Paper has been used for centuries as a hygiene product in the bathroom, but the development of paper specialized for the purpose is relatively recent. In the late eighteenth century as the printing industry grew, some individuals recommended the acquisition of relatively cheap books for use while engaged in what was called the water closet, both to pass the time and to clean up afterwards. Others used newspapers. Other methods included the use of corn cobs, sand, rags, furs, and hands, which were afterwards washed with water, or at least the hands of the more fastidious were washed with water.
New Yorker Joseph Gayetty introduced the first commercially available toilet paper in 1857, in New York City. He announced his product by calling it, “the greatest necessity of the age.” Gayetty’s paper was not in a roll but boxed in individual sheets, each box containing two reams of paper (1,000 sheets) and sold for the price of $1.00 at his place of business on Ann Street in New York City. This made it rather pricey as the dollar’s value in 1857 is more than 27 dollars today. Gayetty focused his advertising on the risks involved using printed paper, or even blank paper intended for printing or writing upon.
Gayetty claimed that his paper was made of 100% pure Manila hemp, and that each sheet was medicated to make it an anti-hemorrhoid treatment. Each sheet contained his name as a watermark and each sheet was treated with aloe for lubrication. Gayetty proved to be a rather inept businessman, losing control of his company over debt issues and contract infringement problems. Despite these issues, Gayetty’s paper remained one of the very few toilet papers available in the United States until the 1890s, and remained available until 1935, when the Northern Tissue Company shook up the market.
Besides the hazards of inks, and other toxins on and in paper there was also the possibility of splinters, since most cheap paper was made from wood pulp. Another New Yorker, Seth Wheeler, obtained a patent for the perforated roll of paper and paper dispenser in 1883, but the paper itself was coarse, rough, and contained considerable wood splinters. When the Northern Tissue Company introduced splinter free toilet paper it generated quite a stir, and the sales of toilet paper began to rise as more manufacturers found ways to make the paper less hard and splinter free.
The convenience of the roll system and the introduction of the splinter free paper proved to be the end of Joseph Gayetty’s business selling his medicated toilet paper. Many of his ideas, dismissed as quackery at the time, are generally agreed with today, including the toxicity of certain inks and other oils included in paper. It was Gayetty who first manufactured and sold toilet paper that was designed specifically for the purpose of hygiene, from his business in New York City.