FRONTLINE: Retrospect

Fear of Splinters
How toilet paper became one of Chester’s top exports.

Fear of Splinters
How toilet paper became one of Chester’s top exports.

Fear is useful for those with something to sell. Fear of loss sells extended warranties on small appliances. Fear of loneliness sells makeup to insecure girls. Fear sells political candidates. Fear sells wars.

Locally, fear of hemorrhoids once made Chester—home of Scott Paper—the world capital of toilet paper. Founded in Philadelphia in 1874, Scott invented the rolled form of toilet paper we know today. It also pioneered the use of advertising to position its humble product as a medical necessity. “Humiliating and extremely painful,” read a Scott Tissues ad from the 1930s. “These troubles come from harsh, non-absorbent toilet tissue.”

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Scott dates itself to 1865, when a young attorney, Thomas Seymour Scott, quit a New York law firm and moved to Philadelphia to help start a wholesale paper business that lasted two years. In 1867, Scott brought in his younger brothers, Irvin and Clarence, to help launch a new company.

T. Seymour Scott & Brothers sold straw paper, a coarse product used by food vendors to wrap produce and raw meat. From this, they branched out to sell better wrapping paper, paper bags and other paper products. They did not sell toilet paper.

“Irvin did most of the legwork,” wrote Robert Spector, author of Shared Values, a 1997 company history. “In the morning, Irvin would don his best clothes and go out to take orders from butchers for straw paper. Then, in the afternoon, he would change into his old clothes and deliver orders with his pushcart.”

Thomas Scott eventually withdrew from the company. His brothers, meanwhile, saw a new opportunity and founded Scott Paper, specializing in toilet tissue.

Irvin and Clarence Scott were tall, bearded, bespectacled, Victorian gentlemen who worked well together. Clarence, a Sunday school teacher, was a born salesman. Irvin, a Quaker, liked to fish, shoot ducks and smoke cigars. Manufacturing and distribution was his focus. The company emphasized the brothers’ interest in quality, quoting Irvin that “quality cannot be acquired by good intentions alone, but must actually be built into the products.”

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But what is quality toilet paper? Scott Paper had an answer.

The need now satisfied by toilet paper is ancient. But little proof exists for most of the widely claimed solutions. Seashells have been cited for people living in coastal communities. For those in the tropics, coconut shells. In medieval Europe, straw and grass. For early America, corn cobs.

In 1535, French Renaissance writer Francois Rabelais published Gargantua, a satirical novel in which the title character describes his search for sanitary comfort:

“Once I did wipe me,” wrote Rabelais, “with a gentlewoman’s velvet mask, and found it to be good; for the softness of the silk was very voluptuous and pleasant to my fundament. Another time with one of their hoods, and in like manner that was comfortable; at another time with a lady’s neckerchief, and after that some ear-pieces made of crimson satin; but there was such a number of golden spangles in them that they fetched away all the skin off my tail with a vengeance.”

Gargantua continues on this subject for several pages before concluding that the best choice was the neck of a live goose. “for you will thereby feel … a most wonderful pleasure, both in regard of the softness of the said down, and of the temperate heat of the goose.”

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Rabelais’ book was, of course, fiction. But it does suggest a search to which readers might relate.

Plumbing historian W. Hodding Carter thinks 18th-century Americans may have simply wiped themselves with their undergarments. In his 2006 book, Flushed: How the Plumber Saved Civilization, Carter quoted Moreau de St. Mery, a refugee from the French Revolution who arrived in Philadelphia in 1793. St. Mery thought American women excessively modest, writing that they hid their chemises because “they are guilty of not keeping them clean, and of dirtying them with marks of the need to which Nature has subjected every animal.”

Carter found this persuasive, concluding that the custom of wearing underwear may simply have been inherited from an era in which it served harsher duty.


he first documented use of paper seems to have been in sixth-century China when an official wrote that “paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from Five Classics or the names of sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes.”

Flushable toilet paper, however, is a byproduct of indoor plumbing. And plumbing, in turn, was the result of a reform craze in the 1840s, when Americans experimented with health-related ideas, including vegetarianism, hydropathy
and homeopathy.

“Americans had proved that Republicanism could work,” wrote historian Maureen Ogle, whose 1996 book, All the Modern Conveniences, traced the rise of U.S. household plumbing, “and many felt obliged to maintain that example for the edification of the rest of the world.”

Part of the example was strong families. That, in turn, led to increased interest in family homes. In 1856, the editors of Village and Farm Cottages—a book of blueprints—put it this way: “He who improves the dwelling houses of a people in relation to their comforts, habits and morals, makes a benignant and lasting reform at the very foundation of society.”

Convenience was an important principle in the improved home. Architectural texts touted dish closets, dumb waiters and a nearby wood house. Municipal water was mostly undeveloped, so wells, pumps and cisterns were deemed essential. Ogle described pre-Civil War arrangements in which attic water tanks used gravity to supply downstairs faucets and showers and water closets (W.C.s).

Early W.C.s featured a metal commode. A few used water to flush wastes down a pipe to a cesspool, said Ogle, but most dropped things into a pit. In either case, according to Ogle, their owners
were likely to conclude that a specialized wiping product might protect their plumbing systems.

“People who were quick to plumb their houses tended to be forward-thinking innovators who embraced progress in all its forms,” she said. “Think of them as the same kind of people who today are quick to adopt computers, Web cams (and) flat-screen TVs.”

For such folks, Joseph Gayetty of New York produced what is thought to have been the first commercial toilet paper in 1857. It carried his watermark and was moistened with aloe.

Why aloe? “Nineteenth-century Amer-icans had a lot of bowel issues,” said Ogle. “There were tons of products for constipation, rashes and hemorrhoids.”

The cause, she said, was a greasy diet with lots of tainted meat and irregular supplies of fruits and vegetables.

By the mid-19th century, then, many Americans were living in homes with running water and indoor toilets, and were accustomed to pampering their bottoms with specialized products. In the 1870s, when a new group of reformers democratized earlier advancements by building municipal water and sewer systems, the Scotts were in a very good position.

According to company legend, many retailers declined to stock this risqué product unless packaged under their own names. So, for about 20 years, Scott quietly customized its product to meet wholesale specifications. By 1896, it had more than 2,000 private-label customers, including John Wanamaker. With the turn of the early 20th century, however, a new generation—Irvin’s son, Arthur—took over.

“Arthur’s strategy was to phase out the private-label business,” wrote Spector, “and concentrate on a few popular, distinctive Scott-owned brands that could be produced efficiently and consistently.”

Over the next few years, Scott formed its “Sanitary Line,” which emphasized purity. One brand, Sani-Tissue, was treated with balsam. In 1908, to ensure consistency, the company began manufacturing its own paper in Chester. By 1911, branded products totaled 80 percent of Scott’s annual sales of $500,000.

Scott was a top brand. It was known to have introduced rolled paper. But a competitor offered the first perforated paper. And Scott probably wasn’t first with soluble paper, which protects pipes by collapsing into nothingness when wet.

The company needed an angle, and found one in the precedent of medicated wipes. Before World War I, Scott formed a platoon of inspectors who surveyed consumers, enforced (vague) quality standards and reported directly to Arthur Scott. Packaging depicted female inspectors in crisp, white nurse-like uniforms.

Using advertising, Scott defined quantity as part of quality. Until 1915, toilet paper was sold by weight. Scott introduced the idea that a roll should have a guaranteed number of sheets and announced that it would fire workers who produced short rolls.

Most effective, though, were mental images of sore bottoms. Scott touted softness, absorbency and cleanliness, while suggesting what might happen with the wrong brand. “After 40 years of age,” warned a 1929 ad, “doctors say you have one chance in two of contracting some form of rectal disease.” The cause: “harsh or impure toilet paper.”

But for outraging competitors, nothing topped Scott’s aggressive 1930s ads. In one, a mother announced, “I’m taking no chances, with my baby or myself.”

Another showed a child reporting on a play date: “They have a pretty house, Mother, but their bathroom paper hurts.” No competitor was named, but several complained to the FTC anyway.

Northern Tissue fought back by declaring itself “splinter free,” but Scott was on top of that game. Between 1926 and 1935, annual production leaped from 67 million rolls to 180 million. By 1939, Chester-based Scott was the world’s largest manufacturer and exporter of toilet tissue.

Did anyone ever get a splinter or rash from bad toilet paper? History hasn’t recorded a name. But fear of being that person helped make Scott a success.

E-mail comments to Mark E. Dixon at

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