Critical Mess

Perceivings by Alan Dean Foster

Toilet paper — what we regard as modern toilet paper — was invented by the American Joseph Gayetty in 1857.

There. That’s out of the way.

The current recurring dearth of toilet paper in stores seems to suggest that society is on the brink of collapse. In today’s news I saw that a truck crashed on a freeway in Texas, dumping its entire load of — toilet paper. I fully expected to see follow-up scenes of folks leaping barriers at the risk of their lives to score an armful of Angel Soft three-packs, with commentary by breathless TV reporters (“Oh, the humanity!).

There have been fights in supermarkets between people competing for the last rolls of t-paper. Just saw a report on one involving three women in Australia. Diapers I can maybe understand. But toilet paper?

I checked with Wikipedia and yes, civilization did exist before 1857. Thrived, depending on where you happened to live at the time.

I received a solid lesson in the recent history of toilet paper from my wife of 45 years. JoAnn was raised on a small farm outside the town of Moran, in west-central Texas. Her family did not have indoor plumbing until she was 14. I realize that this bit of information may stun those of you under 30, but it is a fact that much of what we now take for granted did not exist within the borders of the United States prior to 1857: flat-screen TVs, cellphones, the Internet, Facebook, skateboards, and toilet paper, and that not all persons born after that date gained automatic access to such goods.

My wife’s family used a two-holer outhouse for applicable business. When said structure was torn down, we had the wood salvaged, heat-treated, and fully disinfected. It now panels the walls of our guest bathroom. The double-hole platform itself is not up yet, but the other wood is a small way of reminding visitors that not so very long ago, indoor plumbing was not an everyday thing. Additionally, it’s difficult to imagine anything more appropriate, décor-wise.

In lieu of toilet paper, the Sears-Roebuck catalog was a popular national substitute. You remember Sears-Roebuck: the company that had a head-start with what we now call online shopping. Sears could have owned the Internet, but to its managers the ‘net was just a fad, soon to fade away.

Sears is just about gone, but t-paper is still with us. When you can find it.

So how do we solve the current toilet-paper shortage? Common sense and anti-hoarding aside, you might consider purchasing and installing a fancy Japanese toilet. These have heated seats, clean you with warm water, and then air-dry the relevant geography. Think your local drive-through car wash, only on a smaller scale and without any need to tip an attendant. Though you still need to put yourself in neutral.

You can of course use toilet paper with a Japanese toilet, and the same t-paper shortage panic currently exists in the land of the Rising Sun, but if you can afford a top-of-the-line Toto, you don’t need to worry.

In many middle-eastern countries a regular toilet comes equipped with a shatafa. This is an attachment consisting of a narrow hose that terminates in a small shower head, the kind you find everywhere in European bathrooms and increasingly here in the States. Someone had the bright idea to eliminate the need for either a bidet or a fancy toilet by simply attaching a shatafa to the existing water line feed to the toilet. Employ the shatafa to clean yourself, use a small paper or cotton towel to dry off, and hey presto: no need for scarce t-paper.

You don’t encounter a great deal of toilet paper in China because it tends to jam up older pipes. It has nothing to do with culture. Or as JoAnn pointed out, “Haven’t people ever heard of washing machines?”

Costco and other stores are stocked with bundles of small, cheap hand towels and washrags. Use one, toss it into a pail designated for the purpose, then clean them in your washer. But we were all born into a disposable society, so no one thinks of reusing things in such a manner. We’re wasteful, we are.

While we’re on the subject of waste, the newest Japanese toilets use less than four

liters of water per flush compared to the 13 required by traditional western toilets.

You would think that statistic would prompt the installation of a fair number of

Japanese johns here in Arizona, but I don’t know anyone who has one. We would, but we live in an old house. There’s no electrical outlet near our master-bathroom throne, and we’re not about to rip up historic tile work to install one. But I think of it often when ensconced in that place where thinking comes easy.

When the Sears catalog was out of pages and magazines were not handy, JoAnn’s family had recourse to corncobs. Think of that the next time you’re tempted to bitch about a shortage of ultra-soft four-ply.

Prescott resident Alan Dean Foster is the author of 130 books. Follow him at

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