By Ray Lesser
Paper towels take up almost an entire section of grocery store shelves, even more than pickles or canned tuna fish, and yet we know so little about how this came to be. Today we examine the very important question: Where did paper towels come from?
First of all, although many people don’t realize this, it took literally millions of years for human beings to invent paper, an essential element in the manufacture of paper towels. When we started to try to write things down, it probably involved scratching marks into the mud with a stick. This kind of record was okay for keeping track of things until it rained, or the dog stomped through our accounts receivable while chasing a squirrel. We needed something more permanent.
Enter the Stone Age. Scribes carefully made their marks onto the walls of caves. These records turned out to be much more permanent, but kind of hard to see in the dark. Plus, every time you wanted to jot down a thought, or add something to your grocery list, you were forced to start a fire, which in the case of many local tribes and scout troops took thousands of years to get the hang of.
Next, some genius innovator began writing on stone tablets. These were a lot easier to see and more portable than a cave. Tablets were also good for putting important ideas into the permanent record, which is why God used this method to help Moses remember not to covet his neighbor’s wife, which was something Moses apparently had a lot of problems with. However, it also caused a rash of hernias for the poor schmoes who had to schlep these tablets around. This was a particular problem for nomadic peoples, which at the time was almost everyone.
But one day, after a particularly fine feast of barbecued water buffalo, one of our ancestors had the brilliant idea of recording their thoughts onto the leftover bones. This worked well until the dog jumped up on the table when no one was looking and did what dogs do with bones. So much for the greatest story ever told.
Later, someone came up with the idea of writing on pieces of tree bark. Portable and lightweight, this seemed like an excellent solution to man’s record-keeping problems, and we’d probably still be writing on tree bark today if it weren’t for the bark beetles that kept biting our ancestors while they were trying to write their latest log blogs.
Finally Sam Walton, Sr., whose ancestors later went on to found Walmart and star in a TV series about grumpy old men, imported the first paper from China. This was a huge hit for all the writers who wanted to jot down their greatest poems, plays, essays, and novels, and then, in a fit of drunken rage, toss them into the fireplace. Paper also proved to be a terrific format for the mass distribution of news, advertising, and, when chopped up into a gazillion tiny pieces, something to dump on heroes returning from conquering Europe, or winning a football game. Governments also realized that they could take pieces of paper, print the pictures of their leaders on them, and then use them to purchase supplies for their armies, as long as the armies were available to point loaded guns at the suppliers.
But eventually Steve Jobs invented the iPhone and no one needed paper money, or newspapers, or books anymore. But there were still hundreds of paper manufacturers around the world with huge supplies of wood pulp that they needed to get off their lots. And that is where the idea of paper towels came from. Soon, they were manufacturing billions of sheets and rolls of towels, which are stocked in restrooms across the world where we now use them to wipe our hands once and then throw into the trash. Paper towels also proved extremely useful in soaking up some of the grease from my mother-in-law’s cooking, although according to my doctor, most of it still winds up clogging my arteries.
Next month: Where did this Congress come from, and can we just stick them in restrooms and then throw them all away like we do paper towels?