Could have been “Made in China”...a brief history of modern toilet tissue

There is no doubt, the first mentions regarding the use of toilet tissue were found in China, back in the 6th century AD. Invented in the East, perfected in the West. But since then, there have been many revolutions, so we will only talk about modern toilet tissue manufacturing. We do, however, need to mention a few of the various inventions which have made our industry what it is today. When does “modern” start?

Guy Goldstein

As a starting point, I would consider the Frenchman Nicholas Louis Robert‘s invention of a machine that produced paper on an endless mesh screen back in 1789. In 1803, the Fourdrinier brothers in England significantly improved Nicholas Louis Robert’s paper machine and gave birth to what has been called the Fourdrinier machine, still today the base of the pulp and paper industry. At this time, paper was made from rags, not from wood fibers yet. Groundwood was talked about around 1840, pulp was made by grinding heated wood between millstones. No chemicals were used, pulp was colored, and yellowed easily in sunlight. This pulp was used to supplement the provision of rags. The late 19th century saw the need for better hygiene: housing came with plumbing. Major inventions freed the world from using rags and it was the real start of our industry. In 1866 the sulfite pulping process was invented by the American Benjamin Tilghman. In 1883, the German Carl Dahl invented sulfate pulping, which gave birth to the kraft process. In 1890, the sulfite process was used commercially in the US to make pulp. After this introduction, we can now talk about toilet paper and the men who made it possible. I think the inventor of toilet paper was a man from New York, his name was Joseph Gayetty in 1857. His firm, located in New Jersey, produced and sold packs of 500 flat sheets which was named “Therapeutic Paper” because it already contained aloe to help cure sores. As we can see it preceded moist, impregnated, coated toiled tissue by a hundred years! There is nothing new under the sun! We believe the real inventor of modern toilet tissue was Seth Wheeler, who patented his findings under US Patent #117.355 issued July 25th, 1871. He started his own business under the name of Rolled Wrapping Toilet Paper, then reorganized his company and created the “Albany Perforated Wrapping Paper Co.” This was between 1874 and 1877. The product was very crude but replaced cut newspaper or catalogs. The Sears and Roebuck catalog was indeed at the time known as “Sores and Rawbutts”... quite a challenge! The perforated toilet tissue appeared in the UK in 1879 introduced by Walter Alcock. It took two years to cross the Atlantic and many more to reach the Continent. That same year Scott Paper started selling toilet paper on a roll to a Hotel in New York City, using its brand name “Waldorf”. A patent dispute arose in 1885 when Oliver Hewlett Hicks tried to protect its “invention” of toilet tissue and its manufacturing process. After 9 years of proceedings, Hick’s patent was invalidated by the US Supreme Court! Seth Wheeler is the inventor of modern toilet tissue! Thank you Seth; look at what you have left ...behind! In 1888 the words “Toilet Paper” first appear in the New York Times. Many years go by until 1935, when a very important piece of news attracts the world’s attention: Northern Tissue advertises its “splinter free” toilet paper; what a relief in every home throughout the world! Then in 1942, the British introduced the 2-ply toilet paper at Saint Andrews Paper Mill. Virtually overnight, potential consumption of toilet paper doubled... and the war was won against some diseases transmitted by poor hand hygiene. Many more inventions came up later which enabled us to manufacture new types of strong, soft, absorbent tissues. Through Air Drying (TAD) was developed in the late 1960’s but it, too, will go down in the history of the technology revolution.


THE TISSUE MACHINE. Basically since the Fourdrinier brothers, the tissue machine has not changed a lot in its concept. In order to speed up dewatering and improve formation, the forming wire was inclined, then as new metallurgical technologies came to life, machines became wider: 1.80 meters wide, then 2, then 3.60 (which is still the standard in Central America), then 2.70 and 5.40... and then 8.10 meters. As the width increased, formation needed to be looked at. New formers became available like closed headboxes, pressurized, gap formers (twin wires), C-wrap, S-wraps and then came the magic with the ever-so-present Crescent former which Kimberly-Clark brought to the world to enable everyone today to make soft tissue. As the machines kept getting wider, speed was increasing from 100 meters a minute to 2200 meters a minute. Dewatering and drying became issues, the so-called Yankee dryers increased in diameter, yielding more heat through a combination of new alloys and increased performances in the press section; we saw machines with 2 presses, then one only, then one plus a “shoe press”, then no press at all! The technology using no press (TAD) became the Trojan horse of P&G, soon to be followed by the defunct Scott Paper and Kimberly-Clark. In 1964, P&G launched a TV advertising campaign with a comedian who became world-famous: “Mr. Whipple” who said “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin”. A breakthrough in advertising and the launch of a brand new technology often copied but rarely matched. For many years, TAD technology was challenged by just a few, then, as the patent protection ran out, a few independent large and small companies jumped on the bandwagon and tried to compete with more or less success in various areas. With energy costs and global warming becoming increasingly more of an issue, alternative technologies were developed with similar finished product characteristics.

Energy savings became a great issue with petrol over $150.00/barrel but down to $45 in December 2008. In order to save energy, it has been rather normal to install CHP (Combined Heat and Power) plants as well as to review the drying process, optimizing the Yankee hood, working with higher temperatures. Press designs have also meant savings, together with the introduction of the shoe press as an added means of arriving at the dryer with lower moisture.

Alternative technologies introduced are all challenging TAD, boasting energy savings of up to 40%. Still, TAD is alive and kicking but investments have slowed down dramatically. What’s in stock for the future? Will there be really new technologies or continuous improvements in existing ones, as we have seen over the years? Major breakthroughs in pulp through the application of modern science and specific, tailored, man-made fibers, the development of bio-technology is resulting in tree farms producing more and protecting the environment.


TISSUE CONVERTING. As I have often said, this is the area where you make money; this is the area where you should spend your capital; the returns come from there and your manufacturing costs are set by your choice. At the very beginning, toilet tissue was rewound by hand on a mandrel, then it became more sophisticated and companies developed equipment with winding speeds of a few “logs” a minute. In the early 1970’s, a new technology was born, originating from Italy. It was called “surface winding” and is today the technique used by most. The width of the rewinders closely followed the width of the tissue machine, up to 5.4/5.6 meters. Three 5.4-meter wide machines were built and are giving excellent results, but the manufacturer went back to half-sizes, due to the flexibility needs of a constantly changing market. Product design is playing a major role today, so sophistication in manufacturing has been the key to success. More and more products are embossed, glued, printed and designs never remain around for a long time but keep changing. This fact added the need for quick-change solutions, and the adaptability to market inputs through consumer surveys. The speed increased, too: up to about 1000 meters/minute and the number of logs delivered per minute is now up to 65 and 75. The machines are very sophisticated, computer controlled in such a way that you can program any type of product you may wish to make. The machines have become non-stop and can be serviced with a couple of people only. The lines have become “standard” with plug-and play-technology making possible combinations of embossing, laminating and printing – all in-line. Embossing plus laminating have become ways of differentiating as well as creating new products or variations. Tail sealing technology, log accumulation, orbital saws are now incorporated in modern lines and wrapping, bundling are also helping to go in the direction of operator-free functioning. End-of-line automation is also being built-in, robots are common, automatic display pallets can be made and transferred automatically to a truck or warehouse. It is feasible to go from the back of the paper machine to shipping without human intervention, thus allowing to better control the price to consumers, which, ultimately, is what we are aiming for. Competition is around the corner. Those who possess the latest technology have the best chance of being successful if they have the right products that fulfill consumers’ needs and wants. In these times of crisis, there will be a slowdown in the economy, but since toilet paper is a basic necessity, the most likely result will be a shift in value. We have already seen product re-design and a change in consumers’ buying patterns, moving to hard discount outlets. It also means that efforts need to be made in R&D to bring lower-cost products on the shelves, as well as to progress in the distribution channels.

Login or Register to publish a comment