Table of Contents

Table of Contents

History of Toilet Paper


Toilet paper, and the methods and tools used to clean your bum after going number 2, have been through a lot of changes, mostly for the better, until we finally reached the simple rolls that we take for granted today.

This is a normal topic of discussion, and I was not out of my mind when I thought of it.

PTPE (Pre Toilet Paper Era)

The Ancient Greeks and Romans

Back in the good old days of Ancient Greece and Rome, when the people used to believe in gods and Titans that slept with everyone and ate their children, is when the earliest documentation of the concept of cleaning yourself after using the restroom (which were public and had no stalls or any concept of privacy at all. Yeah, it's as weird as it sounds, but they loved it.) was found.

They had these things called tersoriums, which are basically sticks with a sponge stuck on the end, soaked with salt water or vinegar. These things were really popular, and you can see that looking at Roman literature. For instance, there was a letter from the philosopher Seneca to an official, Lucilius, about a German gladiator who didn't want to die to a wild animal in the arena, so he sneaked into the bathroom and stuck one of the tersoriums down his throat and, well, died. However, despite the tersorium's popularity, it's actually not really clear whether it was used to clean bathroom facilities, or the butts of users of said facilities.

Another invention from the Mediterranean men was the pessoi. This was basically just pieces of broken pots and ceramic, or oval or round pebbles. This probably originated as ostraca, which were broken bits of pottery that had the names of enemies engraved on them, which the people would egest on. Pessoi were found in the ruins of Roman and Greek toilets. There is also a 2700 year old drinking cup with an illustration of a man squatting and doing his business on his stone. Why anyone would want a cup like that, I could not tell you. In fact, even Greek comic playwright Aristophanes (known as "The Father of Comedy") wrote about the use of pessoi in his play Peace (5th century BCE), which proves that butt jokes always have and always will be funny.

Pooping on the Orient Express

On our journey through the history of toilet paper, we find ourselves in Asia, with its vast empires and a really long list of inventions that we use to this day. Believe it or not, toilet paper as we know it today was actually invented in China, but that's a story for later. Before that, many other tools were used to clean the bottoms of the Asian men and women of those times.

In 1992, in the remains of an old Han Dynasty military base, an interesting object was found: a 2000 year old hygiene stick (also known as salaka, cechou, or chugi/chuugi, depending on where you're from). These were similar to the tersorium from Greece and Rome, but with less sponge and more cloth. Of course, the people who found these foul-smelling sticks didn't know whether they were used by humans, so they sent them to scientists to figure that out. The scientists studied the stuff on the smelly sticks and concluded that they contained the kinds of bacteria found in the bellies of humans. This proved that this sticks were indeed used by people for cleaning themselves down under, and was later supported by historical texts that talk about sticks and spatulas being used in ancient China and Japan for this very purpose. I don't know why they were writing about the cleaning of poop, but I'm doing the same thing so I guess I can't question it too much.

Other cultures I didn't bother reading about

Many other cultures have many, many different ways to clean your bum that vary with location, availability of resources, etc., and I simply don't have the energy or motivation to read about every single one and list out the details here. Plus, it would make this way too long and far more boring than it already is. So here's just a list of some of the things that people in other cultures have used to clean poop.

  • Animal furs

  • Pieces of tapestry

  • Leaves, grass, moss, hay, straw, basically plant parts

  • Snow (that seems either really comfortable or really uncomfortable)

  • Corn cobs (yeah, it's weird but this was really popular in the Western world until actually relatively recently)

  • Hands (it sounds gross, but I can see the reasoning behind it)

  • Seashells (how?)

The beginnings of toilet paper

The earliest evidence that paper was used in the bathroom comes from the tomb of 2nd century Chinese emperor Wu Di. This guy apparently used hemp paper that was too crude and rough for writing to clean his butt, which does not sound comfortable at all. However, this is just a suggestion by researchers and they can neither confirm nor deny that statement without further proof.

What can be confirmed, however, is written records from back in the day:

Paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from the Five Classics or the names of sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes [The Chinese] do not wash themselves with water when they have done their necessities; but they wipe themselves with paper

This is the earliest written proof of paper being used for toilet purposes, showing that even the first toilet paper was made in China.

Back in those days, toilet paper was made from rice straw, not necessarily because it was comfortable but simply because it was efficient. You see, the fibers of rice straw are tender, so they need much less time to process than any other kinds of paper. And since time is money, these were much cheaper too.

Make more TP fast

Made in China

The mass-production of toilet paper didn't happen for a really long time, until 1393. Even then, it was for the Hongwu Emperor's imperial family. In 1393, the Bureau of Imperial Supplies (Pao Chhao Ssu) manufactured 720 000 sheets for the general use of the court. Each sheet was 2ft by 3ft in size. They also produced 15 000 3-square-inch sheets specially for the imperial family. These special sheets were yellow, thick but soft, and perfumed. Basically the highest quality treatment for cleaning your behind.

By the 15th century, toilet paper had become widely available for everyone to use, at least in the East. The Western world still had a long way to go before they would get there.

The Wild West

Originally, Americans used some creative methods to clean up after doing their business:

  1. Corn cobs. As I said before, weird but used fairly commonly in the Western world.

  2. Newspapers and magazines, which were first introduced in the 18th century.

The 'legend' goes that people were using Sears catalogs in outhouses, but when the catalog began to be printed in glossy paper, people needed to find a replacement

Americans also used the Farmer's Almanac so often, they would nail them to the outhouse walls for easy access to both reading material and toilet paper once they were done reading. That's why, in 1919, the company started pre-drilling holes into the corner of the books, which they continue to do to this day.

The West got its first taste (not literally, that would be disgusting and weird) of toilet paper in 1857, thanks to a New Yorker names Joseph Gayetty. Mr Gayetty marketed his invention, the "Medicated Paper, for the Water-Closet", which sold in packages of 500 sheets for 50 cents, which converts to a standard roll of two-ply, or half of a standard roll of one-ply, for about $16 today. If that sounds overpriced, that's because it is.

Of course, they didn't have rolls back then. That credit goes to Seth Wheeler, also of New York, who got the earliest US patents for toilet paper and dispensers in 1883. After that, the Scott Paper Company popularised toilet paper rolls and brought them to the public eye.

Toilet paper didn't really change a whole lot after that. I mean, the main selling point for Northern Tissue toilet paper in 1930 was that it was "splinter-free", which seems like the minimum requirement for most, if not all, consumer goods.

Toilet paper started really gaining traction when the mind-blowing, brilliant invention of the flush happened. You see, the normal papers that people were using, like newspapers, magazines and almanacs, were really heavy and they would clog up the toilet. So like any good business move, instead of changing the flush to fit the consumers' habits, they changed the consumers' habits to fit the flush. And it totally worked, because the sales of toilet paper rose since it was lighter and hence could flush more easily.

Now, not all innovation was over. One last breakthrough was needed in the world of toilet paper, and it came from a large town in east London, Walthamstow, by legendary man named St Andrew Mills. He invented the soft two-ply toilet roll that everyone loves and takes for granted. This invention later went on to become Andrex.

Andrex continued to innovate, for in the 1990s, they are the ones who brought us moist toilet paper, now commonly known as wet wipes.

That was the end of innovation for the world of toilet paper, at least for now.

Out of stock

There have been no shortages of shortages of toilet paper in the past.

For instance, in 1973, the Japanese middle-class were scared that their dreams and visions of peace and prosperity after the war would be drop-kicked by inflation and crises and a whole bunch of other problems that a country could have after a war. So they did what any normal, sane population should do. They bought huge amounts of toilet paper and stockpiled them, which caused a shortage in toilet paper in the Japanese market.

In fact, this incident was so famous, it made its way over to the US. A congressman from Wisconsin, Harold V. Froelich, said that there was a possibility that there would be a shortage of toilet paper in the US too because of the stuff that was happening in Japan. So Johnny Carson made some jokes about it in his Tonight Show monologue, and people freaked out because of it. They started panic-buying toilet paper and ended up actually causing a shortage for many months. So I suppose by some weird and twisted Butterfly Effect, Mr Froelich was actually right.

Speaking of panic-buying, remember the Great Toilet Paper Purchase of March 2020? Everyone and their mother decided to head to the nearest store that had a supply of toilet paper, and immediately bought all of it, and never gave it to anyone else ever. Now if you take a look at any one country, that's a lot of mothers and children. Now imagine pretty much all of the Western world doing this, and we reach levels of insanity only seen dozens of times in human history. Of course, the rest of the world had a solution bidets. But why would you use a convenient reusable tool specifically made for washing, when you could hoard rolls of dead trees, am I right? Yeah, I'll show myself out.

Holy poop

I'm not sure I should put this in here, seeing as these religions have long and rich histories, and probably reasons for everything, and I'm not religious so I wouldn't know the reasons and would probably just sound disrespectful. I'm sorry if I do. But I really wanted to point out how religions recognise the importance of pooping and cleaning up. This shouldn't be a long explanation, so I'll just make it some bullet points.

Judaism

  • Pessoi (remember the stone that the Greeks used to do their business on?) was mentioned in the Talmud, which is the central text of Rabbinic Judaism.

  • All Orthodox Jewish dudes are expected to memorise and recite an ancient blessing, the Asher Yatzar, after going number two.

Buddhism

  • Hygiene sticks were mentioned in Buddhist koans.

    A monk asked Ummon, “What is Buddha?” Ummon replied, “Kanshiketsu!” [...] Kanshiketsu - A shiketsu, or “poop-stick” (kan, dry; shi, poop; ketsu, stick), was used in old times instead of toilet paper. It is at once both private and polluted. But in samadhi there is no private or public, no pure or polluted.
  • Vinaya Pitaka is a Buddhist scripture that lays out the rules of behavior for monks and nuns. It also mentions pooping and cleaning up, because apparently those also need discipline.

  • People thought the feces of the Dalai Lama had magical healing properties.

Conclusion

I don't have much to say that hasn't already been said or implied in everything above. Toilet paper had really strange beginnings, as well as simply the act of cleaning up after using the toilet. They used a lot of sticks and stones back in the day, and it took centuries before they realised they could be using something better and softer. The Chinese were, are, and probably will be for a long time, the largest producers of toilet paper. To be fair, they're the ones who invented it in the first place.

I guess we have the Chinese, Joseph Gayetty, Seth Wheeler, the Scott Paper Company, St Andrew Mills and Andrex, and everyone else who was there for the ride, to thank for the bathroom commodity that we love, hoard, probably care very little for, and definitely take for granted today.

Thanks for reading!

Sources

I may have lifted some sentences and phrases from the sources themselves, simply because I could not think of a better way to say them.

Who Invented Toilet Paper—and What Came Before - HISTORY

Toilet paper - Wikipedia

What did people do before toilet paper?

What did people use before toilet paper was invented? | Live Science

Toilet hygiene in the classical era | The BMJ

Aristophanes - Wikipedia

Koan - Wikipedia

Two Zen Classics: The Gateless Gate and the Blue Cliff Records by Katsuki Sekida

Science and Civilisation in China: Volume 5, Chemistry and Chemical Technology; Part 1, Paper and Printing by Tsien Tsuen-Hsuin

Wiped: The Curious History of Toilet Paper by Ronald H. Blumer