While the modern convenience of toilet paper is often taken for granted, the human history of toilet paper actually began relatively late. In the 6th century AD, wealthy individuals living in China often used paper for “sanitary” purposes – even though the standard paper making process had been perfected several centuries before. Regardless, there are several documents written by ancient scholars about the Chinese use of paper for toilet-related tasks. In 589 AD, the scholar Yan Zhitiu wrote that “paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from Five Classics or the names of sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes.”
During the Tang Dynasty, an Arab traveler to China in 851 AD recorded his thoughts on Chinese bathroom habits: “They are not careful about cleanliness, and they do not wash themselves with water after they have done their necessities, but they only wipe themselves with paper.” Notably, since ancient times in Middle Eastern cultures, the left hand has been traditionally considered unclean – because that was the hand people used to wipe themselves with after attending to their, ah, “natural faculties”.
It wasn’t until the late 14th century during the Song Dynasty that the Chinese emperor commissioned large 2ft x 3ft paper sheets to use after his toilet-related activities. However, even after the invention of the flush toilet in 1596, commercially produced toilet paper wouldn’t be available for another 300 years!
So, what did humankind do before they had soft tissues to clean their bottoms? The ancient Greeks made use of stones and clay, while the ancient Romans equipped their public toilets with a sponge on a stick, resting in a bucket of brine. If you were rich, you could use wool.
For those living in the cold, northern regions of the world, tundra moss was readily available during the summer, and snow would do the trick for the rest of the year. Colonial America had an interesting habit as well: they used cobs of corn, or pages from mail order catalogues that they would hang on a wall near their toilets. In fact, anything from leaves, to mussel shells, to pieces of fur were used by various cultures around the world, from the earliest of times until toilet paper became a readily available commodity.
In 1857, Joseph Gayetty sold the first factory-made toilet paper called “Gayetty’s Medicated Paper” in the United States, and these were single sheets of moistened paper that were medicated with aloe. Each sheet was printed with Gayetty’s name, and while it did take some time to catch on with the general public, it was apparently from that day forward that the world’s bottoms would never be the same.
Want to read more?
Tomorrow: More ancient goodness!