A short history of toilet-paper marketing.

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Sept. 19 2011 4:56 PM

What Do Bears Have To Do With Toilet Paper?

A short history of bathroom-tissue marketing. Plus: Are bears really that soft?

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The brand icons for the major toilet-paper companies have remained fairly constant in recent years. There have been a few minor changes: In 2010, the Andrex puppy received a CGI upgrade, and the Charmin bear was redrawn to show flecks of cartoon toilet paper on its cartoon behind.

Bonus Explainer: Are bears really soft? Not compared to other mammals. Brown bears like Charmin's Leonard do possess a thick pelt and an ample (though seasonal) layer of subcutaneous fat. Still, the softness of an animal is generally thought to depend upon the density and composition of its fur—and according to these metrics, bears are middling at best.

ScotTissue, the Waldorf, Sani-Tissue, 1930. Click image to expand.
ScotTissue, the Waldorf, Sani-Tissue, 1930

The most thickly furred mammal is the sea otter, which grows hundreds of thousands of hairs per square centimeter of its skin. For comparison, a brown bear can produce about 2,500 hairs on the same-sized patch, while a polar bear grows 2,900. (Since bears hide out during the winter, they don't need as much insulation.) Among land mammals, chinchillas seem to have the softest, most dense fur. Hippopotamuses and elephants have some of the sparsest, with just a few dozen hairs per square centimeter.

Another factor that contributes to an animal's softness is the makeup of its pelt. Mammals tend to have two kinds of body hair: long, coarse guard hairs and short, downy wool hairs. The fur of a brown bear or polar bear is about two-thirds the latter. Lion pelts are three-quarters wool, and wolves' are five-sixths. The otter—which certainly deserves to be the spokesanimal for some brand of toilet paper—has fur that's 99-percent wool.

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Bonus Bonus Explainer: Are angels really soft? Yes, provided they have corporeal bodies. From the fifth century, angels have been depicted as winged human forms surrounded by an ethereal glow, but theologians have long debated the question of whether angels have a physical presence—which seems like the natural prerequisite for being soft.

Plenty of Christian writers have pronounced on angelic texture. The 17th-century Puritan Isaac Ambrose, for example, was moved to exclaim, "How gentle are the footsteps of angels! How tender their touch! How soft their whispers!" Two hundred years later, angelologist George Clayton described angels riding "on the downy chariots of their soft and silvery pinions."

Still, there's some disagreement over whether an angel's image is anything more than a projection of its spirit. The medieval Italian philosopher Bonaventure, also known as the " Seraphic Doctor," acknowledged that biblical accounts have angels taking the form of men, but argued these were mere effigies occupied by an angelic force. Thus, he argued, an angel can only pretend to eat or defecate by moving food through a false body. By the same reasoning, an angel's softness would also be an illusion.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Greg Guest of Georgia-Pacific, Kay Jackson of Kimberly-Clark, and Flo and Rich Newman of the Whole World Toilet Paper Museum.