only properties required.

To children of the age of 'luxury bathroom tissue', it seems so primitive as to be scarcely usable. Yet until 62 years ago it was the only alternative to newspaper; and, even then, it was revolutionary. The history of lavatory paper, you see, is short.

The subject is so shrouded in Victorian reticence that it is hard to know exactly when the first manufactured papers appeared, but in 1857 a company in New Jersey was exporting 'Gayety's Medicated Paper' to England. Flat packs of inter-leaved sheets impregnated with Jeyes fluid were introduced to the British public in 1896, hidden beneath counters and euphemistically requested as 'curl papers'. The date when rolls were first sold here is lost in the mists of prudery, but a German bank clerk supposedly conceived the idea after rolling bank notes in large sheets in 1928.

All the early papers were hard. Indeed, their key property was their hardness. They formed a firm, medicated barrier in what might be termed the hand-bottom interface. 'Soft' tissue, in the form of a creped paper roll, was introduced by a family of German-Jewish refugees who set up a factory at St Andrews Mill (whence the name Andrex), in Walthamstow, in 1932. It was greeted with deep mistrust. By the time coloured loo paper appeared, in 1957, soft paper still accounted for only a quarter of the market. Today, hard paper, now relegated to the remoter country houses of England and - especially - Scotland, accounts for less than 1 per cent of the market; presumably destined to last only as long as its older, hardier adherents.