Toilet paper orientation
Toilet paper when used with a toilet roll holder with a horizontal axle parallel to the floor and also parallel to the wall has two possible orientations: the toilet paper may hang over (in front of) or under (behind) the roll; if perpendicular to the wall, the two orientations are right-left or near-away. The choice is largely a matter of personal preference, dictated by habit. In surveys of US consumers and of bath and kitchen specialists, 60–70 percent of respondents prefer over.
Some people hold strong opinions on the matter; advice columnist Ann Landers said that the subject was the most responded to (15,000 letters in 1986) and controversial issue in her column's history. Defenders of either position cite advantages ranging from aesthetics, hospitality, and cleanliness to paper conservation, the ease of detaching individual sheets, and compatibility with setting specifics such as recreational vehicles or having pets. Some writers have proposed connections to age, sex, or political philosophy, and survey evidence has shown a correlation with socioeconomic status.
Solutions range from compromise, to using separate dispensers or separate bathrooms entirely, or simply ignoring the issue altogether. One man advocates a plan under which his country will standardize on a single forced orientation, and at least one inventor hopes to popularize a new kind of toilet roll holder which swivels from one orientation to the other.
Context and relevance
In the article "Bathroom Politics: Introducing Students to Sociological Thinking from the Bottom Up", Eastern Institute of Technology sociology professor Edgar Alan Burns describes some reasons toilet paper politics is worthy of examination. On the first day of Burns' introductory course in sociology, he asks his students, "Which way do you think a roll of toilet paper should hang?" In the following fifty minutes, the students examine why they picked their answers, exploring the social construction of "rules and practices which they have never consciously thought about before".
Burns' activity has been adopted by a social psychology course at the University of Notre Dame, where it is used to illustrate the principles of Berger and Luckmann's 1966 classic The Social Construction of Reality.
Christopher Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, classifies the choice of toilet paper orientation under "tastes, preferences, and interests" as opposed to either values or "attitudes, traits, norms, and needs". Other personal interests include one's favorite cola or baseball team. Interests are an important part of identity; one expects and prefers that different people have different interests, which serves one's "sense of uniqueness". Differences in interests usually lead at most to teasing and gentle chiding. For most people, interests don't cause the serious divisions caused by conflicts of values; a possible exception is what Peterson calls "the 'get a life' folks among us" who elevate interests into moral issues.
Morton Ann Gernsbacher, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, compares the orientation of toilet paper to the orientation of cutlery in a dishwasher, the choice of which drawer in a chest of drawers to place one's socks, and the order of shampooing one's hair and lathering one's body in the shower. In each choice, there is a prototypical solution chosen by the majority, and it is tempting to offer simplistic explanations of how the minority must be different. She warns that neuroimaging experiments—which as of 2007 were beginning to probe behaviors from mental rotation and facial expressions to grocery shopping and tickling—must strive to avoid such cultural bias and stereotypes.
In his book Conversational Capital, Bertrand Cesvet gives toilet paper placement as an example of ritualized behavior—one of the ways designers and marketers can create a memorable experience around a product that leads to word-of-mouth momentum. Cesvet's other examples include shaking a box of Tic Tacs and dissecting Oreo cookies.
Broadcaster Jim Bohannon has said that such issues are good for talk radio: "It is an interactive medium, a certain kind of clash, it doesn't have to be a violent clash, but at least a disagreement would certainly be at the top of the list. It has to be something that's of general interest."
Arguments for over or under
The main reasons given by people to explain why they hang their toilet paper a given way are ease of grabbing and habit. Some particular advantages cited for each orientation include:
- Over reduces the risk of accidentally brushing the wall or cabinet with one's knuckles, potentially transferring grime and germs.
- Over makes it easier to visually locate and to grasp the loose end.
- Over gives hotels, cruise ships, office buildings, public places and homeowners with guest bathrooms the option to fold over the last sheet to show that the room has been cleaned.
- Over is generally the intended direction of viewing for the manufacturer's branding, so patterned toilet paper looks better this way.
- Under provides a tidier appearance, in that the loose end can be more hidden from view.
- Under reduces the risk that a toddler or a house pet, such as a dog or cat, will completely unroll the toilet paper when batting at the roll.
- Under in a recreational vehicle may reduce unrolling during driving.
Partisans have claimed that each method makes it easier to tear the toilet paper on a perforated sheet boundary, depending on the direction of pulling and the use of a second hand to stabilize the roll. (A traveller from the U.S. to China in 1991 noted a different setup: non-perforated paper with a metal cutter above the roll, which obliges the over direction.)
In the academic field of evaluation, Michael Scriven writes that the question of the correct way to insert toilet paper is a "one-item aptitude test" for measuring one's evaluation skills. These skills include the evaluative attitude, practical logical analysis, empathy, teaching, and being a quick study. To prove one's competence, one may either derive the "one right answer" or prove that the test is or is not culturally biased.
The question "Do you prefer that your toilet tissue unwinds over or under the spool?" is featured on the cover of Barry Sinrod and Mel Poretz's 1989 book The First Really Important Survey of American Habits. The overall result: 68 percent chose over. Sinrod explained, "To me, the essence of the book is the toilet paper question ... Either people don't care, or they care so much that they practically cause bodily injury to one another." Poretz observed, "The toilet-paper question galvanizes people almost like the Miller Lite tastes-great/less-filling commercial."
In Bernice Kanner's 1995 book Are You Normal?, 53 percent of survey respondents prefer over, while "a fourth" prefer under and 8 percent do not know or care.
Sitting Pretty: The History of the Toilet, a travelling exhibition that tours Canadian museums, asks visitors to register their preferred roll direction. When the exhibition reached Huntsville, Ontario, in June 2001, 13,000 visitors had taken the survey, with 67 percent preferring over. At the Saint Boniface Museum in Winnipeg in February 2005, a voting machine registered 5,831 over versus 5,679 under, or 51 percent over. Saint Boniface's director noted, "I think there's been some cheating, though."
- 1993 Practices and Preferences of Toilet Paper Users: 73 percent over out of 1,200 respondents. The press release claims, "A first-of-its-kind survey has settled, once and for all, the great toilet paper debate."
- 1994 Toilet Paper Report: 59 percent over, out of 1,000 respondents; conducted by KRC Research and Consulting
- 1995 Bathroom Tissue Report: 59 percent over versus 29 percent under, out of 1,000 respondents; conducted by KRC Research and Consulting
- 2001 Bathroom Confidential: 63 percent over out of 1,001 respondents; conducted by Impulse Research
- 2004 Bathroom Confidential: 72 percent over
In 1993, American Standard Brands conducted a poll of "designers, contractors, dealers, distributors and other bath and kitchen reps" at the Kitchen/Bath Industry Show & Conference in Atlanta. The question: "What is the correct and only way to hang the toilet paper – under or over?" Over won 59 percent of the vote, 1,826 to 1,256. American Standard spokeswoman Nora Monroe observed, "The bathroom is a territorial place. You'd be surprised how many people have definite opinions on this issue." In 2008, American Standard commissioned the 2008 Bathroom Habits Survey, a more traditional format conducted by Opinion Research Corporation with 1,001 respondents. This time, "three-quarters" answered over.
In 1995, a survey by Scott Paper Company's "Cottonelle College of Freshness Knowledge" had "most Americans over 50" preferring over. In another Cottonelle survey in 1999, 68 percent of respondents preferred over to 25 percent under. Columnist Bonnie Henry hypothesizes of the others: "Meanwhile, 7 percent – no doubt bored beyond belief at this point by the inane questioning – had slipped into a deep, irreversible coma."
On January 27, 2010, the 100th anniversary of Thomas Crapper's death, Cottonelle launched a "Great Debate" advertising campaign, inviting American consumers to vote their preference at a Kimberly-Clark website. The result was announced during the 82nd Academy Awards: 72 percent had voted over. In a more traditional preliminary survey of 1,000 Americans, Cottonelle found that "overs" are more likely than "unders" to notice a roll's direction (74 percent), to be annoyed when the direction is incorrect (24 percent), and to have flipped the direction at a friend's home (27 percent).
Sex and age
Poretz and Sinrod break down the results of their 1989 survey by sex and age. These are the percentages of respondents who roll their paper under:
The book does not note the number of respondents in each segment, so it is difficult to say whether any of the deviations are statistically significant, but there does not seem to be a difference between men's and women's preferences. Nonetheless, such a difference has been claimed by other authors, in both directions. The American Standard conference poll concluded: "Many men voted for over, saying it made the paper easier to reach." Inventor Curtis Batts arrives at a different conclusion from his personal experience: "Women like it over, and men like it under. I think it bugs women when it touches the wall." Advice columnist Ms Maud of The Press asserts that women prefer over because they are "logical thinkers".
A Cottonelle survey indicated that men were more likely than women to notice, and become annoyed with, a toilet roll hung against their preference.
A popular-culture occurrence of a gender theory is found in the Weekly World News, a supermarket tabloid that runs outlandish stories for comedic effect. In the 2003 story North Korea Shocker!, the WWN claimed that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was secretly female. As supporting evidence, Kim supposedly watched the Home Shopping Network, is a member of Oprah's Book Club, and "Yells at staffers who leave the toilet seat up and hang toilet paper rolls outward instead of inward."
According to W. C. Privy's Original Bathroom Companion, Number 2, "By more than 4 to 1, older folks prefer to have their toilet paper dispense over the front." The same claim is made by James Buckley's The Bathroom Companion for people older than 50.
Class and politics
Sinrod observed of his survey, "60 percent of those who earn $50,000 or more prefer it to be over and 73 percent of those who earn less than $20,000 prefer under". On what that proves: "I don't know, but it's sure interesting."
In one local election in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, new voting machines were given a trial run by asking the question, "Are you in favor of toilet paper in all public washrooms being installed with the loose end coming up and over the front of the roll?" The answer was yes: 768 to 196, or 80 percent over. It was thought to be a question "which carried no political association". Yet one teenager's science project at the Southern Appalachian Science and Engineering Fair, and a favorite of the fair's coordinator, was a survey concluding that liberals roll over while conservatives roll under.
Advice columnist Ann Landers (Eppie Lederer) was once asked which way toilet paper should hang. She answered under, prompting thousands of letters in protest; she then recommended over, prompting thousands more. She reflected that the 15,000 letters made toilet paper the most controversial issue in her column's 31-year history, wondering, "With so many problems in the world, why were thousands of people making an issue of tissue?"
In November 1986, Landers told the Canadian Commercial Travellers Association that "Fine-quality toilet paper has designs that are right side up" in the over position. In 1996, she explained the issue on The Oprah Winfrey Show, where 68 percent of the studio audience favored over; Oprah suggested that under uses more paper. In 1998, she wrote that the issue "seems destined to go on forever", insisting, "In spite of the fact that an overwhelming number of people prefer the roll hung so that the paper comes over the top, I still prefer to have the paper hanging close to the wall." On the day of her last column in 2002, Landers wrote, "P.S. The toilet paper hangs over the top." Her published commentary on the issue has even continued after her death. 2005 saw the premiere of a one-woman play written by David Rambo: a character study of Ann Landers titled The Lady with All the Answers. Toilet paper comes up once again, and the actress surveys the audience for their opinions.
In his article in Teaching Sociology, Burns writes that the toilet paper hanging exercise is valuable in part because "[the] subject matter is familiar to everybody; everyone is an expert, and everyone has an opinion." Many entertainers, celebrities and businesspeople have publicized their opinion on the topic.
Even at the Amundsen–Scott Research Station at the South Pole, complaints have been raised over which way to install toilet paper. During the six-month-long polar night, a few dozen residents are stuck living together, and while many of the headaches of modern life are far away, food and hygiene are not. Despite the challenges posed by the hostile Antarctic climate, "It is in the more mundane trials of everyday life that personality clashes are revealed."
Some of the proposed solutions to this problem involve more or better technology, while others concentrate on human behavior.
The Tilt-A-Roll is a swiveling toilet paper dispenser invented by Curtis Batts in 1996, a Dallas-native industrial engineer. His patents on the invention, summarize its design as "An adjustable angle coupling secures the yoke to the mounting assembly and permits rotation of the yoke about an axis directed orthogonally through the spindle such that the paper roll can be oriented to unroll paper either from over or from under the roll as desired." An inventor named Rocky Hutson demonstrated a similar device he called the T.P. Swivel to the producers of the television program PitchMen in late 2009. 
Another solution is to install two toilet paper dispensers, as is more common in public restrooms and hotels. A reader of the Annie's Mailbox column recommends using a holder large enough to fit two rolls, noting that the roll mounted over is more popular. Another reader sidesteps the issue by foregoing the holder, instead piling five or six rolls in a big wicker basket. Even using separate bathrooms can help. Other solutions include vertical holders.
Toilet paper orientation has been used rhetorically as the ultimate issue that government has no business dictating, in letters to the editor protesting the regulation of noise pollution and stricter requirements to get a divorce. In 2006, protesting New Hampshire's ban on smoking in restaurants and bars, representative Ralph Boehm (R–Litchfield) asked "Will we soon be told which direction the toilet paper must hang from the roll?"
David O'Connor's 2005 book Henderson's House Rules: The Official Guide to Replacing the Toilet Paper and Other Domestic Topics of Great Dispute aims to solve disagreements with a minimum of debate or compromise by offering authoritative, reasonable rules. The "House Rule" for toilet paper is over and out, and a full page is dedicated to a diagram of this orientation. But O'Connor writes that "if a female household member has a strong preference for the toilet paper to hang over and in, against the wall, that preference prevails. It is admittedly an odd preference, but women use toilet paper far more often than men—hence the rule."
Notes and references
- For pros and cons, including RVs and cats, see Arguments; for celebrities and experts, including Ann Landers, see Noted preferences; for theories, see Themes.
- The enthusiast, Bill Jarrett, and the inventor, Curtis Batts, are described in Solutions.
- Burns 2003.
- Burns 2003, p. 111.
- Burns 2003, p. 113.
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- Grant 1991b; Garton 2005; Mitchell & Sugar 2005a; Jarski & Jarski 2007.
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