One of the favourites to scoop the Hertfordshire Association of Museums Object of the Year award, the allure of a humble 83-year-old toilet roll from Letchworth is explained by Collections officer Sophie Walter of the Garden City Collection
When we take people around our object store there’s a small objects area where there are lots of lovely things; some charming ceramics and other items that you might expect to see in a museum. And then you get to the little corner with this toilet roll.
When you point it out as a favourite, people usually snigger and start having fun recollections of things like Izal toilet paper. It lightens the mood and makes things a bit more relatable.
more like this
It’s a quirky item because it’s such a regular everyday thing, but really it’s what we’re about. Yes, we’re about all the care for fine art and the architectural plans of the Garden City in the collection, but we’re also about the everyday lives of virtuous people as well. And that’s what they bought.
We’re pretty certain it dates to 1936, or thereabouts, and we think it was made in Letchworth, because Eardley Edward Russell, who was behind the Rusco brand, manufactured things from his chemist shop in Station Road in Letchworth. The E E Russell chemist brand eventually expanded out to 17 sites in the area including Ashwell and Baldock.
I did some fact checking with the help of the Wellcome Collection, which has a wonderfully irreverent blog story about toilet rolls and their use over time on their website, and the toilet roll with a tube in the centre had been in production for about 60 years when our roll was manufactured. The two-ply softer tissue wasn’t available at all in England until about six years later and that was first produced in England at St Andrew’s Paper Mill in 1942.
“The British were slow to adopt softer toilet tissue and we made fun of Americans who had gone over to the soft side”
Our version would probably be considered one-ply, but it’s not the Izal type, which was almost tracing paper. Ours is definitely more tissue-like. I think it probably was a higher end item because it has the tube in the centre. At this time most toilet tissue still came in little squares inside flat packaging. Apparently a selling point to note before 1930 was that the paper was splinter-free. Ours doesn’t talk about splinters.
Apparently the British were slow to adopt the softer toilet tissue and we apparently even made fun of the Americans who had gone over to the soft side. I also found, through the Wellcome Collection, that Izal waited until 1956 to commission consumer research looking at whether people were ready for a soft, un-medicated toilet tissue. They concluded that many of us weren’t.
We have future plans to conserve the outside wrappings, which are currently held with an adhesive pressure sensitive tape, which has deteriorated badly. The plan is to take it to a paper conservator who will remove the external wrappings, a bit like an Egyptian mummy, which will allow us to see more of the actual tissue paper. It doesn’t look like it’s perforated for example. It’s just one long, long roll… We have been wondering whether there was a part of the actual holder that would allow you to remove the amount that you wanted?
It was donated to us around 10 years ago, and unfortunately we don’t know the story of the person who donated it, but it is still a valuable link back to the past, and we do actually want to collect, display and celebrate things like this, because they are intrinsically part of Letchworth. Our collection is about not general social history, it’s very specifically about Letchworth, its people and the Garden City movement.
Work started on the garden city itself in 1903 but the man behind it, social reformer Ebenezer Howard, laid out his ideas in the book, which was to become Garden Cities of To-morrow, in 1898. Howard actually had no background in town planning so he organised a competition, which was won by Barry Park and Raymond Unwin, two architects and town planners from Derbyshire.
The development of Letchworth encapsulates all sorts of alternative Edwardian elements – from vegetarianism, ‘simple lifers’ and theosophy to conscientious objectors, suffragettes and rational dress. A number of early Arts & Crafts industries made their home in the town, like St. Edmundsbury Weaving Works and bookbinders like WH Smith and JM Dents.
Our historical collection starts in the 1900s with all of the plans and drawings, and it is full of different little snapshots of the history of Letchworth as well as the wider garden city movement and how that affected not only town planning, but other things like gardening, art, poetry and publishing.
Then the objects start to filter in as industry and commerce develop and people start spending money.
For example we have a collection from the Kahn family who came over from Austria, which shows their everyday lives. We are able to grasp quite a lot from, say, a pair of their spectacles from which I can tell you the prescription they had, and we know that they liked playing cards because they had seven sets of them! These are all valuable insights into how people spent their lives in Letchworth, which then allows people to look back and consider their own lives today.
That’s the focus of the micro museum that we recently opened at One Garden City, which explores the history of the town through the eyes of ordinary people. We’re trying to look at relatable things and focus on actual people’s voices as much as possible. Because of the way the heritage has been preserved in certain places you can directly make comparisons of not just the architecture but also of the people who lived in it.
So the toilet roll is now on display at the museum – we thought we’d leave it on display during the whole Awards thing, so people could see it a little easier. We had the opportunity to put it onto a nice plinth, so we thought: why not?! It’s on its own and it looks beautiful.
Sophie Walter was speaking to Richard Moss
Find out more about all the entrants in this year’s Hertfordshire Museums Object of the Year and vote for your favourite at hertfordshiremuseums.org.uk/object-of-the-year.aspx before October 31 2019.
Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation
Letchworth Garden City, Hertfordshire
Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation is a self-funding charitable organisation investing in the future of Letchworth Garden City. We’re bringing an exciting, new arts and cultural programme to Letchworth Garden City – including theatre, cinema, music & visual arts.