Bum Fodder: An Absorbing History of Toilet Paper
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This is the hidden history of an invention that we use every day but seldom dare to speak of. In medieval China it was cutting-edge technology. For 19th-century Americans it was a newfangled alternative to dried corncobs and the Sears & Roebuck catalogue. Wits in Georgian London preferred pages of bad poetry. The sages of ancient Athens were content to wield the xylospongion instead. It's the tale of toilet paper; the biography of bumfodder. From its origins at the Imperial court of Emperor Hongwu to its reinvention as a quack remedy for haemorrhoids in 1870s New York city; from the Dutch and their mussel-shells to Henry VIII and his Groom of the Stool; from Madame de Prie's pioneering bidet to the space-age Washlet; from leaf-wielding chimpanzees to Mr Thirsty Fiber and the world's first three-adjective loo-roll – it's a story of necessity and invention, luxury and squalor, experiment and tradition. What does a submarine crew do when it runs out of toilet paper? Who stole the Pope's loo-roll? Does printer's ink cause piles? How do you fold a sheet of toilet paper in half more than seven times? What did 'bumphleteers' do, and why? Richard Smyth answers the questions you never thought to ask about the product we can't live without.
Piles do breed: May every ill, that bites, or smarts, Perplex him in his hinder parts. Perhaps the most gifted of all the writers who have added the barbed wipe to their armoury of satirical weapons is the greatest satirist of them all: Jonathan Swift (1667–1745), Dean of St Patrick’s cathedral, Dublin. Not for nothing did Coleridge call him ‘the soul of Rabelais dwelling in a dry place’; Voltaire, similarly, called him ‘Rabelais sober’. Such was Swift’s virtuosity in this field that he was
low-key and all-in-all very much in keeping with the best interior-decorating traditions of the church of Rome. But some felt that the details of the story did not quite ring true – and thus began a diverting Fleet Street spat that was brought to an end only when the Vatican itself stepped in to set the record straight. Klass’s story was questioned by the Guardian journalist Marina Hyde, who accused the singer – in so many words – of fabricating the incident for purposes of publicity. After
the following message (in German): Comrades! Enough with all this shit! We do not fight for Germany any longer but only for Hitler and Himmler. The Nazi Party has led us down this damn street but now the bigwigs only think of saving their own skin. They let us die in the dirt. We should hold out until the last cartridge. But we need the last cartridges to free Germany from the SS shit. Finish!! Peace!! Others carried mocking caricatures of Hitler or other members of the Nazi high command.
of the wipebreech is the fact that wipers since the dawn of human history have, through a combination of unreasoning contempt and unnecessary embarrassment, preferred not to dwell on the act of bum-wiping (despite engaging in the practice on at least a daily basis). Bumfodder is ephemeral; bumfodder is born to be flushed away. All too often – and not unironically – bumfodder has left no mark upon the historical record. No-one in Shakespeare, for instance, wipes their bottoms. There is no cry of
staying at new lodgings: ‘Feeling for a chamber-pott, there was none … so I was forced in this strange house to rise and shit in the chimney twice; and so to bed and was very well again.’ You would imagine that a man who owns up so frankly to defecating in another man’s chimney wouldn’t scruple to inform his public of his post-evacuation procedures. But no: in all of Pepys’ abundant memoir, bumfodder merits no mention at all. The same goes for Captain John G Bourke’s unreliable but eye-popping