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The history of paper towels is one of serendipity stemming from a problem the size of a railroad car. The Scott Paper Company in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was already established as a leading producer of toilet tissue by 1907. In that year, the president of Scott Paper, Arthur Scott, received some distressing news from the railroad docks.
An entire railroad car was filled with paper that was simply too thick to be used as toilet tissue, or for any other purpose for that matter. Scott pondered the fate of this unusable paper, then recalled a local newspaper article from 1879 about a Philadelphia teacher who issued sections of soft paper to her students as a substitute for the single cloth towel used communally in the school's bathroom. It was her hope that individual students use the paper one time and dispose of it properly.
Scott determined that the unusable paper in the railroad could be cut into individual sections and sold as an alternative to the cloth towels commonly used in households. The Scott Paper Company sold these paper towels under the brand name Sani-Towels® to emphasize their hygienic advantages over germ-filled cloth towels. The original paper towels were not an instant success with consumers, however. In fact, the familiar perforated rolls of paper towels would not be introduced on grocery store shelves until 1931.
Most paper towels marketed today contain at least two layers of paper pressed together, but more absorbent brands may have three or more layers. The first paper towels were often bleached white to emphasize their clean and sanitary nature, but manufacturers eventually began to print distinctive patterns on the paper to improve their aesthetic appeal. Other improvements include adding more surface area through embossed designs and varying the length between perforations to allow users to choose the amount of paper toweling needed for a particular task.