Part of my job as an Assistant Curator that I’ve absolutely loved is working in the museum stores with our fantastic collections. Sometimes though, due to the vast size of these collections, we come across some rather unexpected items. Such as toilet paper...
This box of Bromo toilet paper from the Maritime Museum's collection (accession number 1986.210.194) dates from the late 19th or early 20th century and was a popular brand in its day. The paper inside the box is in individual sheets, rather than the rolls we’re now familiar with, and its texture is not dissimilar to that of a paperback novel... despite it’s claims to being ‘soft and strong’ I suspect most of us would be reluctant to give it a home in our bathrooms today!
So why does the Maritime Museum have this absorbing item? Had collecting standards gone down the pan? Should we be flushed with embarrassment at this seemingly non-maritime object sneaking into our collections? Perhaps it’s my puns that should be causing a flush of embarrassment.
Toilet humour aside, there is a good reason we collect this sort of object. Toilets and sanitation are a vital part of everyday life. Everyday items like toilet paper may not always look like much but they can tell us a great deal about how people lived.
The 19th and 20th centuries saw massive changes when it came to hygiene and sanitation. Commercially marketed toilet paper is widely agreed to date from the 1850s and the same century saw a vastly increased interest in public sanitation and sewage systems along with a growing acceptance of the flushing toilet.
Sanitation at sea
We can see evidence of this at sea just as on land. If we take the example of a couple of the great Cunard passenger liners we can see a decided alteration in ideas of public hygiene during this time period. The 1879 liner Gallia had only two baths on board for her 1500 passengers and crew, compare this with the Lusitania only 27 years later which had automatically flushing toilets on board long before they became common place on land!
The reason behind Lusitania’s automatic flush though is rather telling of the state of sanitation on land at that time. These were the Steerage toilets and Cunard were concerned that the passengers may not have encountered indoor plumbing before, let alone flushing toilets, and so might leave them unflushed leading to embarrassing aromas and blockages in the plumbing. Not a good situation to find yourself in mid-Atlantic, especially not if you’re the one that has to fix it!
The idea of people not having ever encountered a flushing toilet or indoor plumbing a mere century back is a good reminder of just how recent an innovation widespread modern sanitation is. What is far more shocking than this however are the statistics that suggest that a third of the world’s population still lacks access to adequate sanitation. This innocuous, and slightly humorous, box of uncomfortable looking toilet paper tells us how relatively high standards of sanitation were amongst the better off at the time it was being marketed. Higher indeed than they still are for some people in the world today.
Things we take for granted, like toilet paper, can tell a far more significant story about our society than we realise. Significant enough that one day the everyday items in your home may even end up in a museum.