“‘Toilet paper is the new scroll. :P’"

Curator's Note

There’s an intriguing Bill and Ted quality to the way Mitchell and Kyle’s conversation bumps into crucial book history debates and corresponds with the scatological humor of Shakespeare (and Rabelais, among many others). Pointing at the roll in Mitchell’s hand, Kyle yells “That’s an intricate design!” Mitchell, holding the roll toward the camera, replies, “That is not intricate!” (2:12-15). At the heart of the debate is a disagreement about “repurposing a media object” (or, in this case, repurposing an object to make it media).

We’re tempted to think of books as assemblages of materials that have found their raison d’être in the final form of a book, but “book” is just one waypoint in the life of composite textual materials. Potty humor is especially appropriate in book history because the eschatology of paper tends toward scat. Flax plants might make a full cycle as linen underwear, as rags, as paper in a book, as toilet paper, then as fertilizer for flax plants. Repeat cycle.

Bookworms can interrupt this cycle, according to Robert Hooke. Feeding on the “husks of Hemp and Flax” in paper . . . [bookworms] reduce them into another form” and fast-track the association between paper fibers and fecal matter. Textual instability is a symptom not only of editorial practices, but also of ecology.

Because, as Jon commented earlier this week, paper is more than “a material support for print,” printed paper was (and still is) routinely recycled in practical ways that counter editorial design and repurpose media objects for their material value:

Kyle: “Oh, so if I just, you know, pull out a composition notebook and start wiping my [bleep] with it, what’s that?”

Mitchell: “That means, then you’re using it as t.p.”

Kyle: “No! That’s not toilet paper, that’s notebook paper. It’s got lines and it’s specifically designed for writing.” (1:54-2:08)

Does pen on paper make it writing paper, whatever its design? Do lines on paper make it writing paper, whatever its use? An ad campaign for the School of Visual Arts in New York played with this very dilemma by stocking restrooms with ruled t.p.

A few of this video’s 8,000+ commenters seem to have noticed that, while notebook paper can become toilet paper, toilet paper cannot technically become a notebook. Mitchell’s literary object corresponds with an even older writing technology, as ItsJillyBug pointedly notes: “Well its a scroll. Lmao”. 

“Toilet paper is the new scroll. :P”, comments xXxincisionxXx. Actually, it’s true. Koji Suzuki recently worked with a Japanese papermaking company to have his horror novella Drop (2009) printed on toilet paper (from 100% recycled paper).The nine-chapter novella repeats every 86 cm (according to my unscientific, in-home calculation, that’s one chapter per sheet), offering what, in light of the textual history of paper, seems a reasonable compromise between form and function.

All of which leads to one essential question about design: should t.p. text be printed over or under


Hey Joshua, In the case of t.p., sizing would have made that paper much more "useable" as a writing surface, although like Jeyes t.p., which used to hang out in loos in the UK, it would be a little rough on the tush (sp?).

Your question about the sizing of "book" (letterpress printing) paper is a good one. In the common press era, it was customary and good practice to dampen tough rag paper, and if the paper was heavily gelatin sized, that hampered the adsorption of water, and led to more easily mildewed paper. But sizing also strengthened the sheets so that while damp they were easier to manipulate into the press. So in the handmade era, all paper was probably externally gelatin-sized to some degree depending on use: less for book paper, more for plate and writing paper. But when the internal size, alum-rosin, came along in the 1830s, it was no longer necessary to additionally surface-size book paper. Additionally, with the advent of cylinder presses that exerted much more pressure on the paper/type, and the more consistent quality of machine-made book papers, the less paper needed to be dampened. By the time web presses were in use, 1860s on, the reeled paper was barely humidified just before going into the press. That meant the paper and the ink dried faster and fewer problems with cutting, folding, and storage, etc.


Your invocation of ecology makes me want to read Richard Frame's 1692 "Short Description of Pennsylvania," in which the Rittenhouse Mill is described more closely alongside 18th-century naturalist writing.  I've been interested in how the cycle of flax->paper->flax in that poem requires no material input from outside Pennsylvania, signaling a kind of independence from colonial power.  I need to think more closely, you're making me realize, about where paper objects fit in imagined American ecologies later invoked to compare colonial/early National America to Europe.

Your post reminded me of a course I took with Nancy Armstrong in college. As she was assigning the first essay, she told us "If you want to spill your guts onto the page, please make sure to put it in a plastic bag before turning it in." It was a joke about interiority -- the course was on feminist theory -- but it also pointed towards something often overlooked in media history and theory, which is just how messy media can be.

I wonder if we could think about media history not only in terms of ecology, but in terms of "hygiene" or some such value. Parchment was really messy, paper less so, plastic is still tidier... Or rather, plastic disguises the messiness of its production far better that parchment or even paper (though as Cathleen showed us, this is a tricky and variable thing).


Just to pick up where Ben left off -- hygiene plays a HUGE role in media history, especially the history of paper. One of the main advantages of wood paper over rags was that its production was more hygienic; collecting all of that cloth (especially handkerchiefs and undergarments) spread disease.

But paper cups, paper bags, paper wrappings, are really all a part of the same history, the same impulse that leads us to wrap everything in plastic.

One of the classic insults for either bad writing or inexpensive book/papermaking was to call it "bum-fodder" or "bumf." (There was also a seventeenth-century song by the same title, with plenty of jokes about the Rump Parliament.)

There's also the anecdotal histories about the success of the Sears Roebuck catalog being tied to its suitability as toilet paper. Apparently the folks at Sears made a smoother, more absorbent sheet. As catalogs and telephone books disappear, this is an aspect of our material culture that will make no sense to historians centuries from now.

I like the way the levity of toilet paper makes it a good thing to think with, its unseriousness gives you pause, and thus time to think.  It's like a material proxy for the internet...

What I wanted to say though was that I what I liked was the way t.p. helps us think about the term communication within a larger circuit than traditional reception theory (or production theory) would have it -- beyond the usual places of reading, seeing, listening (or directing, writing and composing) and towards a host of other parts that make-up the movements of mediation and how those movements (yes pun intended) have meaning.  I often thought that "ecology" was a useful term because it helped us think about the relations between media -- the way we've chopped media studies up the same way we've chopped everything else up -- but I like this idea that it helps us think about the life cycles of things.  "Paper" rather than "books" seems a possibly more productive way into this question.

Just an fyi, Leah Price has written a neat article on this topic in case others don't know of it in Representations:

 "From The History of a Book to a 'History of the Book'", Representations. Berkeley: Fall 2009. , Iss. 108;  pg. 120, 20 pgs

Here's the abstract (which does a better job than the title):

The ambition of this article is to wrest attention away from the fraction of any book's life cycle spent in the hands of readers and toward, instead, the whole spectrum of social practices for which printed matter provides a prompt. It asks, how accounts of print culture would look if narrated from the point of view not of human readers and users, but of the book. Turning to the nineteenth-century genre of "it-narrative"-which traces the travel of a book among a series of owners and handlers-it asks how such a narrative might compare to more familiar accounts of selves shaped by texts.


Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.