Toilet and facial tissue are something that most of us take for granted, but many may be surprised to learn they are actually relatively new inventions. However, while white toilet paper itself dates back less than a century, there is a much longer record of humans relying on paper for personal cleansing.
It perhaps comes as little surprise that the Chinese, credited with first developing the pulp papermaking process more than 2000 years ago, are also believed to be the first to use paper for personal cleansing. The first recorded use of toilet paper dates back to 6th century China. During the Tang Dynasty, three hundred years later, an Arab traveler in the region commented that the Chinese do not wash with water when they have done their necessities; but they only wipe themselves with paper.
Still, it would take several centuries before the world saw anything resembling toilet paper as we know it today. For many years, people turned to other paper instead. Following the rise of printing, for example, many people relied on repurposed newspapers and books.
The introduction of toilet paper as a commercial product did not occur until 1857. In that year, American inventor Joseph Gayetty began selling packets of paper in individual sheets, marketed as Gayetty’s Medical Paper. Others began to eventually produce this variety of brown, rough and thin paper in countries around the world. In fact, many readers may have personal memories of this high quality toilet paper, which could still be found in certain parts of Europe as late as the 1970s.
Folds that changed everything
The first tissue products as we had recognize them today were invented and produced by the American paper manufacturer Kimberly-Clark, who developed cellulose as a replacement for cotton in sanitary products during World War I. Their major innovation was the creping process, in which paper was micro-folded in the course of production. This breaks down the rigidity of the paper and increases the volume, making it both softer and more absorbent than the paper created by Joseph Gayetty 60 years earlier.
In 1920, Kimberly-Clark released the world's first commercially available tissue product, the sanitary pad Kotex. It was made possible thanks to the new creping process and the work of two men at the company: Frank Sensenbrenner and a young Austrian immigrant named Ernst Mahler. By layering several sheets of tissue, they developed a soft pillow with much greater absorbency than the traditional cotton wool. Four years later, Kimberly-Clark followed the success of Kotex with the disposable handkerchief Kleenex, which remains the market-leading brand for facial tissue paper today.
Customer experience drives development
In the years following the advent of the creping process, tissue products, such as soft kitchen tissue paper, paper hand towels, jumbo rolls toilet paper white, etc., quickly became popular with consumers, leading many manufacturers to take notice. From the United States, tissue production expanded to Europe in the first half of the twentieth century and ultimately to every other part of the globe as well.
Tissue production continually evolved throughout this period to keep up with increased market demand and to provide an improved customer experience. As today, manufacturers worked to meet shifting consumer tastes, and paper dinner napkin industry trends came and went along with other consumer fads. One memorable example was the pastel-colored toilet rolls designed to match bathroom interiors that gained popularity in the 1960s.
However, a constant in development has been the search for production methods that secure paper that is both strong and soft. For toilet as well as white facial tissue, strength and absorbability are essential to ensuring the paper can do the intended job while keeping hands clean and dry. At the same time, it also needs to avoid causing discomfort in delicate areas of the body. As mini pocket tissues use has become more widespread – first in the Americas and Europe and more recently in other parts of the world – consumers have come to demand increasingly softer and stronger sheets.