Paper Wars: There's a battle going on in the bathrooms of Britain. Hester Lacey reports from the campaign trail

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'LAVATORY paper is not a gay subject nor one much discussed in polite society,' observed the Consumers' Association gravely in 1959, in the introduction to their first tissue survey. A team of Consumers' Association scientists meticulously analysed the 'wet and dry bursting strengths' of 11 different brands.

The next (and last) survey, not conducted until 20 years later, confined itself to general comments and a count of the number of sheets to a roll. But both concluded that paper preferences are personal and that there is little to choose between brands.

Modern marketing strategists would disagree. Arch-rivals Andrex and Kleenex this month begin a bathroom battle over the quality end of a pounds 600m loo roll market. The newest launch, Andrex Gold, 'the ultimate in quality and comfort' ( pounds 1.85 for four rolls) will be pitted against Kleenex Quilted, with its 'super absorbency, cushioned softness and bonded strength' ( pounds 1.89 for four).

Andrex are planning a sophisticated promotion - they are even dropping the famous Labrador, a star since 1972. The bumbling puppy is to be replaced by more upmarket image-makers - ones that symbolise the style and elegance that premium toilet paper is all about.

'We haven't finalised the campaign,' admits Paul Edwards of Andrex manufacturers Scott Ltd, 'but something about gold jewellery is possible. It's about indulgence and luxury.' He adds hastily, 'The puppy will still be advertising the regular brand. There'd be a consumer uprising if we got rid of it.'

HOW did people manage before toilet paper appeared? Pre-paper arrangements are poorly documented, though the Romans used sponges on sticks soaked in brine in their communal public latrines (these were rinsed and left for the next user).

Tissue paper was manufactured from the 1850s onwards, though it was first discreetly described as 'curl papers' for hairdressing. In the 1870s, American society belles could carry a personal supply tucked into a genteel device called 'Madam's Double Utility Fan'. Similar fans were taken by pioneer women who moved west in covered wagons during the 19th century.

Handy amounts of paper had to be cut off a large sheet with a knife, until perforations were patented in 1871; the first roll did not appear until the 1880s. American manufacturers Scott Ltd made the 'decisive move forward into creped paper' in 1907 - soft paper was seen as a luxury for many years afterwards. When Andrex was first sold in Britain in 1942, it was available exclusively from Harrods.

Toilet paper has always been a highly competitive business. The 1990s super-paper tussle reflects the great toilet tissue rivalry of yesteryear - the 'shinies' such as Izal and Bronco versus the soft, absorbent crepes.

Their 1950s and 60s advertising campaigns pulled no punches. The medicated shinies claimed a health advantage: Bronco billed itself as a 'firm, clean-handling toilet tissue to use with confidence - doctors and nurses use Bronco', adding, reassuringly, that the paper 'won't disintegrate'. The softies played on comfort, with cautionary tales of fidgety schoolchildren and harassed businessmen unable to concentrate in class or office because of their lacerated bottoms. In the end, the shiny papers were trounced; Bronco ceased manufacture in 1989, while Izal's market, mainly among over-65s, continues to dwindle.

The passing of the shinies went largely unmourned. A former user remembers an alarming moment visiting the loo at Kenilworth Castle as a schoolboy and finding every shiny sheet firmly stamped 'Government Property'. Did using it mean a stiff sentence for stealing?

An ex-Bronco buyer in her fifties recalls with a shudder,

'It was incredibly prickly and rough. To be honest, it definitely damaged bottoms. My doctor advised me not to use paper at all]' There were problems with the early soft papers as well, however. 'They weren't as strong as modern papers. Your fingers tended to go right through.'

Popularity of toilet paper of any kind in this country was initially limited by a thrifty British disinclination to pay for a product that would immediately be flushed away. The British preferred to stick to traditional and economical alternatives, which included newspaper - in his autobiography, Sir Peter Hall recalls using 'rough squares torn from the Daily Mirror'.

A current Sainsbury's own- brand user in his sixties remembers: 'There were six of us kids and it was our job to cut the paper into squares, make a hole through one corner with a skewer, tie the sheets with string and hang them behind the loo door. Yes, you did get newsprint on you. But so what? No one else was going to see it. And anyway, they all had

it too.'

Brown paper grocery bags were also popular. The heroine of Kingsley Amis's novel Take A Girl Like You is regularly embarrassed by her father's often- repeated anecdote about an unfortunate encounter with a stray acid drop still lurking in its bag.

Such measures are still common in some parts of the world. In China, newsprint is still the choice of the people - but Chinese plumbing cannot cope with flushing it away, so baskets are left in the lavatories for used paper. Our Moscow correspondent reports using paper like 'industrial strength cardboard that just crumbles away when you use it'.

Croat writer Slavenka Drakulic writes in How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed that the health of a Communist regime can be gauged by the quality of the toilet paper available in the shops.

Earlier this year the Yugoslav newspaper Politika advised its readers to use 100-dinar notes as 'each sheet of the real stuff costs twice as much'. And in Siberia, according to explorer Christina Dodwell, 'no one has paper of any description, so instead they use snow'. It is 'quite hygienic', she adds

stoically.

MEANWHILE, Western manufacturers continue to tinker with ever more sophisticated lavatory accessories. Eighties innovations include recycled tissue (manufacturers are at pains to point out that this does not mean 'made from second- hand loo paper', but recycled from other sources of pulp). Moist toilet tissue is one of the fastest growing grocery sales categories (second only to de- scalers), though compared to the Dutch and the Germans, the British show little desire to 'feel really clean'.

Kleenex are aiming at 'taking the European toilet tissue market by storm', according to the Financial Times, who recently revealed that parent company Kimberley-Clark has established Europe's biggest toilet tissue mill in France.

But Andrex, awarded the Royal Warrant of Appointment as Disposable Tissue Manufacturer to Her Majesty the Queen in 1978, are quietly confident. 'There is a lot of rivalry, in the UK in particular, but we hope the Andrex name has the power to penetrate further into the market,' says Paul Edwards.

Andrex Gold is made with a new technique that aerates the paper, causing its fibres to stand up and become bulkier and more absorbent. It comes in a surprisingly tactile polywrap package: numerous office passers-by picked up a sample pack and cuddled it absentmindedly for some time.

The Kleenex paper is 'gently quilted'. Just how this is done is a closely-guarded industrial secret. 'Our marketing department don't want to comment,' said a spokesman. Why quilting is such a good thing is equally unclear - 'your guess is as good as mine', he added opaquely.

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