What Did People Use for Wiping Before Toilet Paper?

JOJOs asks: I think we all want to know right now- what did people use to wipe before toilet paper?

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.”

We would have to fast-forward all the way to the late 19th century before toilet paper would be introduced in America and England and it wasn’t until the 20th century that toilet paper would catch on with the masses.

This brings us to the question of the hour- what did people use for wiping before toilet paper?

What was popular depended greatly on region, personal preference, and wealth.  Rich people often used hemp, lace, or wool;  poor people, on the other hand, would often simply poop in rivers and clean off with water, rags, wood shavings, leaves, hay, rocks, sand, moss, sea weed, apple husks, seashells, ferns, and pretty much whatever else was at hand and cheap or free.

As for the Ancient Romans, one of their favorite wiping items, 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… Definitely don’t want to get the wrong end of the stick on that one… Ancient Greeks, on the other hand, often used stones and pieces of clay.

Fast-forwarding to more modern times, America’s favorite wiping item tended to be things like corn cobs and other such plant items, and, later, the pages of 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.

On the other hand, the 16th century French writer Francois Rabelais, in his work Gargantua and Pantagruel, notes that after pooping, paper, he felt, 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, the preferred method was, and in some cases still 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.

For seaman, the common thing was to use old frayed anchor cables, a bit of seawater for rinsing,  or other such things readily available.   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 aforementioned methods.

The seeds of advancements in this arena started to be planted in the mid-19th century, however.

For example, 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 1990s that toilet paper companies started doing this again).  Gayetty’s toilet paper sold for about 50 cents a pack (about $14 today), with 500 sheets per 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 and didn’t find anything weird or gross about the way they were doing things.

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 lot better than Gayetty, presumably because their original toilet paper wasn’t coated with aloe and moistened, thus was much cheaper. Whatever the case, their product was just rolls of somewhat soft paper (though including splinters as manufacturing wasn’t awesome at this point. Of note here on this, in 1935, Northern Tissue boasted a “splinter free” toilet tissue in an advertisement, which would seem to imply that it was still somewhat common for toilet tissue to have the occasional splinter before that.)

Whatever the case there, the Scott company also had the somewhat innovative idea of putting the names of the companies that were buying the toilet paper on the paper, such as with the Waldorf Hotel. This was a huge hit with the companies they were selling to and helped them stay in business in the early going where Gayetty had failed.

Things really picked up steam on the toilet paper front though thanks to indoor plumbing.  This was both because there was nothing really to grab in an indoor bathroom to wipe with, unlike outdoors where nature is at your disposal.  And, of course, the age old Farmers Almanac and similar such catalogs also were not well suited for this purpose as in indoor plumbing the thicker paper tended to clog up the pipes.

Of course, for those of you in a region suffering from a toilet paper shortage today, toilet seat add-on bidets are a thing and typically cost less than $50 to buy and only about ten minutes to install. From there, not only will you be a whole lot cleaner, but your toilet paper usage will drop to almost nothing- just a bit needed for drying.

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Bonus Facts:

  • Speaking of Toilet Paper shortages, 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.
  • Another wiping related question we’ve been asked a shocking number of times over the years- how do blind people know when they are done wiping? To begin with, a large percentage of the world’s population uses water to clean, rather than starting with toilet paper. With something like a bidet with reasonable pressure, you just spray for a bit and use toilet paper to dry- it’s clean every time on the first wipe.  For the blind who don’t have access to a bidet, they know they’re clean based simply on tactile response.  Yes, as long as you’re not using some crazy-ultra soft, practically lubed, toilet paper to wipe, it’s generally not too difficult to tell when you’re clean based on how it feels. Use the cheap-o economy TP and it’s even easier. Essentially, you just pay attention to how easily (or not) toilet paper slides across your backside- rougher glide = more clean. And once you’re getting close to being clean, thanks to how extremely sensitive said orifice is, detecting when it’s fully free of any objectionable matter isn’t difficult.
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  • Aussies on the other hand are so full of Shiite they need 100 rolls each visit to the loo.

  • In the fifth paragraph, we learn that if sent back in time to hang out with the poors, we would be ridiculed for not knowing what the three shells are for!

  • In days of old when knights were bold and paper hadn’t been invented they wiped their ass with blades of grass and walked away contented.

  • Thought this applicable

  • Arizona, is the state most concerned about toilet paper shortages, and it is an ‘open carry state’ – you can legally carry a gun openly. Any bets on when the first “I was protecting my toilet paper” shooting will occur ??? Yesterday Safeway and Fry’s were completely out of TP, paper towels, hand soaps, eggs, bread, most frozen foods, juices, almost all fresh meat, oddly enough most fresh veggies and fruits were fully stocked, though the frozen ones were just about gone. ???

  • Anyone remember the episode in LA Law (?) where the couple went on an overnight hike an used Poison Oak (or Ivy) to wipe?

  • Another interesting article thanks Daven.
    Regarding your thoughts that storm water goes into the septic system, this is not true in Australia, NZ or the UK (nor most of northern mainland Europe I believe). Otherwise the septic systems would be completely overwhelmed when it pisses down 🙂 They are separate systems.

  • Shit on a stick, piss on a clam

    Some of those wiping implements must have been mighty uncomfortable. Seashells? Ow! Hay? Prickly butthole later.

  • I spent time with the Hare Krishnas and am well out now entirely traditional Roman Catholic pre 1958, convert. But one thing I learned from them is the cleanest and least expensive method one could ever use: a lota (Low-ta pronunciation; spelling may be incorrect), or what I use: a long ago finished squeeze bottle from dish detergent. Fill with water, use, wash hands – and save a lot of money and be one of the cleanest people around. In public places I have other methods involving water; paper may begin but rarely does toileting end with it. It’s hard to conceive how folks can be ok with using paper, for me anyway!