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What is the History of Paper Towels?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 16, 2024
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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.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WiseGeek, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By anon992339 — On Aug 31, 2015

This is great! I needed background info on an experiment.

By Inaventu — On Dec 13, 2014

I've noticed that a lot of restaurants now put paper towels in paper towel dispensers on their tables instead of napkins. I know there are times when I really need something more substantial than a paper napkin, like when I'm eating ribs or fried foods. I had no idea about the history of those paper towels until I read this article. I always thought they had been around forever.

By Buster29 — On Dec 12, 2014

It amazes me how many things were invented by fortunate accidents, like paper towels. I'm sure someone would have eventually come up with the idea at some point in history, but the way it actually happened is a tribute to ingenuity and the ability to think outside the box. I can't imagine what life would be like without paper towels or toilet paper or napkins.

By anon118597 — On Oct 14, 2010

Very helpful. Science fair reviews of literature takes forever to type. I've been looking for this sort of information. Thanks!

By anon114217 — On Sep 27, 2010

very helpful

By anon113771 — On Sep 25, 2010

Very helpful.

By anon67565 — On Feb 25, 2010

I'm doing a project on this, too, and it helped me a lot. Thanks!

By anon59614 — On Jan 09, 2010

i have a project to do and this really helped me. thank you.

By anon50049 — On Oct 25, 2009

I know! This article is one of the best I've ever read. Extremely helpful.

By anon43656 — On Aug 31, 2009

This is a great article. I'm doing a school report on paper towels, and this was really helpful.

By spasiba — On Feb 15, 2009

I like the half size paper towels. For many tasks they are just enough, and if you need more you can double or triple it.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WiseGeek, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range...
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