Before inventors begin the development process for their new product idea, they should research the market. They must understand who their target market is—hopefully large enough to make the invention profitable.

They also must realize that no matter how much they like their new idea, there is no such thing as a target market that includes everyone. No idea or product appeals to everybody, making the term “must-have” an oxymoron in the inventing context.

When Time magazine conducted a survey several years ago to identify the most useful invention ever, the smart phone was the prevailing choice. Still, a survey on smart phone ownership in February by Pew Research Center showed that 77 percent of Americans own one—meaning that almost a quarter of the U.S. public presumably manages just fine without it.

There may be an invention that is even more indispensable, one we take for granted in our daily lives that has been used in various forms for about 1,500 years: toilet paper.

History and evolution

The Chinese are credited as being the first to use sheets of paper for toileting purposes, dating to the 6th century AD. The  invention did not become popular until the 14th century, when the Imperial Court of the Ming Dynasty had it manufactured in 2-foot-by-3-foot sheets, and even perfumed for use by the emperor’s family.

Almost 200 years later, the first flushing toilet was invented in 1596 by the British nobleman Sir John Harrington. He invented a valve that when pulled would release the water from the water closet and suggested that flushing should be conducted at least twice a day. Rumor has it that this is where the name the “john” originated.

Paper was a rare commodity until the 17th or 18th centuries; the first reference to paper as toilet paper was recorded in 1718. After the invention of paper, pages from newspapers and magazines such as the Sears catalog and Farmers’ Almanac were also commonly used. The Farmers’ Almanac actually had a hole in it so that it could be hung on a nail or string.

Because of this extensive history of “prior art,” it no doubt would have been difficult to pass the novelty test to obtain a patent on such a product. But Joseph C. Gayetty is credited with having invented the first packaged toilet paper in the United States in 1857. “Gayetty’s Medicated Paper” was sold in packages of flat sheets (500 sheets for $0.50), medicated with aloe to help cure sores and watermarked with his name on each sheet. Gayetty’s toilet paper was available as late as the 1920s.

Getting on a roll (literally)

As indicated by Gayetty’s product, initially toilet paper was sold in flat sheets as opposed to on a roll. Somewhere along the way, vendors decided that it would sell better if it could be put on a roll so that it was easier to use and took up less storage space.

In 1871, Seth Wheeler of Albany, New York, was granted patents on rolled and perforated wrapping paper that were the first of their kind in the United States. His Albany Perforated Wrapping Paper Co. became the first to start selling toilet paper on a roll.

Of course, a lot of changes have occurred since with regard to quality, texture and thickness. Soon after Wheeler started his company, others entered the marketplace. The Scott brothers founded the Scott Paper Co. in Philadelphia in 1874; by 1925, it had become the leading toilet paper company in the world and was subsequently acquired by Kimberly Clark. Other companies followed, such as Northern Paper Mills and Charmin Paper Products, with various mergers and acquisitions through the years.

No more spinning

In the early 2000s, inventor Tamara Monosoff observed a potential toilet paper roller problem that needed a solution. A common form of play by toddlers was to unroll the toilet paper from the holder by spinning it, resulting in an unraveled toilet paper mess on the bathroom floor. She invented a product called the TP Saver, a special device that clips onto the toilet paper roll to prevent continuous unrolling.

This is an interesting device from the perspective of defining its target market, because what she found was that small animals—specifically cats—got as much pleasure in manipulating the toilet paper as did toddlers. Thus, pet owners might be a larger market niche than moms who wanted to control toddler messes. The product also works well in boats and RVs, where driving motion and movement causes the roll of paper to unroll. So here is a good example of a new product idea where the focused target market turned out to be smaller than other potential spin-off market niches not initially realized.

A survey conducted by toilet paper manufacturer Charmin showed that the average U.S. citizen uses approximately 57 sheets of toilet paper per day, or 399 sheets per week and  approximately 21,000 sheets per year. Based on an average household size of 3-4 persons, this is an annual household consumption on the order of 60,000 to 80,000 sheets.

Hundreds of wedding dresses have been made out of toilet paper. In fact, there is an annual competition in New York City for the best wedding dress made from toilet paper.

Toilet paper goes back centuries and is still used daily in spite of all the technology that is available today. Wouldn’t this qualify as perhaps the most useful invention ever, one that everyone would want and must have?

Inventor, entrepreneur and philanthropist Richard Branson put all of this in perspective when he said: “If you’re embarking around the world in a hot-air balloon, don’t forget the toilet paper.”