Toilet Paper

Whether the paper goes over the roll or under, toilet paper is such an easy thing to take for granted until it is not there. How can there possibly be a shortage of rolls in the state of Wisconsin, where a vast amount of the world’s toilet tissue is produced?

Throughout history a wide array of objects were used to cleanse bottoms until the beloved rolls of comfort known as toilet paper came along. Fur, grass, moss, fruit skins, shells, stones and corncobs have all been documented in history as wiping tools. A sanitary relief apparatus known as tersorium, which was a communal stick with a vinegar-soaked sponge on its end, was used in Roman times.

Toilet paper dates back to medieval China. Chinese emperors used 2-foot by 3-foot sheets of paper. In the late 15th century, paper became readily available, so it was commonly used as toilet paper. 

Joseph Gayetty made the first commercially packaged toilet paper in 1857. The paper was wet partially because of the amount of aloe infused into it. Each sheet had Gayette’s name printed on it. 

The paper was sold as a medical product and claimed to prevent hemorrhoids. The product wasn’t very successful, because it was quite expensive and people continued to use paper products they already had available such as newspapers and magazines.

In 1871, Zeth Wheeler patented the mass production of toilet paper and perforated rolls. Scott brand made toilet paper rolls popular beginning in 1890, selling to hotels and drug stores. 

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, indoor plumbing and flush toilets were becoming more common, so Americans were forced to buy toilet paper that would not cause clogs or damage to pipes. It still wasn’t the relief known today because until the late 1920s, toilet paper actually contained splinters. Toilet paper, like most paper of the time, was made from wood chips. These were pulped, treated, cooked and washed. However the process was not perfect. Small pieces of wood would often be embedded in the paper.

When the paper mills of Green Bay, Wisconsin, turned sights on the nation’s newest luxury product, Northern Tissue was born. In 1901, Northern Paper Mills of Green Bay issued the first “sanitary tissue” called Northern Tissue. Each pack had 1,000 sheets of 4x10 inch paper that were pierced with a wire loop to hang from a nail. The product was such a success that by 1920 Northern Paper Mills was the world’s largest producer of bath tissue. Competitors sprung up and production of toilet paper doubled between 1925 and 1935. Such was the success of the toilet paper industry that it helped Green Bay avoid the worst effects of the Great Depression. 

Engineers at Northern Paper worked ceaselessly to develop the method of “linenizing” paper which made toilet paper both softer and, vitally, “splinter-free.” 

The product was extremely successful, and toilet paper quickly became a necessity instead of a luxury item reserved only for royalty or the very wealthy. The discovery that the rolls could be made without shards of wood creeping through made “Splinter-Free“ Northern Tissue’s slogan and led it and Green Bay’s toilet paper manufacturers onto national and global success. 

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, Georgia Pacific Corp., once known as Northern Tissue, saw its orders for household toilet paper and paper towels double, while demand for the products at airports, hotels and other public venues softened.

The company’s mills and distribution centers hit 120% of their normal capacity, but “you can just load and ship so fast,” said Georgia Pacific spokesman Michael Kawleski. about refilling empty store shelves with toilet paper. The plants normally run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so the company couldn’t just flip a switch and double production.

Georgia Pacific has five facilities in Green Bay. One of the mills is considered among the largest tissue recycling operations in the world. One of the paper machines at the mill makes enough paper in a single day that, when converted into two-ply tissue rolls, it would wrap around the entire world, according to the company. “Whatever we have is getting out in the marketplace,” said Kawleski.

The paper industry has seen closures of plants in the Fox Valley and Northern regions of Wisconsin over the past couple of decades, but statewide, there are 35 pulp, paper and paperboard mills with a total annual payroll of nearly $2.5 billion, according to industry figures. 

Georgia Pacific’s operations in Green Bay employ 2,300 including 1,725 mill workers manufacturing toilet paper, napkins and towels. Another 600 or so employees are in engineering, data processing and customer services for the Atlanta-based company. Other tissue operations in Wisconsin include Kimberly-Clark Corp and Procter and Gamble’s Charmin. Clearwater Paper, which has production facilities in Neenah, is the country’s leading maker of store-brand toilet tissue.

Trucking companies are seeing spikes in volumes of toilet paper deliveries across the nation. Panic buying has caused a boost for the trucking industry overall. They are delivering a full load of paper products to stores that usually order a half-truck. The long-term impact is too hard to yet predict, but customers stocking up on paper products now may not need more for months, so that could mean slower shipments to distribution centers later in the year.

Locally, Tony Aizpurua, manager of Amery Dick’s Fresh Market, said in the beginning, their team was able to see the toilet paper shortage coming and was prepared. In the first weeks of the shortage they still had a supply when others did not. The store cannot be guaranteed that the amount of cases they order of toilet paper is what they will actually receive, but they are doing their best to make sure that shelves have the necessity.

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