It wouldn’t be until the late 1800s when toilet paper would be first 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? This depended greatly on region, personal preference, and wealth. Rich people often used hemp, lace, or wool. The 16th century French writer Francois Rabelais, in his work Gargantua and Pantagruel, recommended using “the neck of a goose, that is well downed”. The goose is kind of getting the crappy end of that deal. *crickets*
Poor people 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.
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… reading and wiping material in one!
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 in that package. 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 was much cheaper as it was not coated with aloe and moistened, but was just rolls of somewhat soft paper (sometimes with splinters).
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 because with indoor plumbing it tended to clog up the pipes.