The Dirty Truth – A Brief History of Toilet Paper (6th century AD and onward… hopefully)

By: The Scribe on Tuesday, May 29, 2007

toilet paper from the Nara Period (710-784) in Japan with modern rolls for size comparison

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?

On a Roll: A Sheet-by-sheet History of Toilet Paper

Tomorrow: More ancient goodness!


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8 Comments so far

Jason Seib at May 29, 2007

LOL very well put together history bite I honestly had no idea the romans used sponges on a stick *shiver*

So glad I was born in more modern times..

D. Fear at June 7, 2007

Interesting subject, of course – the scatological side of things is always interesting. Jason Selb can be glad for another reason that he was not born in Roman times – the public toilets were communal affairs then, that is, one sat over a hole in a long bench full of holes, with others doing the same. Not for modern tastes, really.

cesibon at June 7, 2007

Stones and clay?? Oy!

Sam at June 8, 2007

I have been looking all over for a history of toilet paper (I hope that doesn’t reflect too strangely on my personality), and have finally found it!
It’s funny, but wiping your privates is far less (note: LESS not NOT) necessary in Hunter gatherer societies, as their high fiber, high protein, low carbohydrate diet tends to make their ‘business’ more like animal droppings, and less soft. It is modern agriculture which has made our ‘business’ more like cow patties, which softness necessitates our intervention in the cleaning department.
Indoor plumbing is the most important psychological invention of our time. We no longer have to hover our rear ends over extremely suspect holes in the ground, or expose ourselves in an unsafe environment. I wonder if the romans ever developed a toilet god?

The Scribe at June 8, 2007

Salve, Sam! (or ‘hello’, for the less Latin-inclined…)

We are thrilled to have been able to assist you in this… uh… “search” that you seem to have been on for quite some time. We aren’t aware of a Roman toilet god, but the sewer goddess of the Cloaca Maxima is awfully darn close!

Dada at June 17, 2007

So, now there are people who are turning to cloth wipes to slow the manufacture of TP to save forests, save themselves some money and, to an extent, the environment in the waste treatment department.

Not a bad idea, and not even half as much work as baby diapers to keep clean, especially if you use a bidet or water spray from a faucet attachment or water container before you wipe.

Ditto on Sam’s posting about diet making a difference in the end result of our “business” necessitating more care.

Rudy at June 20, 2007

Having grown up poor and living in rural areas I too have had the experience of the corn cob, leaves, branches, pine straw and of course the one and only Sears and Roebuck catalog.

Rudy at June 20, 2007

I too would have to agree with Sam’s posting. If you eat right the outcome is much less of a problem to tend with.

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