The History of Toilet Paper

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If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is the true value of toilet paper. Think about it; when the panic buying starts, toilet paper is the first thing to go. While we here at Pure Planet Club don’t endorse panic buying, we are big fans of people valuing their TP! But watching people with trolleys full of rolls does make you think; What did people use before toilet paper? When was toilet paper invented?

We are so glad you asked! Come with us now on a journey so harrowing, you will want to get down on your knees and kiss that soft little cylinder that sits in your bathroom (pre-use, obviously).

What did people use before toilet paper?

They used anything they could get their hands on! It ranged from the jagged; pottery, shells, sticks, all the way to the uncomfortable; sand or snow. If you were wealthy, you could afford animal skins or wool, but if you were poor you had to resort to your hand.

On some level it sounds kinda organic, beautiful, like they were especially in touch with the ocean. Well, anyone who has had an actual oyster cut will know that they don’t want to be in touch with that part of nature at all, let alone on the more sensitive parts of their body. How did people wipe before toilet paper if they risked tetanus every time?

Sidenote: The 1993 film Demolition Man stars Sylvester Stallone who wakes decades in the future, only to find that toilet paper has been replaced by three seashells. No one ever explains how these three seashells work, and the assumption is that it probably doesn’t. It is also now a meme! The more you know…

When was toilet paper invented?

Commercially available toilet paper first became available in 1857.  It was invented by Joseph Gayetty in New York and was sold in packages of 500 flat sheets (no rolls back then).  It was watermarked with Gayetty’s name and sold for 50 cents a pack.

Toilet paper with lightbulb and idea drawn on sheet

Dzianis_Rakhuba via Shutterstock

Pottery Shards

In Ancient Greece and Rome, shards of pottery called ‘pessoi’ were commonly used before toilet paper crossed their minds.

In the understatement of the century, historians have hypothesized that was “probably quite dangerous.” Just imagine that for a second. Not the most absorbent material, these shards would have been used to scrape the area clean like a rake on a golf course. While we owe ideas like democracy and engineering to the Greeks and Romans, a trip to the bathroom shouldn’t end in a mosaic of blood and pottery splayed across your backside. Not one of their finest ideas…

Pottery shards or Pessoi, commonly used as toilet paper by Greeks and Romans

MarinaGrigorivna via Shutterstock

A Rag on a Stick

Roman wipes did slightly pull ahead with the advent of the ‘tersorium’, which translates roughly (pardon the pun) to ‘bum wiping stick’. 

Before toilet paper, Romans would give their backsides a quick polish before throwing the stick back into a bucket of salt water or vinegar. Before you get too excited, it was a communal stick which got passed around the public bathrooms. To bring this to our day and age, imagine using the toilet cleaning brush in a public toilet, and that would still be roughly 90% more hygienic. Disease was rife. What did people do before toilet paper? They got sick! But at least you weren’t far from a bathroom if you began feeling nauseous!

Anal Sticks

The Japanese in the 8th century used a 25cm stick called a chuugi before toilet paper was invented. This was intended to clean the exterior of the anus as well as the interior.

It is unclear whether they had invented sandpaper by this stage, or whether internal splinters were just a part of life. Either way, the Japanese are a stoic people, and at Pure Planet Club, we commend their resilience. We think we will probably stick to three ply if it’s all the same…

Seashells 

Those cultures that lived in coastal areas used what was available to them at the time: Seashell toilet paper!

Different colored and shaped seashells washed up on a sandy beach, an alternative before toilet paper was invented

Valery Evlakhov via Shutterstock

Corn Cobs

This is probably the best option so far. This was popularized by the Mayans, who used corn for most things, but it was used throughout the world as well. In fact, even after toilet paper was invented, some people still thought the humble cob was best for the job (unsurprisingly, there are no such advocates for pottery). Corn toilet paper was absorbent and somewhat soft. It probably ruined the experience of biting into a juicy cob, knowing where it would end up in a few hours. It’s a general principle of ours that eating and defecating should have very little to do with each other.

A plump vibrant yellow cob of corn, waiting to be picked, eaten and often used as a toilet paper alternative before 1857?

Predrag Lukic via Shutterstock

The Hand

Look… You want to judge this, I know you do! But compared to splintery stick, oyster shell, or communal brush, the hand is starting to look like a pretty good option. Now there is a thought you never thought you’d have! Of course, this does work off the presumption that you can clean yourself afterwards, and that everyone agrees to use their left hand. Otherwise shaking someone’s hand becomes a flip of the coin. And if you were wondering what was used before toilet paper, you might also consider that this option has probably been used after toilet paper in dire situations as well, but the less said about that, the better!

Paper

The Chinese were pretty ahead of the curve here. Much like their early transition to paper money, they were using toilet paper around the 6th century. Archaeologists have uncovered the writings of a scholar named Yen Chui-Thui who wrote “paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from the Five Classics or the names of sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes.” Presumably, if he had the medieval Chinese version of Twilight he may not have felt so conflicted.

Paper made the leap into the West around the 15 Century, and became commercially available only as recently as 1857, when New Yorker Joseph Gayetty sold a packet of 500 medicated paper for the water closet at 50c (or $15 USD in today’s market). He must have cleaned up. And yes, that pun was very much intentional.

There you have it!

If you’ve ever had an issue with toilet tissue, perhaps you might be inclined to judge less harshly from now on, knowing that your choices throughout history ranged from oyster shells to shards of pottery. So next time you visit the bathroom, just give your toilet roll a friendly pat, as a gesture of thanks. After all, it does a pretty ugly job and it does it pretty darn well! To quote Hamlet, ‘there is a divinity that shapes our ends’.

While you’re at it, why not sign up for a subscription with Pure Planet Club? You can have the greatest product in history shipped right to your door, so that you never end up resorting to pottery, shells or corn!

It is super convenient, and super affordable. And best of all, our bamboo paper is super for the earth!

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