A Brief History of Toilet Paper

A Brief History of Toilet Paper

Nancy Mitchell
Oct 9, 2014
(Image credit: hwongcc/Shutterstock)

For some people, a trip to the john can be a very contemplative experience. Perhaps you've found yourself wondering, as you sat the porcelain throne: what did people wipe their bottoms with before toilet paper?

I've always wondered about this, and the answer I've always gotten, from older folks who either endured such things, or knew people who did, is: the Sears catalog. Which does solve the problem of what to do with unwanted junk mail, and probably wasn't as uncomfortable as you would imagine, since catalogs in ye olde days weren't glossy and would've had a softer texture, similar to newsprint. (Wikipedia indicates to me that the telephone book and the Farmer's Almanac were also once used for this purpose.)

But what about before the Sears catalog? Here is a (non comprehensive) list of some of the things that people throughout history have used to wipe their bottoms.

  • rags
  • leaves
  • grass
  • wood shavings (yikes)
  • snow
  • fruit skins
  • seashells
  • corncobs
  • a sponge on a stick (ancient Romans)
  • a special wooden stick, known as a chuugi (ancient Japan)
  • smooth stones, carried in a bag for that purpose (ancient Jewish) (but how did you clean the bag?)

In the middle ages, according to Lucy Worley's If Walls Could Talk (a fascinating history of all sorts of mundane household things), aristocratic folks had a linen cloth called a 'stool duckett,' rather like a napkin, which would be washed and re-used. Although this may seem repellent to us, it was certainly a step up from wiping one's bottom with straw, as practiced by the hoi polloi.

And in a move which foreshadowed the creative use of the Sears catalog many centuries later, some English lords encouraged their sons to purchase a cheap volume of verse for reading on the can. The idea was that you could read a few stanzas while taking care of your business, and then tear the page out and use it to clean up afterwards. No bookmark needed.

The Chinese were wiping their bottoms with paper far sooner than their Western counterparts, as early as the 6th century. They were also the first to manufacture paper specifically for this purpose. By 1393, 72,000 sheets of toilet paper were being produced annually for the use of the imperial court. Wikipedia indicates that these sheets were two feet by three feet in size, which leads me to believe that Chinese folks were either tearing tiny bits off a sheet for each use, or there was a lot of folding going on.

Ready-made toilet paper didn't come to American until 1857, when Joseph Gayetty began creating and selling his 'medicated paper', aloe-infused hemp sheets that came in a box, like Kleenex. The advertisements for this product warned people against the dangers of wiping with the Sears catalog — "Printed paper, everybody knows, is rank poison to tender portions of the body." Still, manufactured toilet paper didn't really catch on until the advent of indoor plumbing. At that point, people needed something that could be easily flushed, and corncobs and catalogs just didn't cut it anymore.

There were still advances to be made in the world of toilet paper. It wasn't until 1890 that the Scott brothers had the idea of putting toilet paper on a roll, and the first splinter-free toilet paper wasn't introduced until 1930, when Northern developed the technology to create paper that wouldn't spear you when you used it. Take a moment and let that sink in. Until 1930, splinters in your toilet paper was still a thing. Horrifying.

This short history is now in danger of becoming a bit long, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention that in other parts of the world, there are still plenty of acceptable bum-wiping methods that don't involve paper. These include using your hand (washed afterwards, of course!) and using a bidet or lota, two devices that Americans find confounding but that folks in other cultures consider essential. That's a lot to think about on your next trip to the loo.

For further reading:

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