Why it started, we don't know. When it started, we don't know either, but a safe guess would be about 30 years ago.
Why it spread? That's the truly fascinating question.
We are talking about toilet paper folding.
You know the experience. You're in your hotel bathroom, sitting there, doing your business, and you look over at the toilet roll, and the last patch — the one you are about to touch — is folded over, into a V-shape.
There was a time when nobody did this. Now, says, British science writer Susan Blackmore, toilet paper folding has become a world-wide hotel phenomenon, not just in fancy places, or first-world places, but Blackmore says she was at a guesthouse somewhere in deep, rural south Asia, and there, clamped onto the wall, was a cheap roll of toilet paper, and yup, it too was folded.
Why Is It Everywhere?
Why? Blackmore says this is a classic example of how certain ideas manage to catch on and spread in ways that resemble biological replication. Like viruses, we call these ideas "infectious," says writer Jim Gleick, like we call a tune "catchy" or a habit "contagious" – they spread on their own, and often for no obvious reason.
As Nobel Prize-winning biologist Jacques Monod wrote in 1970:
Ideas have retained some of the properties of organisms. Like them, they tend to perpetuate and to breed; they too can fuse, recombine ... indeed they too can evolve ...
And as they spread, they change. Photographer Stephen Gill has been collecting and photographing folded last-patch toilet papers from all over the world. When he puts them together, he told The Guardian newspaper, "Each picture is almost exactly the same, but that very uniformity seems to emphasize the subtle differences between them." Like living things, they keep morphing into slightly new shapes.
In the fancier hotels, says the Origami Resource Center, toilet paper folds have become increasingly fabulous and elaborate.
Hotel industry bloggers (I checked Hotel Chatter, part of Concierge.com) don't seem to know when or why this got started. The author of one hotel blog post called "Adventures in Overservice" paused to ...
wonder what hotel industry executive dreamed up this idea (and if his colleagues laughed in the meeting where he presented it).
We'd also like to know if they couldn't find something better for the housekeepers to do besides fold the toilet paper ends into clever little forms?
Yet this is what hotel workers do, every day. "All over the planet," says photographer Gill, "there must be thousands of people — chambermaids and cleaners, I imagine — folding toilet paper for guests," a huge labor expense, and to what end? Radical Darwinians would say there is no (good) reason; the "fold" seems to have its own hypnotic power: like any successful parasite, it makes itself inevitable.
And like living things, some evolve into useless, flamboyant creatures. If you want to see the toilet paper equivalent of a peacock's tail, here are three wedding dresses, made entirely from toilet paper!
David Silverman/Getty Images
But surely there must be some practical explanations for the fold's worldwide popularity — and there are.
Wikipedia cites news columnist David Feldman (from his Imponderables column) to say:
The practice is meant to assure customers that their hotel room has been cleaned. [Feldman surveyed] "most of the largest chains of innkeepers in the country," asked why the toilet paper was folded, "and received the same answer from all."
He quoted James P. McCauley, executive director of the International Association of Holiday Inns:
"Hotels want to give their guests the confidence that the bathroom has been cleaned since the last guest has used the room."
The fold says: No "user" touched the thing that's about to touch you. Sounds like a plausible explanation, but since evolution is a dynamic system, always changing, here's the latest, from Japan, home of Origami: a Do-It-Yourself-Toilet-Paper-Folder.
You come into the hotel room, sit down, finish, and after you clean up, you pull the lever on a device attached to your toilet roll called ... a "Meruboa."
With one pull (and no human contact), you refold the last paper patch into a perfect triangle for the next use.
No chamber maid necessary.
A 70-year-old car brake parts recycler from Nagoya, Japan, invented the Meruboa. He planned to make 10,000 of them a month, but sales have been so strong, production has quintupled. The company, on its website, predicts sales this year may reach 1 billion yen.
7 Billion Brains Swapping Ideas
Ideas have power, said the American neurophysiologist Roger Sperry. "Ideas cause ideas and help evolve new ideas. They interact with each other, [with] neighboring brains, and thanks to global communication, in far distant, foreign brains." And what do we get from cross breeding 7 billion brains?
Yes, we get folded toilet paper and hula-hoops and beanie-babies,but we also get jazz, the Funky Chicken, classical ballet, pizza, American basketball, bagels, calculus, more and more powerful technology, democracy, free speech and Bob Dylan when you need him. Not to mention the fun of waking up each morning wondering "what's new?" and discovering, if we look around, something is.
Gotta like that.
Here's a beautiful homage to constant change; it's a dance.
Susan Blackmore's book on "memes," the science (is it a science?) that describes the evolution of ideas, is called The Meme Machine, (Oxford University Press, 1999); Stephen Gill's toilet paper photos appear in his book, Anonymous Origami (Nobody, 2007) and can be seen here; Jonnie Hughes has a new book on memes as well, On the Origin of Tepees; The Evolution of Ideas (And Ourselves), (Free Press, 2011); Thanks to Jordan Bowen for suggesting the toilet paper meme. Jim Gleick has a chapter on memes in his new book, The Information (Pantheon, 2011).