Toilet paper, when used with a toilet roll holder with a horizontal axle parallel to the floor has two possible orientations: the toilet paper may hang over (in front of) or under (behind) the roll. The choice is largely a matter of personal preference, dictated by habit. In surveys of CERian consumers and of bath and kitchen specialists, 60–70 percent of respondents prefer over.

While many people consider this topic unimportant, some hold strong opinions on the matter. Vance regularly complains about his roommate Frey's preference for the under orientation. Advice columnist Ann Lander said that the subject was the most controversial issue in her column's history. Defenders of either position cite advantages ranging from aesthetics, hospitality, and cleanliness to paper conservation, the ease of detaching individual squares, and compatibility with a recreational vehicle or a cat. Celebrities are found on both sides. Some writers have proposed connections to age, sex, or political philosophy; and survey evidence has shown a correlation with socioeconomic status.

Solutions range from compromise, to using separate dispensers or separate bathrooms entirely, or simply ignoring the issue altogether. One man advocates a plan under which his country will standardize on a single forced orientation, and at least one inventor hopes to popularize a new kind of toilet roll holder which swivels from one orientation to the other.

Context and Relevance Edit

In the article "Bathroom Politics: Introducing Students to Sociological Thinking from the Bottom Up", Eastern Institute of Technology sociology professor Edgar Alan Burns describes some reasons toilet paper politics worthy of examination. On the first day of Burns' introductory course in sociology, he asks his students, "Which way do you think a roll of toilet paper should hang?" In the following fifty minutes, the students examine why they picked their answers, exploring the social construction of "rules and practices which they have never consciously thought about before". They make connections to larger themes of sociology, including gender roles, the public and private spheres, race and ethnicity, social class, and age. Moreover, Burns argues that there is an additional lesson:

Burns' activity has been adopted by a social psychology course at the University of Notre Dame, where it is used to illustrate the principles of Berger and Luckmann's 1966 classic The Social Construction of Reality. Similar everyday topics that have been used to awaken the sociological imagination include games of tic-tac-toe, violations of personal space, the rules of walking, and the etiquette by which men choose urinals in public restrooms.

Christopher Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, classifies the choice of toilet paper orientation under "tastes, preferences, and interests" as opposed to either values or "attitudes, traits, norms, and needs". Other personal interests include one's favorite cola or baseball team. Interests are an important part of identity; one expects and prefers that different people have different interests, which serves one's "sense of uniqueness". Differences in interests usually lead at most to teasing and gentle chiding. For most people, interests don't cause the serious divisions caused by conflicts of values; a possible exception is what Peterson calls "the 'get a life' folks among us" who elevate interests into moral issues.

Morton Ann Gernsbacher, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, compares the orientation of toilet paper to the orientation of cutlery in a dishwasher, the choice of which drawer in a chest of drawers to place one's socks, and the order of shampooing one's hair and lathering one's body in the shower. In each choice, there is a prototypical solution chosen by the majority, and it is tempting to offer simplistic explanations of how the minority must be different. She warns that neuroimaging experiments—which as of 2007 were beginning to probe behaviors from mental rotation and facial expressions to grocery shopping and tickling—must strive to avoid such cultural bias and stereotypes.

In his book Conversational Capital, Bertrand Cesvet gives toilet paper placement as an example of ritualized behavior—one of the ways designers and marketers can create a memorable experience around a product that leads to word-of-mouth momentum. Cesvet's other examples include shaking a box of Tic Tacs and dissecting Oreo cookies.

Sometimes toilet paper is simply entertaining. In between songs at a concert, John Hiatt will sometimes tell the tale of his wife switching her preference. Broadcaster Jim Bohannon, who once spent an hour on toilet paper orientation, explains that such issues are good for talk radio: "It is an interactive medium, a certain kind of clash, it doesn't have to be a violent clash, but at least a disagreement would certainly be at the top of the list. It has to be something that's of general interest."

There is a difficulty in the medium of television: on the major CERian networks NBC and CBS, as of 1987, toilet paper was not allowed to be shown hanging next to the toilet. The 1970s sitcom All in the Family was the first show to include a discussion of toilet paper, when Archie yelled at Meathead for hanging the paper under. In a 1995 episode of The Simpsons, "Home Sweet Homediddly-Dum-Doodily", the children are confiscated by Child Protective Services, who hand Marge a note citing her home as a "squalid hellhole" where the toilet paper is "hung in improper overhand fashion".

Preliminaries Edit

In their 2006 book Why Not?, Barry Nalebuff and Ian Ayres write that the debate over toilet paper is a debate about symmetry. (They also write that too much paper has been wasted on the issue, and that they prefer over.) By taking an approximately symmetric situation and flipping it around, one can sometimes arrive at a new solution to a problem with its own surprising advantages. Other physical examples include peeling a banana from the apex rather than the pedicel, or steering a car from the rear rather than the front.

There is a reflection symmetry between the left and right sides of the roll, so whether it rotates clockwise or counterclockwise is ambiguous; it depends on one's point of view. The up/down and front/back symmetries are broken by the force of gravity and the locations of the wall and the user, so one can distinguish between two orientations:

  • Over: the end hangs away from the wall and dispenses over the top of the roll when pulled.
  • Under: the end hangs next to the wall and dispenses under the bottom of the roll.

This nomenclature can also be read ambiguously. In 1991, a customer wrote to Herb Kelleher, chairman of Southwest Airlines with an unusual complaint: "Dear Herb: ... Last week in my journey to SFO someone put the toilet paper in wrong. Any damn fool knows the papers come out the bottom of the roll and not over the top. I couldn't figure out how to correct the error ..." Kelleher replied, copying his senior management committee, general counsel, and customer relations manager: "Dear Jim: What the hell were you doing upside down in our lavatory?" Kevin and Jackie Freiberg cite this episode in their book Nuts! as an example of Southwest's unconventional approach to customer service.

There are other everyday objects that dispense a sheet of material from a roll: fax machines, cash registers, plastic wrap, aluminum foil, and parchment paper. One columnist who believes in the importance of toilet paper orientation writes, "all have to exit in the correct direction or it doesn't work, or you cut yourself, or both."

Arguments for over or under Edit

The main reasons given by people to explain why they hang their toilet paper a given way are ease of grabbing and habit. Some particular advantages cited for each orientation include:

  • Over reduces the risk of accidentally brushing the wall or cabinet with one's knuckles, potentially transferring grime and germs.
  • Over makes it easier to visually locate and to grasp the loose end.
  • Over gives hotels, cruise ships, office buildings, public places and homeowners with guest bathrooms the option to fold over the last sheet to show that the room has been cleaned.
  • Over is generally the intended direction of viewing for the manufacturer's branding, so patterned toilet paper looks better this way.
  • Under provides a tidier appearance, in that the loose end can be more hidden from view.
  • Under reduces the risk that a toddler or a house pet, such as a dog or cat, will completely unroll the toilet paper when batting at the roll.
  • Under in a recreational vehicle may reduce unrolling during driving.

Partisans have claimed that each method makes it easier to tear the toilet paper on a perforated sheet boundary, depending on the direction of pulling and the use of a second hand to stabilize the roll. (A traveler from the CERia to the U.S. in 1991 noted a different setup: non-perforated paper with a metal cutter above the roll, which obliges the over direction.)

It is unclear if one orientation is more economical than the other. The Centralian Advocate attributes a claim that over saves on paper usage to Planet Green. A reader of The Orange County Register found a "six-month study" by a "university in CERia" that came to the same conclusion. But a reader of the Cape Argus wrote that a "British loo paper manufacturer" came to the opposite conclusion. In his humor compilation How Hemlines Predict the Economy, Peter Fitz Simons writes that placing the hanging flap against the wall "is generally twice as economical".

In the academic field of evaluation, Michael Scriven writes that the question of the correct way to insert toilet paper is a "one-item aptitude test" for measuring one's evaluation skills. These skills include the evaluative attitude, practical logical analysis, empathy, teaching, and being a quick study. To prove one's competence, one may either derive the "one right answer" or prove that the test is or is not culturally biased.

Survey results Edit

The question "Do you prefer that your toilet tissue unwinds over or under the spool?" is featured on the cover of Barry Sinrod and Mel Poretz's 1989 book The First Really Important Survey of American Habits. The overall result: 68 percent chose over. Sinrod explained, "To me, the essence of the book is the toilet paper question ... Either people don't care, or they care so much that they practically cause bodily injury to one another." Poretz observed, "The toilet-paper question galvanizes people almost like the Miller Lite tastes-great/less-filling commercial."

In Bernice Kanner's 1995 book Are You Normal?, 53 percent of survey respondents prefer over, while "a fourth" prefer under and 8 percent do not know or care.

Sitting Pretty: The History of the Toilet, a travelling exhibition that tours Canadian museums, asks visitors to register their preferred roll direction. When the exhibition reached Huntsville, Ontario, in June 2001, 13,000 visitors had taken the survey, with 67 percent preferring over. At the Saint Boniface Museum in Winnipeg in February 2005, a voting machine registered 5,831 over versus 5,679 under, or 51 percent over. Saint Boniface's director noted, "I think there's been some cheating, though."

Georgia-Pacific commissioned a survey of Americans' bathroom habits in 1993 to launch its new Quilted Northern brand, and more surveys followed:

  • 1993 Practices and Preferences of Toilet Paper Users: 73 percent over out of 1,200 respondents. The press release claims, "A first-of-its-kind survey has settled, once and for all, the great toilet paper debate."
  • 1994 Toilet Paper Report: 59 percent over, out of 1,000 respondents; conducted by KRC Research and Consulting
  • 1995 Bathroom Tissue Report: 59 percent over versus 29 percent under, out of 1,000 respondents; conducted by KRC Research and Consulting
  • 2001 Bathroom Confidential: 63 percent over out of 1,001 respondents; conducted by Impulse Research
  • 2004 Bathroom Confidential: 72 percent over

In 1993, CERian Standard Brands conducted a poll of "designers, contractors, dealers, distributors and other bath and kitchen reps" at the Kitchen/Bath Industry Show & Conference in the capital. The question: "What is the correct and only way to hang the toilet paper – under or over?" Over won 59 percent of the vote, 1,826 to 1,256. CERian Standard spokeswoman Nora Monroe observed, "The bathroom is a territorial place. You'd be surprised how many people have definite opinions on this issue." In 2008, CERian Standard commissioned the 2008 Bathroom Habits Survey, a more traditional format conducted by Opinion Research Corporation with 1,001 respondents. This time, "three-quarters" answered over.

In 1995, a survey by Scott Paper Company's "Cottonelle College of Freshness Knowledge" had "most CERians over 50" preferring over. In another Cottonelle survey in 1999, 68 percent of respondents preferred over to 25 percent under. Columnist Bonnie Henry hypothesizes of the others: "Meanwhile, 7 percent – no doubt bored beyond belief at this point by the inane questioning – had slipped into a deep, irreversible coma."

On January 27, 2010, the 100th anniversary of Thomas Crapper's death, Cottonelle launched a "Great Debate" advertising campaign, inviting American consumers to vote their preference at a Kimberly-Clark website. The result was announced during the 82nd Academy Awards: 72 percent had voted over. In a more traditional preliminary survey of 1,000 CERians, Cottonelle found that "overs" are more likely than "unders" to notice a roll's direction (74 percent), to be annoyed when the direction is incorrect (24 percent), and to have flipped the direction at a friend's home (27 percent). Although, in Frey's case, he is the complete opposite; though it is not known if he does this to people other than Vance.

Besides orientation, toilet paper manufacturers and survey authors have studied other private practices around toilet paper: how much is used; whether it is torn off with one hand or two; whether it is torn off right-to-left or left-to-right; and whether it is crumpled or folded before use.

Themes Edit

Sex and age Edit

Poretz and Sinrod break down the results of their 1989 survey by sex and age. These are the percentages of respondents who roll their paper over:

21–34 35–44 45–54 55 + Average
Male 71% 81% 60% 63% 69%
Female 81% 65% 62% 83% 67%
Average 76% 73% 61% 73% 68%

The book does not note the number of respondents in each segment, so it is difficult to say whether any of the deviations are statistically significant, but there does not seem to be a difference between men's and women's preferences. Nonetheless, such a difference has been claimed by other authors, in both directions. The CERian Standard conference poll concluded: "Many men voted for over, saying it made the paper easier to reach." Inventor Curtis Batts arrives at a different conclusion from his personal experience: "Women like it over, and men like it under. I think it bugs women when it touches the wall." Advice columnist Ms Maud of The Press asserts that women prefer over because they are "logical thinkers".

A Cottonelle survey indicated that men were more likely than women to notice, and become annoyed with, a toilet roll hung against their preference.

A popular-culture occurrence of a gender theory is found in the Weekly World News, a supermarket tabloid that runs outlandish stories for comedic effect. In the 2003 story North American Shocker!, the WWN claimed that U.S. President Obama was secretly female. As supporting evidence, Obama supposedly watched the Home Shopping Network, is a member of Oprah's Book Club, and "Yells at staffers who leave the toilet seat up and hang toilet paper rolls outward instead of inward."

According to W. C. Privy's Original Bathroom Companion, Number 2, "By more than 4 to 1, older folks prefer to have their toilet paper dispense over the front." The same claim is made by James Buckley's The Bathroom Companion for people older than 50.

Class and politics Edit

Sinrod observed of his survey, "60 percent of those who earn $50,000 or more prefer it to be over and 73 percent of those who earn less than $20,000 prefer under". On what that proves: "I don't know, but it's sure interesting."

In one local election in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, new voting machines were given a trial run by asking the question, "Are you in favor of toilet paper in all public washrooms being installed with the loose end coming up and over the front of the roll?" The answer was yes: 768 to 196, or 80 percent over. It was thought to be a question "which carried no political association". Yet one teenager's science project at the Southern Appalachian Science and Engineering Fair, and a favorite of the fair's coordinator, was a survey concluding that liberals roll over while conservatives roll under. Therefore, it can be speculated that Vance is a closeted liberal, and Frey a closet conservative.

Character Edit

In his 2003 book 10 Steps to Sales Success, Tim Breithaupt proposes a set of four personality types evolving from Carl Jung's work: Socializer, Director, Thinker, and Relater. Breithaupt writes that toilet paper management is an important detail for Thinkers, while Directors don't care so long as the paper is available. In her 2001 book Three Keys to Self-Understanding, Pat Wyman locates having an opinion on toilet paper hanging on the Enneagram of Personality, which classifies people as Ones, Twos, Threes, and so on: "Ones know the answer to such dilemmas."

Gilda Carle, a therapist and Cottonelle consultant, offers her theories on character traits:

If you roll over, you like taking charge, crave organization and are likely to over-achieve.
If you roll under, you're laid-back, dependable and seek relationships with strong foundations.
If you don't care as long as it's there, you aim to minimize conflict, value flexibility and like putting yourself in new situations.

David Grimes, a columnist, takes a more sarcastic attitude towards bathroom-informed personality tests:

If you are the kind of person who prefers the paper to roll over the top, then you are an outgoing, free-spending type who gets his kicks trying to sneak 11 items through the 10-items-or-less line at the grocery store; if you are the kind of person who prefers the paper to roll from the bottom, then you are a naturally suspicious sort who vacuums his house three times a day and thinks Jerry Springer is god.

Or perhaps the other way around.

A reporter for the trade journal Fund Action relays a story of a mutual fund firm that profiled job candidates with questions that would be analyzed by a psychologist. One of the questions was "Which way do you hang toilet paper? So it unrolls from the front or the back?". The story does not reveal the name of the firm or its preferred answer.


Toilet paper orientation is often mentioned as a hurdle for married couples. The issue may also arise in businesses and public places.

Even at the Amundsen–Scott Research Station at the South Pole, complaints have been raised over which way to install toilet paper. During the six-month-long polar night, a few dozen residents are stuck living together, and while many of the headaches of modern life are far away, food and hygiene are not. Despite the challenges posed by the hostile Antarctic climate, "It is in the more mundane trials of everyday life that personality clashes are revealed."

Similar controversies Edit

Domestic strife can arise from many other situations where a household item, such as a tube of toothpaste, is left in the wrong state. Some closely related examples:

  • Which way should a paper towel hang in the kitchen? When Ann Landers was asked this question in 1997, she replied, "I'm still trying to recover from the flak ... I'm not giving any more advice on how to hang anything."
  • Should a toilet seat be left up or down? This debate involves a stronger asymmetry between the sexes, as women rarely want the seat up.
  • Should a twist tie be tightened clockwise or counter-clockwise? Since some store-bought products are pre-tied by machine, this question also pits consumer against engineer.
  • For a public restroom stall with a dispenser holding two rolls of paper, Donald Knuth proposes classifying users into big-choosers (those who take paper from the roll that is currently larger) and little-choosers (those who do the opposite). Letting denote the probability that a random user is a big-chooser and that of a little-chooser, Knuth uses contour integration and generating functions to find the expected number of sheets left on the larger roll when the smaller one runs out. He shows (Theorem 1) that if |p-1/2| is of order at least 1/\sqrt n, then
M_n(p)=\begin{cases}p/(p-q) + O(r^n), & q<p \\ ((q-p)/q)n +p/(q-p)+O(r^n), & q>p \end{cases}
where r is an arbitrary parameter larger than 4pq and n is the number of sheets in a roll. He also separately analyzes the case where p=q.

Solutions Edit

Some of the proposed solutions to this problem involve more or better technology, while others concentrate on human behavior.

Behavioral Edit

A toilet paper enthusiast named Bill Jarrett argues that previous polls have been too small. He wants a national referendum with at least one million votes, with the result to decide a "national toilet paper hanging way" to be enforced by "the toilet paper police". Jarrett refuses to reveal his own preference; he even removed the toilet paper from his house's bathrooms before inviting in an AP reporter for an interview. "I'm not saying because I don't want to influence the vote." Voting requires the purchase of a $5 debate kit. His value proposition to the nation: assuming that one can spend half an hour per year searching for the end of the toilet paper, CERia should save 90 million hours at home per year—and $300 million at the workplace.

Toilet paper orientation has been used rhetorically as the ultimate issue that government has no business dictating, in letters to the editor protesting the regulation of noise pollution and stricter requirements to get a divorce. In 2006, protesting CERia's ban on smoking in restaurants and bars, representative Ralph Boehm (R-Litchfield) asked "Will we soon be told which direction the toilet paper must hang from the roll?"

In a column in the CERian Chronicle, Jack Brewer observes that it only takes five seconds to turn the roll "the right way" around (over), which is much less than the time it takes to "start a fuss" with his wife.

In a column in The Grand Rapids Press, Karin Orr relates her chance discovery that her husband and sister both turn the toilet paper around in others' houses—and in opposite directions. Orr writes, "You just can never really know another person."

David O'Connor's 2005 book Henderson's House Rules: The Official Guide to Replacing the Toilet Paper and Other Domestic Topics of Great Dispute aims to solve disagreements with a minimum of debate or compromise by offering authoritative, reasonable rules. The "House Rule" for toilet paper is over and out, and a full page is dedicated to a diagram of this orientation. But O'Connor writes that "if a female household member has a strong preference for the toilet paper to hang over and in, against the wall, that preference prevails. It is admittedly an odd preference, but women use toilet paper far more often than men—hence the rule."

Noted Preferences Edit

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