The History of Toilet Paper: Weird Facts of an Important Innovation

Sheryl Crow thinks that somehow the environment would be improved if we all used only one sheet of toilet paper at a time. I don’t think this plan would improve my environment, and I suspect others would agree with that.

But it did make me think about alternatives. We take toilet paper for granted. It’s there, we use it, and we don’t notice it unless it’s gone and we have to scream for someone to bring more, or do the duck walk out to the closet to get some from the stash, or – worst of all – make our way to the kitchen for the dread paper towel option.

For the most part, we never think about where it came from, or what people did without it.

Toilet Habits: An Ancient History

Civilization may have begun with decent toilet habits. After all, no one wants to live close to others who don’t clean things properly down there, and to live in a city you had to be close to others.

But since paper wasn’t invented until much later in history, people had to make do with a variety of things that were not toilet paper. Poor people often just went right into the river, and splashed off their bottoms afterward; this is what many of the poorest people do today. The wealthy used a variety of other solutions, mostly designed to remove debris and make things smell nice, not to eliminate bacteria.

The Romans had some other solutions. Poorer people used public restrooms, and their solution was a sponge on a stick soaking in salt water; you did your necessary, and then you dunked the stick back into the salt water bucket. Early morning, right after the bucket was changed, probably was the best time to go. Wealthy Romans used the much softer wool soaked in rosewater, which smelled much nicer but was probably less effective at germ-fighting. The Vikings used discarded wool as well.

In the Middle Ages, balls of hay or discarded husks were the object of choice; for those tough jobs, a gompf stick (a sort of scraper) kept in the privy was used to remove stubborn bits.The Introduction Of Paper

In Elizabethan times, paper was much more in use, and the wealthy started using paper and rags. Poorer folk used the solutions left over from the Middle Ages, and early Americans began using the famous corncob solution. Sailors were long in the habit by this time of using a rope that hung from a post on the head, usually the frayed end of an old anchor line; yes, they shared this.

Early Americans were quite innovative, and after they figured out that the corncob was only really good in certain specific situations – and could be very uncomfortable – they started using old almanacs to take care of business. Later, the Sears catalog and Farmers Almanac were in frequent use, with the Almanac even manufactured with a hole in one corner so it could be easily suspended from the outhouse wall.

Not only did the wealth French aristocrats think the poor should eat cake, they saved the best toilet products for themselves; they were in the habit of wiping with wool or hemp, and the wealthiest used lace to keep clean. It gives one a whole new perspective when one sees all the lace dangling from beneath frock coats. At least, one must wonder.

On the outskirts of Western civilization, things were significantly different and less comfortable. Hawaiians were in the habit of using coconut shells. As uncomfortable as that sounds, Eskimos had it worse; they used tundra moss and, chillingly, snow to remove the detritus of being human.

Enter the Chinese: True Inventors of Toilet Paper

The Chinese were the inventors of both ordinary paper and toilet paper. One philosopher in 589 AD admonished against using paper printed with the sayings of sages or quotes from the Five Classics for wiping their bottoms. A Muslim traveler in 851 AD also commented that the Chinese had the foul habit of wiping with paper instead of cleaning with water, which he was used to. By 1391 AD, toilet paper was in common enough use that the Chinese emperor’s inventory included 2’x3′ sheets of toilet paper, and the Bureau of Imperial Supplies recorded a production level of 720,000 sheets each year just for the Imperial Court. Ordinary toilet paper wasn’t good enough for the emperor, though, and he had soft, perfumed toilet paper made just for the imperial family.

It was, however, a Frenchman who invented rolled paper in 1798, though it was not used for toilet paper until over a half-century later. Marie Fagliano first mass-marketed toilet paper in the United States, printing her last name on each sheet (perhaps a bad plan, if you think about it.)

Today, the use of toilet paper is a more Western tradition than you’d think. An Indian coworker of mine, chattering away on the phone about her planned visit home, spoke Pashtun until she got to the words “Wal-mart parking lot” and “toilet paper.” Afterward, we cornered her. What, we demanded, was so important about toilet paper? After she stopped laughing at us, she enlightened us: because her Western-raised daughters were grossed out at the Eastern tradition of using the bucket and rag, she was reminding them to go to Wal-mart and make sure they picked up a supply of toilet paper to take with them.

Indians, you see, think our habit of using toilet paper is gross. If you plan to travel through India, this might be something to keep in mind. If you travel in Japan, the opposite should be kept in mind; their paperless toilet is a system of gadgets that can easily get out of hand.

More modern uses of toilet paper include printing it with pictures of Hitler (during WWII) and other hated public figures. At one point, the U.S. military used it to camouflage tanks during Desert Storm, when they realized that green stood out a bit in the desert and they didn’t have time to paint.

And in possibly the most heinous (and mysterious) deed of any modern president, President Clinton taxed each roll of toilet paper 6 cents in 1996, making it more expensive than ever before to have a clean derriere. For that alone, we must be wary of his re-entry into the White House, even as First Lady.

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