Friday, March 13, 2020

Looking for Toilet Paper? My Search for a Toilet Paper Almanac

Western Reserve Almanac for 1826,
from Painesville, OH. 
I was at a local grocery store today, where the shelves intended for rolls of toilet paper were empty. The urge to stockpile (I won't say hoard) toilet paper at a time of crisis seems to me like a strikingly 21st-century phenomenon: once upon a time, of course, there was no such thing as toilet paper, and still people managed. Many types of things, of course, were used for the purpose in the past, but this is a blog about books, and it's books I am writing about today. Specifically, the kinds of books that might once have been intended for the outhouse.

I am young enough—and I’ve lived in the right parts of the country—that I don’t think I’ve ever been required to use an honest-to-goodness outhouse. Some of the unimproved state parks I visited in my childhood had facilities that came close, but none were strictly outhouses in the old fashioned sense. 

The kind of outhouse I mean is a building—an outbuilding—that contains the most basic sort of hole-in-the-ground privy, and it’s a necessary adjunct to almost any house with no indoor plumbing, although the judicious use of chamber pots can also serve—as long as there is provision made for a place to empty them. For the most part, outhouses fell out of use in this country (the US, I mean) in the twentieth century, as wells with electric pumps allowed indoor plumbing in even the most rural homes, as long as (as I’ve heard it said) they “had the electric.” 

The comfort of American outhouses was surely improved in the late nineteenth century with the invention and widespread marketing of the humble toilet paper roll. There was no dedicated product for wiping one’s bottom before the 1850s, and for all the centuries of earlier time, other things must have been used. At least in this country, printed paper pages were often recycled in outhouses, and it became traditional for ephemeral printed almanacs, once their time of relevance had passed, to be used in outhouses (in the twentieth century, mail order catalogues were also often used). Perhaps this says more about me as a book collector than I should publicly reveal, but I recently set about trying to see if I could find such an old almanac—not one that had actually been used as toilet paper, but one that had narrowly escaped such a fate. 

Annual printed almanacs have been around for hundreds of years, and the direct ancestors of our modern almanacs can be found among the earliest printed books of the incunable period. Then and now, such books have been inherently ephemeral, and at the end of each year, they become largely useless and purposeless. As a result, some early almanacs are often quite rare today, precisely because there was no motive for keeping them.

How early it was that almanacs began to be used as toilet paper may not be easy to determine, however. The most popular traditional almanac these days (The Farmers’ Almanac, also often known as The Old Farmers’Almanac) has a pre-drilled hole in the upper left corner of the book, and their own website indicates that such holes have been drilled since 1919, precisely to allow the book to be hung from a nail, "in homes, barns, and outhouses." Many nineteenth-century almanacs I’ve encountered were bound with string, often leaving a loop in the upper corner, also presumably for hanging the book on a nail. But would it be possible for me to find an almanac that had actually been hung in an outhouse, or at least intended for such a purpose?

For years, I have been interested in the ways books and manuscripts have been recycled. The recycling of an almanac as toilet paper is surely among the lowest of such recyclings: we know that a book has become its most useless and least valued when it is put to use as toilet paper. I have been fortunate to have, in my own collection, some almanac or calendar scraps from the 1500s, recycled in later book-bindings, as also happened with some medieval manuscripts; the recycling of more recent books has a natural appeal to me, an extension of one of my own well-established collecting areas. That such recycling would have me that enjoys the low scatological humor of Chaucer’s Miller’s and Summoner’s Tales.

A portion of a broadside calendar or almanac, recycled in a book-binding,
printed by Ioannes Schott, and tentatively dated to 1503.
Note the notices of eclipses, at least and right hand sides here.

But the question has been, of course, how could one ever know about a use intended for a recycled almanac that was never put into practice? The most obvious sorts of evidence are ambiguous at best. If an almanac was to be hung in the outhouse by a loop of string in the binding, it was just as likely to have been hung on a nail or hook in a home or cabin. If pages could be ripped out to be used as individual sheets of outhouse paper, it is equally true that old almanacs might suffer similar losses for many other reasons. Experience will quickly show that many old almanacs are today incomplete, with missing pages and often with missing covers (if they had covers in the first place). Neither a hanging loop nor the loss of pages can really make the case fully.

1828 Western Farmer's Almanac, string bound with
the 1826 Western Reserve Almanac. Not that the 1826
book is incomplete at the end.
But I think that all hope is not lost. The most ephemeral of nineteenth-century American almanacs (and earlier ones as well), were small objects, roughly four inches by seven, and often only 24 or 48 pages in length. One guesses that when such a book was finally hung on an outhouse peg, its remaining useful life was not very long. Once in a while, however, you can find a group of almanacs from different years that have been sewn together, often with pages missing. One reason to sew almanacs together, it would seem, would be to preserve them for the future: since many almanacs had owners’ notes of one sort or another within them, there might be a motive for keeping them, and for keeping them together. But when pages are missing, it’s easy to imagine that either the preservation motive did not last long, or that there was another motive from the start. It is at least possible, of course, that several old almanacs would be sewn together so that there would be a larger supply of pages all on one loop or one nail. 

Close-up of the stab-sewn binding of the Western Farmer's Almanac,
with the hanging loop. The darker/black thread binds
the two books together.
It is probably impossible to be certain if any single almanac or sewn-together group had truly been intended, by a past owner, for the outhouse nail. But when we find almanacs from various years sewn together, with pages missing from some or all of them, I think we have the best candidates for such almanacs that we are likely to find. And a knowledge of the contents of most old almanacs might give us an additional clue. The usual form of an almanac includes a month-by-month calendar at the beginning, usually taking up twelve pages; the rest of the book often included reading or reference material. The reading material might be humorous, didactic, topical, or political, but the key point here is that the calendar section was, perhaps, the section most likely to go completely out of date. If the missing pages from a string-bound collection of almanacs are concentrated in the calendar sections, then we might guess that the less ephemeral sections were being preserved for bathroom reading, and the calendar pages being used up first.

1839 Temperance Almanac,
one of six almanacs from 1839 to
1845, roughly bound together. 
In the end, I have been able to find a couple examples of such collections. They are a powerful reminder of how literally it can sometimes be said that one person’s trash in another one’s treasure. They remind us of how lowly some books have been valued, with some being tossed, page by soiled page, into the cess-pit. And other books, equally little valued may have only narrowly avoided such an end.

All truly ephemeral books are strange survivals, if they survive at all. By definition, ephemeral materials go out of date, and—at least for a time—there is no clear reason to keep or preserve them. The typical fate of the ephemeral is thus always loss or destruction. Almanacs, however seem to have long been understood as having had an especially typical or common secondary use as outhouse supplies, destined for the pit. Other than fire itself, I can think of no more metaphorically hellish (or perhaps merely Chaucerian) fate for a book, although until the invention of dedicated toilet paper, that fate must have found literally millions of old almanacs. If being treasured in a library or collection is, by contrast, a kind of heavenly afterlife for an ephemeral book, I am fascinated by the tantalizing possibility that some of the old almanacs I’ve collected might have stood at the brink of both such fates in their time.

It is one thing, I think, to collect what everyone knows is valuable: when a collector or a library pays hundreds or thousands of dollars for a book, they do so (almost always) because the book in question has long been safe from the pit, and is now merely passing from one treasured collection to another. But to pull a book from the brink, that’s something else entirely, and it can only be done, I think, by collecting the most humble and (almost) useless of books.

From the 1839-1845 bound volume.

1844 Almanac from the same volume, lacking title page;
see torn stub at top center.