Writing on modern toilet paper
Modern toilet paper is less suited to blunt pencil communication.
As a paper conservator, sensitive items which are deteriorating due to long term exposure are concerning, especially when you are part of the team who put them on display. Recently when checking the suffragette displays in our People’s City Gallery, I looked afresh at the toilet paper prison diary and sketch book by suffragette Florence Hull. I was concerned that the top page of the stack is seen to be darker than the page beneath due to exposure to light and air. This object has been on display in the Museum of London galleries for almost 20 years; first in an area called World City and then moved to the People’s City gallery.
It is such a fragile item but one which deserves to be seen. With the panic buying of toilet paper in the run up to the COVID19 lockdown of March 2020, this everyday material was being talked and joked about in virtual and real spheres all the time. Video clips were made showing men paying at counters with sheets of toilet paper instead of cash, and joke presents of toilet rolls were being left for colleagues. And here, painfully and delicately, in the museum’s collections, a handwritten diary has survived, written covertly on prison issue toilet paper 100 years ago. The paper appears unlike the toilet paper that we know today.
In the paper historian’s ‘bible’, “Papermaking, the history and technique of an ancient craft” by Dard Hunter, the author refers to a French publication of 1718 as the first written mention of toilet paper. But historically the use of toilet paper goes back much further than this, perhaps even to AD 589 where paper used for ‘toilet purposes’ was mentioned in a Chinese text. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that toilet paper was being commercially mass-manufactured and sold.
The diaries, sketchbook and letter that are on display show that the toilet paper of the early-20th century was very different to what we now use. It was only in the mid-20th century that toilet paper became softer, two ply and splinter free. That last quality doesn’t bear thinking about for too long!