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Toilet paper orientation

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Toilet paper orientation

Toilet paper when used with a toilet roll holder with a horizontal axle parallel to the floor and also parallel to the wall has two possible orientations: the toilet paper may hang over (in front of) or under (behind) the roll; if perpendicular to the wall, the two orientations are right-left or near-away. The choice is largely a matter of personal preference, dictated by habit. In surveys of US 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. Advice columnist Ann Landers said that the subject was the most responded to (15,000 letters in 1986) and 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 setting specifics such as recreational vehicles or having pets. 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

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 is 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".

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 of which urinals men choose 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.

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."

Arguments for over or under

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 traveller from the U.S. to China 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 the U.S." 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 FitzSimons 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.


    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.
  • 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."

    Social consequences

    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."


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


    The Tilt-A-Roll is a swiveling toilet paper dispenser invented by Curtis Batts in 1996, a Dallas-native industrial engineer. His patents on the invention, summarize its design as "An adjustable angle coupling secures the yoke to the mounting assembly and permits rotation of the yoke about an axis directed orthogonally through the spindle such that the paper roll can be oriented to unroll paper either from over or from under the roll as desired." The Tilt-A-Roll has been featured on a variety of newspapers, magazines, radio interviews, and TV shows, including The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Batts entered the Tilt-A-Roll at the 1999 INPEX invention show, the world's largest invention show with 800 inventions, and it won third place "for its appeal and simplicity".

    An inventor named Rocky Hutson demonstrated a similar device he called the T.P. Swivel to the producers of the television program PitchMen in late 2009. Of 173 entrants gathered at Ybor City, Tampa, Florida, Hutson was one of the twenty chosen to pitch their products to Anthony Sullivan.

    Another solution is to install two toilet paper dispensers, as is more common in public restrooms and hotels. A reader of the Annie's Mailbox column recommends using a holder large enough to fit two rolls, noting that the roll mounted over is more popular. Another reader sidesteps the issue by foregoing the holder, instead piling five or six rolls in a big wicker basket. Even using separate bathrooms can help. Other solutions include vertical holders.


    A Grand Rapids, Michigan, 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, the United States 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 New Hampshire'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?"

    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."


    Toilet paper orientation Wikipedia