Let it roll!

Eco-friendly, bamboo, recycled, three-ply, scented, or soft as velvet. Toilet paper. Very much mundane, but for some of us, essential. During the pandemic outbreak, the shops lacked various goods. However, toilet paper turned out to be the most desirable. What did people wipe with before toilet paper? 

Claire Mueller | Unsplash

We treat many things that we use daily as ordinary and evident as they have always been and are always at hand. We realize how much they are needed when they run out. The sudden sight of an empty toilet roll is one of the less pleasant experiences, but it turns out that throughout history, people have coped in different ways with the lack of toilet paper.

People, forced by necessity, used whatever they had at hand to clean themselves, depending on where they lived and what social status they had. It could be woolen, lace, or hemp fabrics. For a poorer society, which could not afford the luxury of materials, there were leftover rags, grass, hay, moss, corncobs, snow, or… just their hands. 

There are regions where vegetation was not lush, especially in summer. Unfortunately, many of the options there could be pretty painful. There is one exciting toilet paper alternative that comes from ancient Greece. The smooth flat stones or pieces of rounded ceramics known as pessoi were not as soft as velvet. According to archeologists, we can find pessoi immortalized on a 2,700year-old drinking cup that shows a man squatting and making use of his stone. This piece of art can be found in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston collection. According to other ancient sources, Romans used tersorium – a natural sponge on a stick, which was kept in a bucket of saltwater or vinegar, and the Chinese used bamboo sticks with a piece of cloth. It’s not sure if they used this device to clean themselves or the toilet.

In more recent times, in the first decade of the 18th century, the use of pages from newspapers and books started to be very popular. The big problem of that period was that the paper produced contained a lot of splinters. In the 19th century, the “official” prototype of toilet paper was created. The first mass-produced toilet paper in the Western world was called “Medicated paper for the water closet.” It was sold for 50 cents (16 dollars in today’s money) in packages of flat sheets, medicated with aloe and watermarked with the inventor’s name – Joseph C. Gayetty. This product and the next that came weren’t successful as people still preferred to use free copies of newspapers delivered at their door. Rolled and perforated toilet paper was invented around 1880. The paper was not impregnated with aloe and therefore cheaper, so the sales grew. By 1930 toilet paper was finally manufactured splinter-free, and its popularity took off and remains so to this day. 

The use of toilet paper was and still is neither as common and obvious, as it may seem nor as hygienic as we would like to think. We cannot forget that back in the day and now, people worldwide, particularly in the Middle East and Asia, don’t even bother with toilet paper, preferring instead to finish their toilet visit with a clean rinse of water. 

Nowadays, toilet paper is produced in many colors, patterns, fragrances, lengths, thicknesses, softness, etc. Its historic alternatives show us that as mundane as using toilet paper is, it gives crucial insight into whom we were, whom we are, and where we are headed.

Jolanta Ciopcińska

 * The article was written at the request of the Voices team:)

Nationalgeographic.com: What did people do before toilet paper?
History.com: All the Ways We’ve Wiped: The History of Toilet Paper and What Came Before

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