Over the last few decades. The preponderance of bears on toilet-paper packaging—along with angels, babies, and puppies—derives from the dominance of the major players in the bath-tissue industry. Procter & Gamble, Georgia-Pacific and Kimberly-Clark together control about two-thirds of the market, and their brand icons—the Charmin bear, the Angel Soft baby, and the Cottonelle puppy—showed up in the United States over a 15-year span beginning in the late-1980s.
The first commercial brands of toilet paper emerged 100 years earlier, at a time when the product was rarely associated with specific images. In the 1880s, most were sold as "medicated paper" for treating hemorrhoids or other health problems, and decorated with wordy display copy reminiscent of the labels on Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap.
The Scott Paper Company became the first to offer toilet paper on a roll in the 1890s, and its products were marketed under private labels that each had their own advertising scheme. Many used words and pictures to connote luxury, as in The Waldorf and The Statler, two brands named after fancy hotels. Some showed images of ladies in ball gowns or gentlemen riding in horse-drawn carriages.
By the 1920s, the Scott Company had created its own genteel paper-products spokesman named Mr. Thirsty Fibre. Created in the mold of dapper brand icons such as Mr. Peanut and Rich Uncle Penny Bags (or Mr. Monopoly, as he's now known), Mr. Thirsty Fibre resembled a fuzzy, angry Abraham Lincoln—a gaunt man in a top hat and tails, brandishing his fists at moisture.
A few other manly toilet-paper icons populated the early years of the product, like the grizzled seafarer from packages of Life Guard, but the industry soon adopted a more lady-like approach. The Charmin brand got its start in 1928 with a woman's cameo silhouette on the package—a "charming logo" that connoted femininity and elegance. (Virile cleaning-product icons like Mr. Clean and the Brawny Lumberjack wouldn't show up for another few decades.)
In 1953, Charmin further softened its image by placing a baby alongside the woman. In 1956, the Charmin Lady was bounced altogether, leaving the baby to fend for itself as the brand icon. (She lives on overseas: A modern version of the cameo silhouette now decorates Soft n' Pretty toilet paper in Trinidad and Tobago.)
The toilet-paper puppy arrived in 1972, at the suggestion of an executive at the Scott Paper Company's Andrex line in Britain. It soon became one of the most beloved advertising icons in the United Kingdom—such a success that in 2003, a few years after Kimberly-Clark bought out Scott, the company adopted the yellow Labrador as the spokesanimal for its own Cottonelle brand. The little dog on the package was supposed to convey vulnerability and a need for gentle treatment, a company rep told the New York Times.
At around the same time, Procter & Gamble decided to bring in its own ringer from the United Kingdom, and the Charmin Bear arrived on our shores in 2000. P&G had earlier jettisoned its White Cloud line of toilet paper and the talking wad of fluff that was its logo. That left the meteorological motif to Georgia-Pacific, which launched its Angel Soft brand in 1986 with flocks of winged babies rising through clouds. (Georgia-Pacific also makes the Quilted Northern brand, the icons for which have ranged from Fluffy the Northern Cub in the 1940s to a group of bespectacled grandmothers with needles in the late 1990s.)
Meanwhile, Scott's regular brand of toilet paperstayed around with a generic, character-free package design befitting its niche as the no-frills, "value brand." The company now has a rather obscure brand persona for these products, in the form of a guy in a gray button-down shirt named "Scott."
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.
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.
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.