Day 911: The TP Divide

originally published June 29, 2014

This could be the most important article I will ever write. Far beyond the knuckle-clacking tensions of dog people vs. cat people, Shelly Long fans vs. Kirstie Alley fans, or bacon-eaters vs. people who don’t know better, there lies the conflict of toilet paper orientation. The solution offered by both camps (the ‘over the roll’ and ‘under the roll’ dichotomy) can divide an otherwise happy household.

Toilet paper orientation is more than a product of habit; my son spent the first 18 years of his life beneath a devout over-the-roll roof, yet he prefers to mount his TP so that he’s pulling from under it. This is a domestic deal-breaker, a precarious pendulum that could sever a marriage quicker than a differing of perspectives on child-rearing.

I would have thought this to be a matter of inexplicable preference, an open-and-shut debate. But digging through the matter uncovers a wealth of psychological, anthropological and socioeconomic dissection, as well as some math. This is a legitimate topic, worthy of at least a thousand words of analysis. As I have happily devoted many of the last 910 days to the careful nit-pickery of the utterly trivial, I’m happy to unfurl the secrets of this issue.

Notre Dame University has what sounds like a brilliant sociology course on its calendar: The Social Construction of Reality. In that course they look at the basic application of sociological principles to things like personal space, urinal etiquette and of course, toilet paper orientation. Students explore, through their own research and through the weird research of others, gender, race, age and social class distinctions in these seemingly innocuous day-to-day affairs. There is a surprising amount of research on this divisive domestic issue.

Psychologists liken one’s preference in roll direction to other near-unconscious likes, such as how one eats an Oreo cookie or the order in which one consumes their M&Ms. The fact is, we can deviate from our norms with most of these preferences. If you’re an Oreo pull-aparter who’s faced with a particularly chilly cookie that will crumble no matter how gently or forcefully you try to twist it apart, you’ll probably just munch the cookie whole rather than skip the experience completely. But people get damn protective with their toilet paper rolls. Archie Bunker infamously battled with Meathead because Archie preferred the over-the-roll setup and his son-in-law went the other way. Like some commie pinko.

Let’s have a look at the advantages of each. If you hang your toilet paper so that the free end hangs over the roll, there is less possibility that your knuckles will come in contact with the bathroom wall behind the roll, thus transferring germs to the hand that will almost immediately be touching your most nether of regions. Also – and this especially applies to rolls that are on the opposite wall from the throne, the over-the-roll configuration makes it easy to spot the roll’s end for quick grabbing and less leaning.

If you’ve ever worked as a chambermaid in a hotel (and yes, I most certainly have), you know that an over-the-roll arrangement can be neatly folded back to demonstrate that housekeeping was on the premises. Manufacturers prefer the over formation because if they have included their logo or monogram in the paper pattern, it displays properly that way. Of the people I have spoken to on this matter, the germ thing and the ease-of-use are the two most salient points to their stance. That and “it’s just right” – I heard that one a few times.

But what about those who prefer the under?

The under-spoolers will point out that it looks neater. From the front, all you’ll see is a puffy little white cylinder, while the asymmetrical ‘dangly part’ will be up against the wall, or – if the bathroom’s proprietor is a neat-freak – tucked high enough so as to render it invisible. Cats and small children are less likely to grab hold of the roll and unfurl it into a pillowy heap. Also, in an RV situation, having the roll’s more vulnerable side pressed up against the wall lowers the possibility of the entire thing unrolling on the highway.

The Orange County Register cited one study that claims that over the roll is more economical. A British company did a similar investigation and found the opposite to be true. Advocates on both sides of this fierce debate will claim that they use less paper their way, and thusly they are more kind to the environment. They’ll also swear that their way makes it easier to tear the perforation. You can start to see how vocal and impassioned this debate can be. I wouldn’t be surprised if the over/under debate was partly what led to the American Civil War.

The simple truth is this: in terms of mass acceptance, over-the-roll wins, hands-down. I’m looking at the results of several surveys on the matter, all of which give the edge to the over crowd, with between 51% and 75% preferring not to touch that filthy back wall. One of these surveys was announced at the 82nd Academy Awards – with a 72% edge to the over. (That was the year The Hurt Locker beat out Inglourious Basterds for Best Picture, so take this survey with a grain of something)

Between men and women aged 21-34, women feel more strongly about selecting ‘over’, with 81% of women and 71% of men leaning that way. Between 35-44 the men become more vocal, with 81% of men and only 65% of women preferring over. A survey by Cottonelle states that men are more likely to be annoyed when the roll is hung the “wrong” way. There’s also a strong economic perspective: one in-depth study showed that while 60% of people who earn $50,000 a year or more will prefer the over-the-roll set-up, a whopping 73% of people earning less than $20,000 a year will want their paper hanging under.

This actually made the ballot in a local Saskatoon election, with 80% of voters selecting ‘over’. One teenager ran the numbers and found that liberals tend to lean toward over, with conservatives leaning toward under. I don’t know what’s more fascinating – that there is such a distinct bias or that so many people have researched this issue in such depth.

When advice columnist Ann Landers addressed the issue in one column, she came out in favor of rolling under. Then, after roughly a gazillion-jillion irate letters streamed in, she changed her position a few weeks later. This cited another gazillion-jillion letters, and upon her retirement she swore that the toilet paper issue was the most contentious and controversial topic she’d ever touched upon in her 31 years on the job.

Celebrities who have stated a preference for over include Jay Leno, Ty Pennington, Tori Spelling and Princess Diana’s butler, Paul Burrell. The under crowd includes Dean McDermott, journalist Gene Weingarten, and Oprah Winfrey. And – because she was asked – Martha Stewart has come out on the side of the ‘over’. I think that seals the matter right there: over wins.

Actually, the real winner is Curtis Batts, a Dallas inventor who came up with the easily-swiveling Tilt-A-Roll, which allows people to swap the roll to their preference in one easy twist. That’s how things get done in this world – by people who can resolve age-old conflicts with one stroke of genius. Well done, Curtis.

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