Over or Under?

Toilet Paper Roll

US Patent 465,588
Inventor: Seth Wheeler
Issued: December 22, 1891

This patent has been making the rounds of the internet recently, as being the final answer to the contentious issue of "how should toilet paper hang on the roll?" The Internet meme is that this is the first patent on toilet paper, and however it shows the paper hanging is therefore the right way. Clearly, the patent shows a roll of toilet paper - but does it show what the "over" proponents say it shows? 

Unfortunately, the answer is clearly "no". 

First, this is not the first patent on toilet paper. The patent is clear that toilet paper existed long before this. It is a patent on an improved toilet paper in which the sheets are perforated in a very particular way - that is, the perforations are in a zig-zag pattern c, c', c", c"' , with a gap in the middle forming an inverted "V", so that the sheets will tear off more easily. 

Second, the figure is not intended to show how the roll is hanging. It's not even clear that the figure shows the roll from the front (i.e. toilet-side) as the roll is hung. It could just as easily show the roll from the back (i.e. wall-side). The patent just says the figure shows a roll of paper which is perforated according to the patent, and indeed that explains why it is shown the way it is - if the paper were hanging the other way, the roll would obscure the perforations, and the perforations are what the patent is all about.

Third, other patents by the same inventor show the roll hanging the other way. For example, patent 438,567 fron 1890, below, shows a toilet paper roll holder in which the paper is dispensed in the "under" configuration. So, if Seth Wheeler had an opinion in the "over or under" controversy in the late 19th century, his collection of patents isn't evidence of it.


Last updated: Tue, 13 Oct 2020