In Reply to: Tow-rag posted by Ron HMS on September 27, 2009 at 18:19:
: I understand the meaning of the phrase Tow-rag, to come from the pad of teased out old rope that Royal Navy sailors of the 18th/19th century used to use when they visited 'the head'(toilet on the bow of the ship). Paper was far too expensive to use, so old rope, known as tow, was used and was then washed out and kept in one's pocket until needed again. Hence the derisory term to call someone a tow-rag.
I am no expert, but paper wasn't expensive in the 18th-19th Centuries, surely? There was no shortage of the raw materials, and the proliferation of books, newspapers, journals, etc would seem to indicate that it was cheap enough.
My understanding has always been that it is spelled 'toe rag', and refers to the rags that tramps and others would use to wrap around their feet rather than the comparatively expensive socks: an unattractive object, and thus used to insult those people deemed suitably unappealing.