Thoughts on Toilet Paper and Australian History

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Toilet paper is probably one of those things that you never think about it unless you don’t have it.  Be proud, admit it, you’re a toilet paper user.  But I hope you’re not a toilet paper abuser.  I had a suite mate in college who we figured out used an excessive amount of toilet paper.  My other suite mate and I conducted secret toilet paper use tests in order to confirm our suspicions.  Yes, it was probably a little strange and invasive but I would rather spend my money on other things instead of helping fund my suite mate’s toilet paper habit.

In Papua New Guinea, I found myself counting toilet paper sheets once again because that was one of the very important things on our pre-village shopping list.  Being out in the village for weeks without enough toilet paper was not my idea of a good time.  We had it down to  science because you didn’t want to waste space and kilos bringing too much toilet paper but you didn’t want to short yourself in case of sickness or a plane delay either.  Papua New Guineans used special leaves and sometimes newspaper for toilet paper.  It was important to know the right kind of leaves to use because certain leaves can leave a rash and that is no fun for anyone.  Because of the lack of toilet paper in public toilets, well the general lack of public toilets, even when I wasn’t in the village I always carried a partial toilet paper roll with me.  It was part of life in PNG.  That’s one of the things that I needed to wean myself off of once I returned to the US.  I no longer needed to bring my own toilet paper everywhere and I no longer need to keep my camera in a plastic bag in case of rain.  However, I continue to carry around a handkerchief.  It seems to still come in handy.

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While reading about the history of Australia, I found myself contemplating the toilet situation on the ships that first brought the convicts over from England to Australia.  If you look up the etymology of loo, some say it comes from nautical terminology, loo being an old-fashioned word for lee. The standard nautical pronunciation of leeward is looward. Early ships were not fitted with toilets but the crew would urinate over the side of the vessel. However it was important to use the leeward side. Using the windward side would result in the urine blown back on board.  Unfortunately the prisoners being transported to Australia were often not free to do their urination or anything else over the side of the ship.  Instead, according to The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes, “The starving prisoners lay chilled to the bone on soaked bedding, unexercised, crusted with salt, shit and vomit, festering with scurvy and boils.”  One convict’s letter home describes that they were “chained two and two together and confined in the hold during the whole course of [their] long voyage.”  After reading that, I thought that peeing over the side of a ship actually sounded pretty good.  But somehow despite this harsh treatment, some men and women survived transportation and went on to settle and populate Australia.  These hardy, enduring souls are part of Australia’s DNA.

They survived their lack of toilets and went on to build a society with exceptional public sanitation despite the fact that the water in the toilet bowl does indeed swirl the other direction.  Public toilets in Australia are generally clean, easily accessible and equipped with toilet paper.

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