A Victorian Paper Trail

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By | From the Collections

Among books, journal articles, pamphlets and bound volumes of patents about Victorian toilets (flushing or non-flushing), systems of varying complexity for the disposal (and recycling) of human sewage and many items about personal and household hygiene; we also have in the Wellcome Library’s Ephemera Collection what must be fairly scarce examples of late 19th century toilet paper.

Our main example comes from the 1870s, when one popular product was the Diamond Mills Paper Company’s ‘Bromo Paper’ which came in packs of about 500 individual sheets inside a solid card box (21 x 15 x 3 cm.), open at the top so that single sheets could be pulled out as required. Every sheet had a distinguishing watermark of ‘Bromo’ so that counterfeit versions could be easily spotted (the packaging states this was a problem in India). This toilet tissue had been awarded the highest prize at the Paris Exposition in 1878 and every pack proudly bore reproductions of both sides of the medal to prove it. The Wellcome Library holds one such pack, now catalogued as EPH471A.

The paper contained the “disinfectants and curatives” Bromo chloralum and carbolic acid, which the manufacturers’ claimed would “…render its use not only a positive preventive of that most distressing and almost universal complaint, the Piles, but also a thorough deodorizer and disinfectant of the water closet”. However common haemorrhoids were at the time, the flush toilet was certainly not standard in 1878 and the smells that would have developed in the non-flush version, particularly over a hot summer, would have needed all the help with deodorization that could be given.

The pack would have slotted neatly inside a wooden case which hung from a nail in the water closet wall, next to the toilet. A typical toilet paper polished wood case that would have held the box of individual sheets is illustrated on what is most likely a salesman’s sample sheet of ‘Globus’ paper (EPH471:38) and was available from John Miller, Ltd., manufacturing stationers, 116 Renfield Street, Glasgow for one shilling. If you preferred your paper on a varnished wood and bronze finish toilet roll holder (illustrated on the ‘Excelsior’ paper sample, EPH471:37), that could be purchased from the same firm for one shilling and threepence. The samples would have been shown to prospective retail stockists by hopeful salesmen.

John Miller Ltd. also manufactured ‘Purolette’ (EPH471:39) and ‘Silkine’ (EPH471:40) brands of paper. They promised no stoppage of drains or injury to health (whatever injuries other brands of toilet paper may have been causing at the time…) and were advertised as being soft as silk, but also thin and tough. The samples we have feel more like greaseproof paper than silk – which makes us wonder what our Victorian ancestors would have made of today’s luxury toilet paper brands.

As today is World Toilet Day – which raises awareness on sanitation in the present day – it seems the perfect occasion to ponder these examples of nineteenth century sanitation advancement. Furthermore, as all the thousands of items in the Library’s Ephemera Collection share the fact they had a practical use before being discarded, can there be more apt examples of ephemera than our surviving material from John Miller Ltd and the Diamond Mills Papers Co. ?

Author: Stephen Lowther

Ross Macfarlane

Ross Macfarlane is the Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.

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