Why an 1891 toilet paper patent is all over Facebook

New attention shines on an old patent as social media revives the great over-or-under toilet paper debate.

Toilet-paper patent
Seth Wheeler is the father of modern toilet paper. Seth Wheeler

I knew something was up by the time I saw a fourth toilet paper-related post on Facebook, all from different, unconnected friends. Just to be sure this was a real phenomenon, I went over to Twitter. Sure enough, a search for #toiletpaper delivered a considerable number of results. It seems the great over-or-under debate is alive on social media, but this time some new evidence has entered the fray.

This "new evidence" is actually very old evidence. The topic of conversation is a patent from 1891 with the dull title "Wrapping or toilet paper roll." Inventor Seth Wheeler of Albany, New York, patented a toilet paper roll with tear-off sheets. Essentially, it's the modern toilet-paper roll as we know and love it.

What my Facebook friends have latched onto are the illustrations accompanying the patent. They quite clearly show the paper in an "over" position. If the inventor of perforated toilet paper believed the roll should be "over," then surely that settles the debate, right?

Wheeler was a busy man when it came to toilet paper patents. He also received patents for a multiroll toilet paper holder, a toilet paper fixture and a process for ornamenting toilet paper to give it a pleasing diamond-patterned look. He probably even dreamed about toilet paper.

Who was Seth Wheeler, this mysterious savior of bathroom hygiene? According to Toilet Paper History, he was the "official 'inventor' of toilet paper" and the owner of the Albany Perforated Wrapping Paper Company, the first business to sell toilet paper on a roll.

I'm a dedicated "over" person myself. Should the topic ever come up in conversation, I will certainly point out the patent as evidence of my toilet tissue righteousness. But I'm not an unreasonable person. I believe there is room for us all, even the misguided people who subscribe to the "under" approach.

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