Who Invented Paper Towels?

Paper towels are such a universal part of modern life that it’s hard to imagine a time before they existed. These disposable paper sheets are a staple in kitchens, bathrooms, schools, businesses, and public spaces around the world.

Who Invented Paper Towels

Paper towels provide a quick, hygienic way to clean up spills, dry hands, wipe surfaces, and more. But who invented the paper towel, and how did it become so popular?

The Invention of Toilet Paper Laid the Groundwork

To understand the history of paper towels, we first need to go back to the invention of toilet paper in the late 1800s.

In 1879, brothers Irvin and Clarence Scott founded the Scott Paper Company in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At the time, paper was still a relatively new consumer product, as mass production of paper only started in the early 19th century.

The Scott brothers saw an opportunity to bring paper to the bathroom with their new toilet tissue product. Up until then, old newspapers, corn cobs, and leaves were among the unpleasant options people relied on.

Scott Paper Company’s first product was a toilet tissue roll called Scott Tissue, which contained 1,000 perforated sheets per roll. Toilet paper was considered a medical product at the time, and the company used print ads to market it to hospitals and residential customers.

The corporation was successful in making toilet paper a mainstream consumer good. But an accident with a botched batch of toilet paper would lead to an even more revolutionary product.

A Fortunate Manufacturing Mistake

In 1907, Arthur Scott (son of founder Irvin Scott) was appointed president of Scott Paper Company. That same year, a railroad car full of toilet paper arrived at the company’s plant, but the paper was far too thick, tough, and coarse to use for its intended purpose.

This left Arthur Scott with a predicament. Should he send the whole shipment back or find another use for the faulty product? As he pondered this issue, he recalled reading about an innovative teacher’s method for reducing illness transmission in Philadelphia schools.

Key Takeaway: The invention of paper towels was precipitated by an accident – a batch of toilet paper that was too thick to use.

A Teacher’s Novel Idea Sparks Innovation

In 1879, a local Philadelphia teacher had come up with a creative way to curb the spread of colds and flu in school. At the time, students shared communal cloth towels in school restrooms to dry their hands. The teacher realized that this public cloth towel could easily transmit germs and sickness.

Her simple but brilliant idea was to distribute scraps of soft paper to students, so they could dry their hands with single-use paper instead of sharing the towel. The paper could be discarded after one use, minimizing cross-contamination.

This anecdote gave Arthur Scott an “a-ha moment” for how to salvage the unsuccessful batch of thick toilet paper. He ordered his factory to perforate the paper into small towel-sized sheets, and sold it as disposable paper towels for sanitary hand drying.

Launched in 1907, Scott Paper Company’s paper towel product was branded “Sani-Towels” to emphasize the sanitation benefits compared to cloth towels. The company marketed Sani-Towels to railroad stations, hotels, restaurants, factories, and other businesses with public restrooms.

The Debut of Modern Paper Towels

While Sani-Towels were successful in commercial restrooms, it wasn’t until 1931 that paper towels made their debut in the consumer market.

Building on the sanitation concept of the original Sani-Towels, Arthur Scott introduced a new paper towel product designed for use in households – especially kitchens. These paper towels were 13 x 18 inches in size, and perforated so they could be torn off a roll as needed.

However, the home paper towel rolls weren’t an immediate hit. At first, many housewives were confused by the idea of “towels you don’t have to wash.” They were accustomed to reusing cloth kitchen towels and linen dish towels. It took a major shift in mindset before paper towels replaced these cloth counterparts.

By marketing paper towels as a disposable, sanitary alternative to germy dish rags, Scott Paper Company eventually won consumers over. Within a few decades, paper towels established themselves as a staple cleaning and drying product in American households.

Facts About Modern Paper Towels

Today, paper towels have advanced well beyond Scott Paper’s original crude perforated sheets. Here are some facts about the paper towels found in homes and businesses today:

  • Most paper towels have at least two layers of paper bonded together for greater thickness and absorbency. Premium brands may have three or more layers.
  • Manufacturing processes like embossing and air cushioning improve the towel’s ability to absorb liquid through increased surface area.
  • Paper towels are made from renewable materials like recycled paper pulp or virgin pulp from trees. Some brands use fast-growing bamboo fiber.
  • Advanced chemical processes improve wet strength, softness, and ability to retain moisture.
  • Paper towels come packaged individually or bundled in stacks, rolls, or boxes to suit different dispensers.
  • In the US, paper towels are the second highest volume product in the tissue paper market after toilet paper. Most American households use around 50-60 lbs of paper towels per year.

Thanks to decades of innovation, the humble paper towel continues improving in functionality, efficiency, and eco-friendliness.

Paper Towels Worldwide

Since their proliferation in the 20th century, paper towels have become commonplace in many nations, though adoption varies globally based on cultural norms and economic development.

Some key facts about international usage:

  • The United States far outpaces the rest of the world in paper towel consumption, using around 50% more per capita than European nations.
  • Paper towel usage is nearly 500% higher in the U.S. compared to Latin America and the Middle East.
  • In Europe, reusable cleaning rags remain popular, while Japanese households often prefer reusable woven cloths.
  • Lower paper towel usage in developing nations correlates with lower disposable income levels.
  • But paper towel sales are rising quickly in emerging markets as living standards improve.

While ingrained cultural preferences play a role, paper towels are generally associated with affluence. Their convenience appeals greatly when disposable income increases.

This indicates there is huge room for growth for paper towel products in developing economies.

The Lasting Legacy of Paper Towels

The advent of paper towels revolutionized sanitation and cleanliness practices in commercial establishments and private homes. Their impact was so profound that it’s hard to recall how the world functioned before them.

Some of the key benefits that have made paper towels indispensable include:

  • Minimizing the spread of germs and disease by eliminating shared cloth towels
  • Convenience – they can be used quickly and disposed without laundry
  • Efficiency – faster and less labor than washing rags after each use
  • Sanitary – a fresh, clean sheet every time
  • Safety – no risk of cross-contaminating cleaning rags between different surfaces
  • Adaptability – available in different sizes for diverse cleaning needs

Though invented by accident, paper towels have become an emblem of health and sanitation over the last century. For both hygiene and convenience, it seems this humble disposable product will continue being a household staple worldwide.


Who first invented paper towels?

The Scott Paper Company is credited with inventing paper towels. In 1907, Arthur Scott adapted a batch of failed toilet paper into the first paper towel product called Sani-Towels.

Why were paper towels invented?

Paper towels were conceived as a more sanitary alternative to using shared public cloth towels to dry hands and prevent spreading germs. Their disposable nature promoted cleanliness.

When did paper towels become popular?

While paper towels for commercial use took off in the early 1900s, it wasn’t until the 1930s and later that they replaced cloth towels in most American households.

What makes paper towels absorbent?

Most paper towels have a textured surface and are made of multiple layers of airy, loosely bonded paper fibers that allow water to penetrate and get trapped.

Are paper towels better than air dryers?

Paper towels are considered more hygienic and effective than air dryers. They dry hands more thoroughly in less time and don’t blow germs around a restroom.

How do you make paper towels more sustainable?

Buying paper towels made with recycled materials or bamboo fibers reduces environmental impact. Using reusable cleaning cloths when possible also cuts waste.


Although paper towels seem ubiquitous today, their existence was an accident of fate. Thanks to a serendipitous manufacturing mishap and an observant teacher’s wise idea, this humble product came about to provide a convenient and hygienic cleaning solution.

Since their commercial debut in 1907, paper towels have continued advancing in functionality and sustainability. Despite regional differences, they have been wholeheartedly embraced around the globe for their practicality and cleanliness.

Emma Kellam
Emma Kellam

I'm Emma, and I run Towels Edition, a website for fellow home goods enthusiasts who, like me, are passionate about textiles. After working in high-end retail, I was amazed by how little most people (myself included!) know about all the towel options out there.

I research and write all the content myself. Whether it's specialized towels like bar mops, Turkish cotton production methods, or comparing hair towel absorbency, I cover it. My goal is to share my knowledge and enthusiasm to help others.

Running Towels Edition allows me to constantly expand my own expertise too. I love learning about innovations in bamboo fabric or ideal bath towels. It's so rewarding to receive emails thanking me for recommendations that improved my readers' routines.

I want Towels Edition to be the ultimate online towel resource, making this overlooked necessity far more fascinating. My aim is to open people's eyes to how specialty towels can thoroughly enhance hygiene, cleaning, recreation and self-care.