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Why were paper towels invented? History and evolution of the paper towel

While we use paper towels today to clean up a number of accidents, the invention of the paper towel itself was too an accident. Ever since their accidental invention, paper towels have greatly reduced the spread of germs and disease, as well as cleaning up a few messes along the way. The paper towel lets us know that it’s okay for accidents to happen, and sometimes they even spark a brilliant new invention. Let’s discuss what lead up to the invention of the paper towel, and how it has impacted the home, and the environment. 

Single paper towel roll on white background

Before We Used Paper Towels

Before paper towels, cloth towels were used in the home for cleaning up messes and for personal hygiene. Cloth towels were used in the home, but also in public toilets. Therefore when we washed our hands in the bathroom, we all would have to dry them using the same communal towel. This would inevitably increase the risk of spreading germs. Noticing this issue, a local teacher gave sick school children individual “pieces of paper to dry their hands so they wouldn’t contaminate the communal washroom cloth towels”[5]. Little did this teacher know, this ingenious idea would contribute to the marketing of a brand new invention, the paper towel.

Why Was the Paper Towel Invented?

In order to discuss the invention of paper towels, we must first discuss their predecessor, toilet paper. The Philadelphia-based company Scott Paper Company was the first to sell toilet paper on a roll, in 1879[4]. Before toilet paper’s invention in the late 19th century, early Americans would use items like a newspaper when it was available[1]. Interestingly newspaper and catalog “manufacturers often created holes in the corners of their papers so they could be easily hung and used in outhouses”[1]. In 1857 a product called “medicated paper”[1] would replace the need for newspaper, but it still didn’t have the comfortability of modern toilet paper. Thankfully, the Scott Paper Company in 1879 had invented the rolled soft toilet paper that we recognize today, and by the turn of the 20th-century, toilet paper was standard in bathrooms across America.

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Hand pulling paper towel from wall dispenser

Several years later in 1907, Arthur Scott (the son of the Scott Paper Company founder, Irvine E. Scott) was confronted with an issue. A shipment of toilet paper had come in much too thick. Having heard about the school teacher who distributed paper to dry the hands of school children to prevent the spread of sickness, Scott was struck with a fantastic idea. He would perforate the accidentally thick toilet paper, and market it as a product for more sanitary hand drying. This new product was named ‘Sani-Towels’ and was marketed with the tagline “for use once by one user”[3]. The Sani-Towel was sold in paper-wrapped stacks of sheets and was distributed among schools, restaurants, hotels, and train station washrooms[5]. The days of using a communal towel in public spaces could gladly be put in the past.

While paper towels were initially marketed for sanitary purposes, in 1931[2]. Scott would go on to invent what we officially know as the paper towel today; which was a soft paper product to replace the kitchen towel, divided into perforated sheets on a roll. The marketing of paper towels was directed toward housewives, but many weren’t ready to give up the trusty kitchen towel. There were still a number of tasks in the kitchen that required a kitchen towel, like drying dishes, and therefore paper towels weren’t common in kitchens across America for several more years.

Paper Towels as a Kitchen Staple

Today in North America, paper towels are nearly as common in the kitchen as is a stove. The convenience of paper towels is surely a selling factor, and the disposable nature of paper towels can make clean-up tasks less daunting, as there is no extra laundry to do after the initial cleanup is done. They are also more hygienic than regular towers, as they do not harbor bacteria, and can be thrown away after one use.

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Paper Towels in the Medical Field

Paper towels are so hygienic, that doctors and medical care workers have used them to keep their hands clean since the paper towels invention. Drying your hands is extremely important as wet hands are more likely to spread bacteria, even if they have been washed. But for those of you at home who want to cut back on your paper towel usage, a clean hand towel will do just the trick, as long as you don’t plan on performing surgery later.

Person drying dishes with kitchen towel

 

The Dirty Secret about Paper Towel

Despite the many uses and hygienic properties of paper towels, the amount of resources that go behind the manufacturing of paper towels is a bit of a dirty secret, and while they clean up a lot of messes around the world, they sure know how to make messes too.

Did you know in the U.S. alone we use 13 billion pounds of paper towels every year?[6] In fact, paper towel waste accounts for 254 million tons of global trash every single anually[6]. The rate at which we use paper towels far exceeds their necessity, and don’t be afraid to admit it, we’ve all used a sheet of paper towel unnecessarily while the kitchen towel glared at us from its hook. But, we can stop this mess before it turns into total disarray, “if every household in the U.S. used just one less 70-sheet roll of paper towels, that would save 544,000 trees each year”[6], not to mention thousands of tons of waste from landfills.

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Kicking the paper towel habit can be difficult because it has become such an integral product for many of our cleaning routines. Paper towels can also be used in cooking and hygiene which makes them even more useful. Several companies however are trying to fill this paper towel-shaped void in consumers’ pantries by creating a number of more environmentally friendly alternatives. From biodegradable reusable paper towels to plain old cloth kitchen towels, there are countless sustainable swaps that are sure to get the job done. You can keep the paper towels to maintain good hygiene and reduce the risk of germs spreading in the home, but try using cloth towels when cleaning the kitchen counters. If we all just reduce our usage of disposable paper towels we can make a great impact on the environment.

The Future of Paper Towels

The paper towel no doubt has kept us germ-free for many years, and while we’re happy to keep paper towels in public spaces, we should all try to collectively cut down on our use in the home. Regardless of their unfortunately unsustainable nature, paper towels are an ingenious invention, be it accidental or not. They are more convenient than regular kitchen towels and are more hygienic. But, and it’s a big but, their effect on the environment cannot be ignored. Even Arthur Scott would be shocked at just how popular the paper towel has become but probably would wish he had thought of a better way to dispose of them. Many paper manufacturing companies have taken strides in producing more sustainable versions of paper towels, made from recycled, biodegradable, or reusable materials, so if you’re having a hard time making the switch to regular old rags, try a greener version. Reducing your paper towel use just by a roll or two a year can have an incredible impact on the environment. We are very grateful that paper towels have helped families across the world clean up countless messes, and it’s time we return the favor and clean up the mess we’ve made.

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Article Sources:

  1. Reader’s Digest. “This Is What People Used Before Toilet Paper Existed
  2. Science Struck. “The Intriguing History of Paper Towels Not Many People Know About
  3. Toilet Paper History. “Paper Towel History
  4. Wikipedia. “Scott Paper Company
  5. Who Gives a Crap. “History of paper towels
  6. Cottage Care. “The Dirty Details [and facts] on Paper Towels and Sponges