Today I found out that toilet paper was first used by the Chinese about 1300 years before it caught on with the rest of the world. The first references of people using toilet paper dates back to the 6th century AD in the Chinese Imperial courts and amongst the other wealthy citizens of China. This eventually spread throughout China and by the 14th century there was an annual manufacturing of around ten million packages of toilet paper in the Zhejiang province alone.
This however, did not catch on with the rest of the world for some time. Indeed, a Muslim traveler to China in the 8th century noted “They (the Chinese) are not careful about cleanliness, and they do not wash themselves with water when they have done their necessities; but they only wipe themselves with paper.” It wouldn’t be until the late 1800s when toilet paper would be introduced in America and England and it wasn’t until the 1900s, around the same time the indoor toilet became common, that toilet paper would catch on with the masses.
So what did people use before toilet paper? What was popular depended greatly on region, personal preference, and wealth. Rich people often used hemp, lace, or wool; poor people often would poop in rivers and clean off with water, rags, wood shavings (ouch!), leaves, hay, rocks, sand, moss, sea weed, apple husks, seashells (Demolition Man much?), ferns, and pretty much whatever else was at hand and cheap/free.
The Ancient Romans favorite wiping item, including in public restrooms, was a sponge on a stick that would sit in salt water and be placed back in the salt water when done… waiting for the next person… *shudders* (kind of brings new meaning to the saying “the wrong end of the stick”)
Ancient Greeks were a little more sanitary, using stones and pieces of clay. America’s favorite wiping item tended to be corn cobs and, later, Sears and Roebucks, Farmers Almanac, and other catalogs. The Farmers Almanac even came with a hole in it so it could be easily hung in bathrooms for just this purpose.
The 16th century French writer Francois Rabelais, in his work Gargantua and Pantagruel, notes that after pooping paper was useless, “Who his foul tail with paper wipes, shall at his ballocks leave some chips.” He instead recommended that “the neck of a goose, that is well downed” worked best.
In India and other middle eastern countries, even today, the preferred method is to wipe using nothing but your left hand and water and then, of course, wash your hand well afterward and don’t handle any food or the like with your left hand; as such, people who are left handed tend to be forced to become right handed early on in those regions.
For seaman, the common thing was to use old frayed anchor cables (seriously, how their butt’s survived, we may never know). The Inuit’s and other peoples living in frigid regions tended to go with clumps of snow to wipe with, which, other than the coldness factor, is actually one of the better options it seems compared to many other of the above methods.
Around 1857, Joseph Gayetty came up with the first commercially available toilet paper in the United States. His paper “The greatest necessity of the age! Gayetty’s medicated paper for the water-closet” was sold in packages of flat sheets that were moistened and soaked with aloe (about 130 years ahead of his time as it wasn’t until the 1990′s that toilet paper companies started doing this again). Gayetty’s toilet paper sold for about 50 cents a pack, with 500 sheets per pack. This wasn’t terribly popular, presumably because up to this point most people got their wiping materials for free from whatever was at hand.
Around 1867, brothers Edward, Clarence, and Thomas Scott, who sold products from a push cart, started making and selling toilet paper as well. They did a bit better than Gayetty, presumably because their original toilet paper wasn’t coated with aloe and moistened, thus was cheaper; rather it was more just rolls of somewhat soft paper (sometimes with splinters). They also had the somewhat innovative idea of putting the names of the companies that were buying the toilet paper on the paper. This wasn’t initially done as a business move to help sell the paper, rather was because they were uncomfortable with having their family name literally soiled. Putting the company names, such as with the Waldorf Hotel, on the toilet paper was a huge hit with the companies they were selling to and helped them stay in business where Gayetty had failed.
As the indoor flushable toilet started to become popular, so did toilet paper. This is not surprising considering there was nothing really to grab in an indoor bathroom to wipe with, unlike outdoors where nature is at your disposal. The age old Farmers Almanac and similar such catalogs also were not well suited for this purpose as in indoor plumbing it tended to clog up the pipes.
A few notable toilet paper innovations that came along were:
- Rolled and perforated toilet paper made by the Albany Perforating Wrapping Paper Company in 1877 and shortly after the Scott Paper company in 1879.
- In 1935 Northern Tissue boasted a “splinter free” toilet tissue, which would seem to imply that it was somewhat common for toilet tissue to have the occasional splinter before that due to poor manufacturing techniques of the day.
- In 1942, St. Andrew’s paper mill in Great Britain introduced two-ply toilet paper.
- In the 1990′s several toilet paper manufacturers began offering toilet paper treated with aloe, which they called a “great innovation”… as Joseph Gayetty rolls over in his grave.
- 44% of people wipe from front to back
- 42% fold the tissue after wiping
- 33% crumple
- 8% fold and then crumple
- 6% wrap it around their hands
- Johnny Carson once caused a near month long toilet paper shortage in the U.S. in December of 1973. In his show, he said, “You know what’s disappearing from the supermarket shelves? Toilet paper… There’s an acute shortage of toilet paper in the United States.” Americans promptly went out and bought up every piece of toilet paper they could find. Supermarkets tried to ration it, but to no avail. By noon the next day, pretty much all the nation’s supermarkets were sold out. After several days of toilet paper shortages due to this hysteria, Carson went on the air to try to explain it had been a joke and apologized. But because the shelves were almost always empty of toilet paper at this time, whenever some would come in, people would buy it all and hoard it. This toilet paper shortage lasted a full three weeks.
Now to you oh good readers from all over the world:
- What is your typical wiping implement (if not toilet paper)?
- Do you tend to wipe front to back or back to front?
- Are you a crumpler or a folder?
- And are you an excessive wiper (not happy until your derriere is properly rubbed raw and toilet clogged) or a “good enough” wiper?
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