In 1916, the even-then-stylish Vanity Fair published a remark to the effect that something (a “parking scheme”) was “the greatest boon to mankind generally since the failure to adopt the paper towel.” The Oxford English Dictionary marks this as the earliest recorded occurrence in print of “paper towel.” We certainly haven’t seen the last.
Vanity Fair — at whose offices I can only assume people brought their lunch along with double-damask dinner napkins — was pooh-poohing a new American invention, then almost a decade old.
Whether the paper towel was an accidental discovery — damaged rolls of paper and so on – or a deliberate invention I leave to the industry’s mythographers to decide.
At least since the baby-boomer generation, the paper towel has felt like a birthright. Two brands, Brawny and Bounty, were powerful presences on those 1970s supermarket shelves and in the cultural imaginary of the American media. Recent events brought me to think about those supermarket shelves and how paper towels might be playing out a version of the myths we tell ourselves about America.
On the one hand there was the Brawny man, wearing plaid and looking just a bit too lumberjack-y to be convincing. Brawny man smiled down on us purchasers from some tidy but heavily wooded location where he was busy logging trees surely destined to become the towels that would clean up last night’s Swedish meatballs and fondue. Brawny man: strong but cheerful.
On a competing shelf there stood Bounty paper towels. Bounty hit advertising-slogan gold with the tagline “the thicker, quicker picker-upper,” memorably — at least to those of us old enough to remember it – delivered by Nancy Walker, a fine comedienne of musical theater, from an era when it was still possible to use the term comedienne. Walker hawked Bounty for 20 years. Bounty: resourceful, abundant.
Of course, not all paper products were above board, or at least above the counter.
Lingua Franca readers will also recall Mr. Whipple — bespectacled, scolding, and mustachioed — who functioned in 1970s American culture as a sort of diminutive alternative to the Brawny man, and whose job was to prevent shoppers from squeezing the Charmin toilet paper, thus depriving them of a kind of consumerist ecstasy best enjoyed in the privacy of one’s own water closet.
Which takes me to Puerto Rico, the White House, and yet one more grotesque photo op. Why paper towels, which in this context trivialize the island’s devastation as an inconvenient counter spill?
“They had these beautiful, soft towels. Very good towels,” said the President of the United States as if he had just happened to discover a stack of paper towels, which he seemed to be describing in the language you might use for extra-fluffy hotel bath sheets.
He was explaining why he had chosen to throw a cache of 1BigRoll!s at people who had no electricity, damaged roads, and insufficient medical supplies, and doing so in his inimitable syntactic form. (OK, it’s imitable. Very imitable.)
For the record, the subject of this endorsement was not a crate of Brawny or Bounty towels, but a Walmart house brand, labelled with the not-quite-brand-name 1BigRoll! His staff must have thought this the perfect match of man to paper product.
I don’t want to wax poetic, much less wroth, about Mr Trump’s weirdly vainglorious engagement with the victims of a hurricane, or the oddities of his limited vocabulary, but I’ll linger a moment longer on this.
One of the advantages of the paper towel is its capacity to apply capillary action to some awkward mishap just long enough for the job to be done and the towel to be disposed of. It’s a product designed with a short attention span. For picking up spills on the counter, that’s just fine.
As a symbolic expression of sympathy and charitable assistance, balanced by straightforward governmental responsibility to American citizens, however, the paper towel moment didn’t clean up any problems, either for the residents of Puerto Rico or of the White House.
It was neither a moment of strength nor generosity, neither brawny nor bountiful.
It was, as we know, a showpiece moment for the cameras, the equivalent of what we call, in verbal terms, empty rhetoric. All presidents arrange photo ops, but few have been so coldly empty.
The people of Puerto Rico are still waiting, and I fear will be waiting a long time, for the administration to treat this natural and economic disaster, with all its ramifications for the people of the island, as more than the biggest, and most annoying, counter spill ever.
Which is a lesson politicians — and the press — should be at pains to absorb.