menu   Home Answers Math Games Free Resources Contact Me  

Bathroom Mathematics - The Changing Size of Toilet Paper

Which roll is today's product?
Consumer’s Report featured an article about the number games of toilet paper. (Sounds like math to me!) Since I thought the article was interesting, I mentioned it to my husband who, being a science teacher, had to investigate. His motto: Never take anyone’s word for it.

So he marched to our bathroom and discovered that our toilet paper was smaller than the holder which had been there since 1989. (Yes, our house is old - like us). There was a little more than 1/2 inch showing on each side of the roll. To further investigate, my husband went to the trusty Internet. There he discovered the following facts.

1)  Toilet paper was first manufactured in 1857.  Before this, corncobs and many other "soft" items were used for this purpose.

Hey Elmer!
Look what's on sale
at Sears!
2)  In the early American west, pages torn from newspapers or magazines were often used as toilet paper. The Sears catalog was commonly used for this purpose and even the Farmer's Almanac had a hole in it so it could be hung on a hook in the outhouse.

3) In 1935, Northern Tissue advertised "splinter free" toilet paper. (Yes, splinter free!)  Early production procedures frequently left splinters embedded in the paper. And you thought cheap toilet paper was rough!

4)  Toilet paper was originally manufactured in the shape of a square, 4.5" by 4.5" which was about the average size of a man's hand.  The square made it handy to fold over a few times, but still be considered acceptable for sanitary use.  Basically, this size was established because it worked, sort of like the 90 foot pitcher's mound or the ten foot basketball rim.

5)  In the last ten years, the size of toilet paper has been reduced because manufacturers are trying to cut costs by trimming the sheet size.  (Try placing one "square" in your hand now, and you will see what I mean.)

6)  Most toilet paper producers have decreased the width of a roll from 4.5 inches to 4.2 inches (or something close to that).

7)  Not only have many manufacturers diminished the size of the square (which is now a rectangle), but they have also placed fewer "squares" on a roll.

8)  Unfortunately, it is not just the width of the roll that has been altered.  The size of the cardboard tube in the middle now has a larger diameter, and that is not something you can easily compare in the store!

9)  Typical sizes of popular brands which I had available to measure:
    • Kleenex Cottenelle - Standard: 4.5" x 4.0"
    • Angel Soft - Standard:  4.5" x 4.0"
    • Quilted Northern:  4.5" x 4.0"
What's really comical (or depressing) is that even though toilet paper is smaller and sometimes thinner and more transparent, it still costs the same as the old size.  It is just like so many other products we purchase.  No longer can we buy three pounds of coffee or a one pound can of beans.  (I noticed the beans because I used them for students to feel how heavy 16 ounces was. The can now weighs 14 ounces!)  Then there is the 1/2 gallon of ice cream which decreased overnight to 1.75 quarts and half gallon containers of Tropicana Orange Juice which suddenly became 59 ounces instead of 64!  But toilet paper?  I never thought they would play the number game with toilet paper especially since it can be scarce in these COVID times.  Is nothing sacred in the world of mathematics?