The reports of fights breaking out in supermarket aisles over toilet paper may have shocked many. But it may also attracted the attention of Princeton-based poet and publishing industry professional Ellen Foos.
Foos also collects toilet paper. Or more accurately, she collects something related to the product: the not-so-fine art of toilet paper wrappers.
“I have over two hundred wrappers and counting,” says Foos in a recent statement for U.S. 1.
Asked about the history of this unusual pursuit, Foos says, “I started my toilet paper wrapper collection on a whim perhaps 20 years ago. And once I realized how many distinct wrappers there were, I kept it going.”
Supported by what she calls “odd friend” accomplices, she obtains new collection objects when a volunteer agent “surreptitiously unwraps a fresh roll of toilet paper in someone’s home or a public stall and conceals it on their person (carefully folded), then passes it to me.”
While not divulging current abettors, she readily reveals the identity of an important past one. “My biggest supplier for a while was the late great artist NJ DeVico, fearless in so many ways, who traveled the world sending additions to my collection.”
Asked about how more details about her collection that she keeps in tin boxes and her plans future plans, Foos says, “As far as manageable collections go, it is an easy item to procure and store. I have yet to envision a proper way to display or catalog them. I did try to interest a museum in Tennessee, but it went out of business. Right now I have them alphabetized by title. This helps emphasize certain themes that recur; names related to softness and purity. As a poet, there are metaphors that inspire: angels and plaid tartans.”
Along with the statement, Foos sent 13 wrapper images but commented only on a few of them.
“‘Cast-Away’ comes from several producers, and I thought it appropriate to show as Tom Hanks came down with the virus. Note that ‘Gamma’ and ‘Celeste’ have identical graphics.”
In an effort to put her collection into a broader context, Foos also provided information regarding the history of toilet paper.
Here are some of the facts gleaned from the information she shared:
While more than half of today’s human population does not use it, toilet paper is a huge personal hygiene product and more than 26 billion rolls are sold in North America annually.
According to the website she cited, Toilet Paper History, prior to toilet paper people addressed the problem in creative ways, depending on country, social customs, and status.
The list of materials used includes “leaves, grass, ferns, corn cobs, maize, fruit skins, seashells, stone, sand, moss, snow and water. The simplest way was physical use of one’s hand. Wealthy people usually used wool, lace, or hemp.”
Romans used wool and rosewater or a sponge on a stick soaked in salt water. The Greeks used clay. Those in coastal regions used mussel shells and the occasional coconut husks. And Colonial Americans used the core center cobs from shelled ears of corn.
And in some cultures today those who don’t use toilet paper simply use their left hand with a little water — suggesting why the left hand is denigrated.
The above information also suggests alternatives if the toilet paper aisles remain empty.
But when did the use of paper really start and when did it stick?
While the Chinese used it in 14th century, the site tells us the “first brand of commercially viable toilet paper was created in 1857 by the famous United States inventor Joseph Gayetty, who first came to idea to combine toilet paper with medicinal oils and remedies. Although his product was advertised as a medical accessory, its popularity soon grew and many other brands of toilet paper appeared. In addition to Gayetty, many other inventors contributed to the state of the modern toilet paper industry. Englishman Walter Alcock packaged his toilet paper in rolls, and in 1867 brothers Scott (Thomas, Edward, and Clarence) were first to successfully promote their toilet paper to the worldwide audience.”
We then learn that today’s brands of toilet paper are created from a wide variety of paper types made from “leaves from tree farms and second growth forests or recyclable paper, unscented or scented, single layered of multilayered, dry or moistened, with variable degrees of tensile strength and humidity absorption.”
But while we know that Foos looks for interesting logos and packing designs, what exactly do toilet paper critics look for? According to Toilet Paper History, it is “an ideal balance of softness and strength.”
So perhaps it an aesthetic disagreement that was causing the recent fights over toilet paper in the supermarket aisles. But it doesn’t matter. Toilet paper collecting seems to be a thing — for a variety of reasons.