When ‘necessities’ became necessary

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As I continue waiting on my two industrial-size toilet paper rolls to arrive from Amazon, and as “out of stock” still sporadically pops up on Walmart.com, my thoughts have turned to the history of the human race.

I’m wondering when we began to depend on some things we now consider necessities. After all, as my waiting shows, most of us are currently either doing without a few “necessities” or rationing our use of them.

We’ve all heard stories about the Sears Roebuck catalog, and today’s jokes indicate maybe we should return to the time when those pages were used for something other than mail-ordering. (I often wondered why folks would use such a tough paper for such a delicate task. Then I found out that before glossy paper came to be, the catalog’s pages were much softer.) Let’s not even get started on corn cobs, although having Union Parish farmer grandparents born in the 1800s, I heard numerous stories about those, too.

Where you lived was all important regarding what was employed for the intensely personal undertaking of which we’re speaking. Leaves. Grass. Ferns. Fur. Snow. Sand. Shells. Stones. Sponges. You name it; it was probably used. Of course, water – think “bidet” – is making a comeback.

But when was toilet paper itself invented? The first documented use comes from China in the 6th century A.D. Yet modern commercially available toilet paper didn’t originate until 1857 in New York – a package of 500 sheets for 50 cents. Two more decades passed before the perforated roll appeared.

And what about toilet paper’s cousin? Arthur Scott (that last name should sound familiar) invented kitchen paper towels in 1931. He was serious about the “towel” moniker, too. They measured 13 by 18 inches.

But let’s return to Sears Roebuck again. We’re definitely still hooked on the mail-order concept today, even if it now comes in internet form. So when did ordering products for home delivery begin?

Here’s another recognizable name. Aaron Montgomery Ward. In 1872 he created the first mail order catalog meant for the general public. Previous mail order catalogs were limited to specific items such as seeds and jewelry.

Also regarding ordering, have you had home food delivery or gotten pick-up grub during the current crisis? If so, you’re following in royal footsteps. The first recorded instance of pizza delivery comes from Italy in 1889 when King Umberto and Queen Margherita asked for local cuisine while visiting Naples. (Margherita pizza, anyone?)

Regarding other modern-day “necessities”:

As far back as 5000 B.C., Egyptians used bleach to whiten clothes and other linens. In 1847 a bleach derivative was introduced as a hand disinfectant at the Vienna Medical Center to successfully reduce the risk of postpartum women who developed childbed fever. Lysol brand antiseptic disinfectant launched in 1889; Clorox bleach, 1913.

Modern hand sanitizers were introduced in 1966 in medical settings while products for the general public became popular only in the early ‘90s. Both Clorox and Lysol disinfecting wipes didn’t hit the market until 2000, even though the Wet-Nap wet wipe was trademarked in 1958, the same year Mr. Clean made his TV debut.

Now, remember, we’re discussing all this because of today’s virus situation. So perhaps we should be aware that the first virus ever identified was the tobacco mosaic virus, in 1892. Ironically, though, the first vaccine was discovered almost a hundred years earlier, in 1796 – for smallpox.

Think about it: If scientists back then could discover a cure for an entity they couldn’t even identify, how much better are our odds today?

And speaking of necessity and the human race ....

Sallie Rose Hollis is a Union Parish native, retired Louisiana Tech associate professor of journalism and Ruston resident. She can be reached via email at sallierose@mail.com.