When was toilet paper invented and what did people use before?

As coronavirus becomes an ever-increasing threat to our daily lives, there seems to be one thing that people around the world cannot go without the most: the ability to wipe after a visit to the porcelain throne. Writing for BBC History Revealed, Jonny Wilkes considers the history of toilet paper…

c1955: A child pulls toilet paper from a roll. But what did humans do before toilet paper was invented? (Photo by Mac Gramlich/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Toilet paper has not been around for the majority of human history, so we’ve had to make do with an eclectic array of cleaning materials. Anything we can get our hands on, essentially. Some options of nature’s toilet paper sound sensible enough – leaves, grass and moss – but comfort was clearly not always a priority, if the use of wood shavings was to go by. Washing the backside in water, or snow in colder climes and sand in hotter ones, became a relatively hygienic practice around the world too. For some regions of the Middle East and India, though, people saw, and still see, their left hand as the right tool for the job (as long as it’s cleaned thoroughly afterwards).

The Romans, in their communal toilets, shared a sponge on a stick

The Ancient Greeks used sherds of clay or pottery; the Romans, in their communal toilets, shared a sponge on a stick rinsed out in a bucket of saltwater (or a vinegar solution); and in pre-colonial American civilisations, let’s just say that they didn’t just use corn cobs for eating. In some societies, cloths or materials like wool, lace and hemp became the wiping choice for the wealthy, but, seriously, humans used anything. Not even mentioned yet are stones, seashells, fruit skins and fur (well, it’s good enough for animals).

Toilet paper has not been around for the majority of human history, so we’ve had to make do with an eclectic array of cleaning materials. Anything we can get our hands on, essentially. Some options of nature’s toilet paper sound sensible enough – leaves, grass and moss – but comfort was clearly not always a priority, if the use of wood shavings was to go by. Washing the backside in water, or snow in colder climes and sand in hotter ones, became a relatively hygienic practice around the world too. For some regions of the Middle East and India, though, people saw, and still see, their left hand as the right tool for the job (as long as it’s cleaned thoroughly afterwards).

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The Romans, in their communal toilets, shared a sponge on a stick

The Ancient Greeks used sherds of clay or pottery; the Romans, in their communal toilets, shared a sponge on a stick rinsed out in a bucket of saltwater (or a vinegar solution); and in pre-colonial American civilisations, let’s just say that they didn’t just use corn cobs for eating. In some societies, cloths or materials like wool, lace and hemp became the wiping choice for the wealthy, but, seriously, humans used anything. Not even mentioned yet are stones, seashells, fruit skins and fur (well, it’s good enough for animals).

Talking of animals, a writer from 16th-century France, François Rabelais, jotted down a satirical conversation in one of his works that – after a lot of excrement-eradicating experimentation – the best way to clean up was “the neck of a goose, that is well downed, if you hold her head betwixt your legs”.

When was toilet ‘paper’ invented?

As for paper, perhaps it should come as no surprise that the first to see its benefits in the bathroom were the Chinese. The earliest-known record comes from AD 589, when an official named Yan Zhitui wrote that he “dare not use” any paper on which has been written quotations from the Five Classics (seminal texts in Confucianism) or the names of sages for “toilet purposes”. In the 14th century, the emperor issued a decree calling for paper measuring two feet by three feet for his bathroom needs. Best not to think on why he needed such large sheets.

The quality of the paper meant splinters were a common problem

Yet it would still be centuries later that toilet paper truly got on a roll, as it were. People had begun using old magazines, but, in 1857, New York-based entrepreneur Joseph Gayetty started selling the first commercially packaged toilet paper. Marketed as “The greatest necessity of the age!”, his ‘Medicated Paper’ came in single sheets infused with aloe and had been intended as a medical treatment to cure haemorrhoids. On each sheet was Gayetty’s name, although why he wanted people to wipe their backsides with his name is best left known only to him.

His sheets weren’t strong, however, and it took more than two decades or so before toilet paper came in perforated rolls. That said, the quality of the paper meant splinters were a common problem – 3-ply, ultra-soft toilet paper was a dream that wouldn’t be realised until the 20th century.

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Jonny Wilkes is a freelance writer specialising in history