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The Incredible Shrinking Toilet Paper Roll

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By Patricia McLaughlin

I clawed my way into the new 20-pack of toilet paper, pulled out a roll, popped it into the vintage (pat. pending 1931) Scott Paper holder on the bathroom wall. Then an odd thing happened: The new roll wobbled and fell out.

This Scott paper holder was firmly affixed to the wainscot in the second-floor bathroom when we moved in 25 or so years ago. Judging from its many layers of chipped paint, it had been there for some time, maybe even since 1931, when Scott Paper, a local Philadelphia company, was making such holders to popularize their newfangled rolls, so much handier than old-fashioned single sheets.

For 80 years, more or less, it had been exactly the right size to hold a 1,000-sheet roll of Scott toilet paper.

So what happened? Had I bought a 20-pack of dollhouse-size by mistake? Or was this little roll a freak? Maybe its DNA had suffered a spontaneous mutation thanks to renegade PCBs in the 20-pack's polyvinyl bag?

Or... 

No. I didn't even want to think about it.

Like most American consumers, I'm inured to the underhanded antics of the businesses that supply my needs. I'm used to buying bigger cornflakes boxes that hold paradoxically fewer cornflakes. Half-gallon containers of ice cream that, overnight, shrunk down to quart-and-a-half size. Half-gallon containers of Tropicana O.J. suddenly relabeled to contain 59 ounces instead of 64.

But toilet paper? I never thought they'd shrink the toilet paper.

As my little sister Kathy put it, "Is nothing sacred??"

Apparently not. 

scott 1000.jpgJoey Mooring, senior manager for global marketing and brand communications at Kimberly-Clark, which took over the Scott brand name in 1995, after Chainsaw Al Dunlap dismembered Scott Paper and laid off a third of its work force, forwarded a prepared statement that confirmed my darkest suspicions.

 "In 2010, as a way to help offset the rising costs of the raw materials required to make toilet paper, and to avoid implementing a price increase, many of the major toilet paper brands made changes in the sheet size of their toilet paper products.

"The Scott 1000 toilet paper brand was the last brand to make such a change.  However, at the same time we made significant enhancements to the brand's toilet paper product, providing a softer and 10% stronger Scott 1000 brand toilet paper product that still delivers to consumers 1,000 sheets on a roll."

Indeed it does--it's just that each of those thousand sheets is now 4/10ths of an inch narrower.

It isn't the first time the Scott 1000 brand sheet size has been downsized. (So far, nobody seems to be euphemizing the process as "right-sizing," so there's at least that much to be thankful for.)

The deciders at Kimberly-Clark Corp. may have felt that narrowing the sheets on the Scott 100 brand was their only viable choice since they'd already made each sheet shorter--twice.

In 2006, Scott released a "Now Improved!" version of its 1000-sheet roll with a "new soft-textured pattern"--and sheets cut down to 3.7 inches long from 4.1 inches. The whole shrinkage process first began in 1999 when Kimberly-Clark cut Scott's original 4.5-inch-by-4.5 inch square sheet to 4.5 inches by 4.1 inches.

Other major brands--Quilted Northern, Angel Soft, Charmin Ultra Soft, Cottonelle--reduced sheet count as well as sheet size last year. But, due to the Scott 1000 name, reducing the number of sheets per roll was not a viable option. (Even Don Draper would have a tough time making "New Improved Slimmer Scott 1000 Brand Toilet Paper--Now with 100 Fewer Sheets!" sound magical.)

So there you have it: The new sheet size is 4.1 inches wide by 3.7 inches long.

What is it, exactly, that's so disheartening about this? It's not that our 1931 Scott toilet paper holder has been rendered useless. And it's not just the idea that you're getting less toilet paper for the same price, or even the maybe-they-won't-notice sneakiness of it.

I probably would not have noticed if the new 4.1-inch-wide roll hadn't tumbled out of the made-for-a-four-and-a-half-inch-roll holder. And Joey Mooring says Kimberly-Clark market-tested the narrower rolls among the general population and with loyal Scott consumers, and found no fierce objections.

Still, the whole episode seems like a textbook example of misapplication of energy, intelligence and ingenuity

American ingenuity used to be famous. We were always coming up with better mousetraps and, just as Emerson predicted, the world was beating a path to our door. Thomas Edison's electric lights! Alexander Graham Bell's telephone! Samuel F. B. Morse's telegraph! Elias Howe's sewing machine! Eli Whitney's cotton gin! McCormick's reaper! Kids used to learn about them all in fourth grade. (I didn't even have to Google the names.)

Are fourth graders of the future going to be admiring the cost accountants who figured out how much wood pulp they could save by slicing 4/10ths of an inch off toilet paper rolls? Or the marketers who packaged those shrunken rolls as "Now Improved"? Or the production engineers who save a half-cent a pocket by making blue jeans with pockets so shallow that all your pocket change dives into the deep interstices of the sofa every time you sit down? Or the geniuses who repackaged all those worthless mortgages as A-rated securities? I doubt it.

And I wonder: How much more of our ingenuity can we afford to fritter away on similarly unconstructive enterprises?

 

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