Joe Kissell at Interesting Thing of the Day does a little investigation to try to piece together The Story of Toilet Paper. If someone is going on about how idyllic life was before capitalism destroyed our more natural way of life (e.g., distributists, environmentalists, communitarians, hippies, etc.) then just bringing up the lack of toilet paper prior to the mid-19th century should snap them out of it. (Thanks to my very funny friend Richard Taylor for pointing this out years ago. He made this point to a classroom full of lefties waxing nostalgic about the past.)
One thing that is clear from Kissell’s history is that this is a story of capitalism. Entrepreneurs innovating to iteratively approach a solution that consumers find ideal (until someone comes up with something even more ideal of course). Here is my favorite bit:
A 1935 ad for Northern Tissue boasted that it was “splinter-free,” but this does not in any way suggest that all toilet paper prior to that time had splinters!