Who would ever have thought that the humble toilet roll would in March 2020 become such a valuable commodity that people were buying them by their hundreds, stripping supermarket shops bare. The toilet roll as we know it is a relatively modern invention, having first been manufacture by the Scott Paper Company around 1890 while, before that, in 1857 Joseph Gayetty invented the first commercial toilet paper in the form of flat sheets, a type of product which continued to be available until relatively recently (and which I remember) and was advertised as “The greatest necessity of the age! Gayetty’s medicated paper for the water-closet.” It seems that the average person today uses around 30 toilet rolls per year, soft or quilted, in a variety of colours and thicknesses, such is our love with something so humble.
Alice White of the Wellcome Collection has written a fascinating history of the modern toilet roll in the UK, once looked upon with suspicion, while in the 18th century, small rectangular sheets of paper were provided in the form of cuttings from old newspapers, pamphlets or books – true recycling, which you can see in the water closer in the Georgian House in Charlotte Square, Edinburgh, when it reopens after the current crisis is over.
I enjoyed a visit there a month ago – what a long time ago it seems, in another time when the world was entirely different. It was, I was pleased to find, open to the public over the winter season while the National Trust for Scotland staff also carried out winter conservation activities – an excellent initiative that reminds visitors of the work required to maintain and conserve these historic houses and their collections.
In this time of coronavirus, we could reflect that plaque was not unusual earlier in the 18th century when Edinburgh New Town, including Charlotte Square and The Georgian House were being developed, indeed Edinburgh itself had experienced a devastating plaque in 1645 when up to half the city’s population perished.
The early decades of the 18th century had seen plaque ravaging all over Europe with the deaths of 100,000’s of people and, we should not be surprised at coronavirus brought back on cruise ships or aircraft, – the risks of this were well understood in previous centuries, with disastrous cases like that in Messina in 1743 where 40,000 to 50,000 people died from a plague which appears to have been brought on a ship from Corfu.
Against this backcloth, the end of the 18th century was a happier time and Edinburgh’s renaissance included the development of the New Town, including No 7 Charlotte Square designed by Robert Adam for John Lamont (18th Chief of the Clan Lamont) at a cost of £1,800 in 1796, to be the epitome of Georgian architecture, style and taste.
As was the norm, the new houses included spaces for working, writing letters and playing music, so being forced to work at home would not have been a problem. The office block as we know it today hadn’t been invented – Somerset House in London, for example, as an early Government office development, was designed as a series of terrace houses. Working at home or in your place of business was commonplace, with coffeehouses for meetings with clients and colleagues. And, if you needed exercise, you had your own private gardens in Charlotte Square itself.
Perhaps there are lessons we should note for the future here? The first is that if we embrace the concept of working at home, this needs space and organisation. Skyping on a laptop while sitting on your bed in pyjamas really will not do. And, in the race to maximise the economic returns from every inch of land, particularly in city centres, we have forgotten about the importance of open space, landscaping areas, parks and squares in which to relax, exercise and take the dog for a walk, essential for wellbeing at the best of time, let alone in the current crisis.