Now that Coastal Georgia has joined most of the world in virtual lock down, I have been thinking about the essential errands we are allowed to run and in particular the grocery shopping experience and how different it is at the moment. I remember the first time I visited an American grocery store in the late 1990s in the Midwest when visiting my future parents-in-law. The United Kingdom is a great country with no shortages in normal times but the sheer largesse and range of groceries in the USA, plus all the open space and lack of crowds in the stores, really shocked me.
Back then most British grocery stores were pretty small and many still are. We also had very limited opening hours and Sunday closing which led, especially in the big cities like London with a high-density population, to a very crowded shopping experience.
There is a reason that the British don’t mind queuing (as we call standing in line) – we grow up with it as part of life!
Back to my first experiences of U.S. grocery shopping. I remember I was dazzled by the pristine lines of perfectly formed fruit and produce polished and uniform in look and color. The range and types of food were astounding, and some of the huge package sizes were mind blowing.
Remember, the British generally have smaller homes, and most have much smaller kitchen storage and a small, under- counter size refrigerator that most Americans associate with a camper van or in an office credenza. Buying a gallon jug of milk is just not reasonable for many Brits.
So let’s move on to the delicate but now widely talked about subject of toilet paper. When you move to a different country and culture, one of the first unexpected decisions you have to make is what brands of household products to buy.
When we arrived here 11 years ago, I chose the brand Cottonelle for no real reason other than it featured puppies in their advertising, which in turn reminded me of the Andrex brand in the U.K. that also used puppies on packaging.
Everyone who knows me knows that I am a dog lover, but what marketing genius guessed it would sell me toilet paper on two different continents as well?
Turning back to the present. I am not going to comment on the genuinely worrying shortages of hand sanitizer, anti-microbial cleaning products, masks, gloves and the like, but I really do wonder about the whole toilet paper shortage.
Don’t get me wrong, I am a great believer in comfort and plentiful supplies of luxury toilet tissue, and have a reasonable amount at home that I hope will last until the supply chain returns to semi-normal.
However, I refuse to get overly anxious about this one.
For a start, did you know that toilet tissue, as we recognize it today, was only invented in the late 19th century? There is historical evidence that the ancient Chinese, who invented paper, began using a primitive form of toilet paper (instead of washing themselves) thousands of years ago.
In 1391, perfumed sheets of toilet paper were created for the Chinese Emperor and his family. However, Europeans and early American pioneers who relied on outhouses are reported to have used grass, straw, leaves, moss or whatever natural vegetation was at hand.
As printed products became commonly available, people began to use old newspapers and catalogues, cut into appropriate sized sheets. However, with the rise in flushable toilets, products that would not clog pipes were needed.
In some parts of the world – such as in southern Europe and South America – much of the plumbing is still just not up to the job, so toilet paper is thrown away into special receptacles or washing is encouraged as an alternative.
I remember as a young woman travelling on vacation to Greece encountering strict instructions to never flush any paper down “the loo” (as the British refer to the toilet).
The French have always been big fans of the bidet, which historically was favored by the aristocracy after horse riding and ladies of the night for personal hygiene purposes.
The Japanese have taken this to a whole new level with electronic toilet seats that use jets of water to wash you, as well as extras such as built in water heaters, warm air dryers, heated seats and more.
The first commercial packaged toilet paper was produced in flat sheets infused with aloe for therapeutic purposes in 1857. This therapeutic paper, which bore the name of its New York inventor, Gayetty, failed to gain much of a following.
The Scott brothers, Clarence and Edward Irvin, founded the Scott Paper Company in Philadelphia in 1879, and proudly introduced toilet paper on rolls in 1890.
In 1897, the Albany Perforated Wrapping Paper Company began selling and marketing toilet paper on rolls with standardized perforations.
And in 1942 toilet paper became softer after St. Andrew’s Paper Mill in England began selling the first two-ply toilet paper, which is now the standard in many countries across the world.
Finally, America experienced its first toilet paper shortage in 1973 after one of Johnny Carson’s jokes on late-night TV scared consumers into stockpiling supplies. Believe it or not, there is a website you can learn more on this subject (I am not making this up), www.toiletpaperhistory.
net. I say goodbye this week with an amusing quote currently making the rounds of unknown provenance: “The person who said, ‘You don’t know what you got till it’s gone,’ was probably talking about toilet paper.”
God bless America. Stay safe, stay well and stay positive.