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Meta: There’s nothing worse than running out of toilet paper. But what did people use before they had any? You might be surprised.
Many things have changed over the last few thousand years, but one thing hasn’t: everyone still needs a way to wipe.
Toilet paper is a relatively recent phenomenon. The Chinese first used paper – real paper – on the toilet in the sixth century. But it didn’t catch on, and the global use of toilet paper would wait another 1,300 years. That begs the question: what did people use before toilet paper?
Back before there were triple-ply, cottony-soft rolls of toilet paper, people came up with other common solutions for personal hygiene. Some of them may shock you, but it’s important to remember that even today, you must sometimes use whatever happens to be closest. Here are seven things (we know about) that people used before modern day luxuries.
Seven Things People Used Before Toilet Paper
What did people use before toilet paper? The answer is: whatever was close to hand. People largely didn’t get creative when looking for something to bring to the bathroom with them. Though, as you’ll see, you can imagine some solutions were more comfortable than others.
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The Romans gave us the aqueduct and some of the first communal bathrooms. What goes best in a communal toilet? According to the Romans, the answer is communal sponges.
Archaeological excavations show that the Romans cleaned up with sea sponges attached to a stick. They would dip the sponge in saltwater and use it to wipe before returning it or passing it on.
There was even a name for it: a tersorium.
Sharing a wiping sponge seems out of character for the otherwise hygiene-conscious Romans. They used public toilets and sewer systems to improve sanitation. Roman towns also introduced legislation that mandated cities to remove the waste and leave it outside of town.
It’s no surprise that the sponge-on-a-stick method didn’t do too many people any favors.
Decades of archaeological research and field testing found that Roman systems did nothing to wipe out the parasite that causes dysentery (or roundworm or whipworm) and that the Romans had just as many parasites as those who occupied the same areas during the Bronze and Iron Ages who didn’t have toilets—or sponges on sticks for that matter.
Pieces of Pottery
If a sponge on a stick sounds unsanitary, then pieces of pottery sound downright uncomfortable.
But it was such a common way to wipe that it entered the historical written record.
There’s a Greek saying that says “Three stones are enough to wipe.”
It’s used today to describe frugality, but it refers back to the use of ‘pessoi’ or pebbles, which was both a board game and an ancient form of toilet paper. As with many other things associated with the Greeks, pessoi get more profound the more you learn about them.
Some pessoi may have been ceramic known as “ostraca,” which are broken pieces of pottery upon which Ancient Greeks would write the names of their personal enemies. Yes, the Greeks would wipe their bottoms with the names of those who wronged them.
It wasn’t a low-brow practice either. Archaeologists have found ostraca with the name of the Greek philosopher Socrates. (Socrates eventually went to prison and faced the death penalty, so his unpopularity was already well-documented).
Of course, the unceremonious practice of using ceramic as toilet paper came with its own Greek tragedy. Using an abrasive surface like broken pottery shards over the long-term results in irritation, skin damage, or even burst external hemorrhoids. Indeed, let’s hoped the Greeks used these for only their most formidable enemies.
It’s worth noting that the practice wasn’t unique to the Greeks. Archaeologists first thought pottery found at a Roman site in West Sussex, England were gaming pieces. Upon further inspection, they found that the circular-shaped ceramic were more likely to be ancient toilet roll. However, it’s unclear whether the Romans dedicated these stones to anyone in particular.
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Have you ever heard of the “family cloth”? Well, for centuries, it wasn’t just a gross, thinly veiled threat made by parents who are tired of their children failing to replace the roll.
Rags were a common form of toilet paper during colonial America and in Europe around the same time. In Victorian London, people would use their cloth and wash it in the River Thames, but doing so would be somewhat counterproductive given the state of sewage in the river.
Given the first two toilet paper alternatives, rags seem like a safe bet. They are accessible, soft, easy to wash and carry, and more.
They remain such a safe bet that some people either still use rags or are now switching to cloth toilet paper in the 21st century. Some who do it think they are eco-conscious (save the trees!) and others want to avoid the chemicals found on some toilet paper. Even more people say they do it because they want to save money.
To each their own, but it’s also worth noting that there are 17 brands of recycled toilet paper, it costs money to wash those rags, and what are you going to offer to guests?
Water and Hands
In some parts of the world, people skipped the sticks full of bacteria and rubbing their sensitive bits with pottery in favor of using their hands.
In places like India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the rest of the Indian subcontinent, the practice is still incredibly common. South-East Asian countries still use the water and hand method even though toilet paper is more widely available there.
If you come from North America or Europe, you might think this sounds insane. Even that perception is changing. Bidets now dot European hotels (and homes) as the rest of us come to realize that a jet of water is far better than two-ply. Just make sure you wash your hands after.
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Twigs, Dirt, Dry Grass
By now, you know that people used what they had at their fingertips. So, it’s not surprising that those who lived more nomadic lives would use a piece of nature as they answered its call.
Evidence shows that Native Americans used dirty, twigs, or dry grass to wipe. In communities near the ocean or other bodies of water, they might also use clam or oyster shells.
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One of the more mystifying popular items was the use of a dried corncob.
When you think about it, the appeal is there. Corncobs were plentiful in rural farming communities, and their shape made them easy to maneuver. The question is whether they are soft enough to use in areas that don’t do well with abrasive surfaces. And for many Americans, the answer was yes.
Toilet paper became more widely available in the twentieth century, but even still, those with outhouses allegedly preferred the old-fashioned way.
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Newspapers and Catalogs
Finally, some Americans (in particular) would use newspapers, catalogs, and even the telephone book to wipe long past toilet paper’s arrival. These came with good quality paper that they had laying around anyway, and it was an elegant way to get rid of the issue you had already finished reading while on the toilet.
When Did We Start Using Toilet Paper?
Humans have needed toilet paper since the dawn of time, but toilet paper itself is not only a very localized phenomenon, but it’s also very recent.
The Chinese were the first to use the earliest version of toilet paper in the sixth century, but it didn’t take off—at all.
The toilet paper designed for commercial sales appeared in 1857 when Joseph Gayette came up with medicated wipes (manila hemp sheets infused with aloe) to sell to those who suffered from hemorrhoids. Of course, Americans were still using Sears Roebuck catalogs (and corn cobs), so they weren’t keen on spending money just to throw in the toilet.
In 1890, Clarence and E. Irvin Scott put toilet paper on a roll—both physically and financially. Even then, it took the spread of indoor plumbing complete with sit-down flush toilets to require Americans to ask for it. You couldn’t flush a Sears catalog or corncob and get away with it, so there needed to be something soft enough to go through new pipes.
From here, the issue wasn’t so much the need for toilet paper as much as Americans’ shyness about talking about toilet paper. Once the marketing team at Charmin came out with a marketing campaign in 1928 that sold the femininity and softness of the product, it gave people a way around talking about going to the bathroom.
You can even see the legacy of American prudishness today in the pictures of bears, puppies, and other cute creatures on a product that no bear or puppy needs.
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Toilet Paper: It’s Not the Only Way
Today, the United States spends $6 billion on toilet tissue a year. But toilet paper is a new-fangled invention for new-fangled pipes (and people willing to flush their disposable income down the toilet). For most of the world, it still doesn’t beat the good old-fashioned way.
People wiped with some strange things. Some were convenient, and others made a statement. But if there’s one thing we know after a few thousand years of trial and error, wiping with whatever is closest is still better than not wiping at all.