Toilet Paper wasn’t Commonly Used in the United States Until the Early 20th Century

Daven Hiskey 14
toilet-paperToday I found out it’s only been very recently that people in the U.S. started using toilet paper.

Despite toilet paper having been around since at least the 6th century AD (initially in China), it wouldn’t be until the late 19th century 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 for wiping 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, ferns, and pretty much whatever else was at hand and cheap/free.

For seaman, the common thing was to use old frayed anchor cables (seriously).   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.

Going back a ways in history, we know the Ancient Roman’s 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…

Back to America, one extremely popular wiping item for a time was 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.  Gayetty’s toilet paper sold for about 50 cents a pack ($12 today), 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; their original toilet paper was much cheaper as it was not coated with aloe and moistened, but was just rolls of somewhat soft paper (often 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 their pages tended to clog up the pipes in indoor plumbing.

Even once it became popular, wiping with toilet paper still doesn’t appear to have been painless until surprisingly recently.  The aforementioned splinter problem seems to have been somewhat common until a few decades into the 20th century. In the 1930s, this changed with such companies as Northern Tissue boasting a “splinter free” toilet tissue.

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Bonus Facts:

  • In the 1990s several toilet paper manufacturers began offering toilet paper treated with aloe, which they called in advertisements a “great innovation”… as Joseph Gayetty rolls over in his grave.
  • The British word for the toilet, “loo”, derives from the French “guardez l’eau”, meaning “watch out for the water”.  This comes from the fact that, in medieval Europe, people simply threw the contents of their chamber pots out the window onto the streets.  Before throwing the waste out the window, they’d yell “Guardez l’eau!”  The term “guardez l’eau” first came to English as “gardy-loo” and then shortened to “loo”, which eventually came to mean the toilet itself.
  • The toilet is also sometimes known as the “head”.  This was originally a maritime euphemism.  This came from the fact that, classically, the toilet on a marine vessel was located at the front of the ship (the head).  This was so that water from the sea that splashed up on the front of the boat would wash the waste away.  This term is thought to have been used as early as the 17th century.  The first known documented occurrence of the term, however, was from 1708 by Woodes Rogers, Governor of the Bahamas; he used the word to refer to a ship’s toilet in the book “Cruising Voyage Around the World.”
  • The term “toilet” itself comes from the French “toilette”, which meant “dressing room”.  This “toilette” in turn derived from the French “toile”, meaning “cloth”; specifically, referring to the cloth draped over someone’s shoulders while their hair was being groomed.  During the 17th century, the toilet was simply the process of getting dressed, fixing your hair, and applying make-up and the like, more or less grooming one’s self.  This gradually began to refer to the items around where someone was groomed, such as the table, powder bottles, and other items.  Around the 1800s in America, this term began being used to refer to both the room itself where people got dressed and ready for the day, as well as the device itself now most commonly known as the toilet.
  • The term “latrine” comes from the Latin “lavare”, which means “to wash”.  The earliest references to this term being used in English go all the way back to the mid-17th century.
  • The term “restroom” has American roots, first appearing in the early 20th century.  It comes from the notion of “rest” referring to “refreshing” one’s self.  Around the same time “restroom” began popping up, the British term “retiring room”, deriving from more or less the same notion, began being used among the upper class in Great Britain.
  • The term “lavatory” also derives from the Latin “lavare”, although this time through the Middle Latin variation “lavatorium”, meaning “washbasin”.  This popped up in English around the late 19th century.
  • The term “crapper” derives from the company name “Thomas Crapper & Co Ltd”, which made toilets in Britain.  American soldiers in WWI stationed in England found this humorous because of the play on words with the previously existing term “crap” and so began calling the toilet “the crapper”.
  • Unlike the English, Americans, and many other peoples around the world, who prefer a variety of euphemisms to refer to the toilet, the French often simply call it the “pissoir”, which just means “place to piss”.  The English and Americans have a similar term, “shit house”, but it is obviously not a term typically found in polite conversation. :-)
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14 Comments »

  1. Hugh Crawford January 15, 2014 at 5:27 pm - Reply

    One name for the toilet is sorely missing from the collection, or do we only use it widely in Scotland?

    The bog.

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven Hiskey January 15, 2014 at 5:49 pm - Reply

      @Hugh Crawford: New one to me! :-) (America)

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