What did we use before toilet paper? Great question! Surprisingly, we've only been using those cushy rolls of toilet paper for a very short period in history. It wasn't even until the 1930s that splinter-free toilet paper came into the market- Ouch!! So let's dive in to some of the most ancient forms of toilet hygiene, shall we? (Please don't try any of these at home!)
Okay so the Ancient Greeks probably take the cake for the sassiest butt cleaning methods. They often used stones called . These were the two widely accepted methods of wiping. Any stone would do as long as you could use it properly to its full effectiveness. I'm imagining something more ergonomic with thinner edges... Some pottery fragments used to wipe have been found with people’s names scratched into them. So that means the Greeks were literally ‘soiling the name of their enemies’! This is pure savage. It's amazing. pessoi, and broken pieces of pottery called ostraka
Red-figure pottery depicting a man using a stone to wipe after doing his business.
Also, the Greeks were very proud of how they wiped. They depicted it on their art, and they even have like a fun proverb in regards to being frugal which roughly translates to “three stones are enough to wipe one’s arse”. I love it.
Of course, neither of these options seem very hygienic. Some people suggest that all those rough edges and textures could have lead to some serious irritation or even haemorrhoids.
With the Romans, it all really depended on where you were, and how much money you had. In the public toilets, you’d use the oh-so handy communal sponge on a stick! Known as a xylospongium or tersorium, the whole device consisted of a sea sponge on the end of a wooden stick that was stored in a bucket of heavily salted water, or a water-vinegar mix. OBVIOUSLY this was not hygienic in any way. The sponges became a breeding ground for bacteria and caused the spread of latrine diseases.
Reconstruction of a Xylospongium. Image: D. Herdemerten ( Hannibal21 )
Another fun story about the xylospongium is that in the first century AD, Seneca wrote that a Germanic soldier who hid himself in a latrine of an amphitheater actually committed suicide with one of these guys. What a way to go.
Now if you were a rich Roman on the other hand, the sponge was definitely not up to your standards. No no no, you would use wool and rosewater. Now that actually sounds rather refreshing if I do say so myself!
A few years ago we also found some ceramic discs that may also have been used by Romans as toilet paper. They were originally believed to be gaming pieces when they were discovered in 1960 in West Sussex.
Ceramic gaming pieces now suspected to be Roman toilet paper. Image: dailymail.co.uk
In ancient Asian cultures, wooden sticks were used. They were wooden or bamboo sticks that kind of looked like a tongue depressor or a paint stir stick, and were used to wipe away excrement.
Chinese poop sticks. Image: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/ancient-poop-sticks-offer-clues-spread-disease-along-silk-road-180959900/
Researchers from Cambridge have actually excavated a plethora of these hygiene sticks from a latrine in China that was a major station along the Silk Road between the first century BCE and the first century CE. These were made from bamboo and wrapped in cloth at one end. Turns out these weren’t so clean either! They found multiple types of parasitic worms and something called Chinese liver fluke, which actually wouldn’t have been prominent in the area these sticks were found in. That means diseases were being spread like crazy along the Silk Road- something we had already speculated about.
But on a more positive note, the Chinese are credited with the advent of the concept of toilet paper in the 6th century CE. In 589 CE, the scholar Yan Zhitui said:
Paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from the Five Classics
or the names of sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes
Using paper for toilet hygiene began to be widely manufactured in the 14th century, but it wasn’t until 1857 when modern commercially available toilet paper invented by Joseph Gayetty came about in the United States. Toilet paper as we know it today on a roll was patented in 1883.
In the Middle Ages, they used something similar to the Romans called a gompf stick, which is just a fancy scraper with a little curve on one end. Then you take the bent part of the stick and use it to do it’s thing after you’ve done your thing. They would also use balls of hay which does not sound comfortable at all!
The rich had much more elaborate and expensive methods, though. The French royals were said to have used lace, which before the Industrial Revolution, was extremely difficult to make and very expensive. British noblemen used pages from old books, which were also hot commodities back then and seen as a source of stature.
A lot of people just also used… their hands. In Europe and in places like India, they would use their left hand and a bit of water. They still use this method in many countries today! This is why it is very rude to greet people with your left hand in these cultures. Be careful though, because some places in Africa use their right hand to wipe, so you greet with the left. Pay attention to cultural practices, you don’t want to offend anyone by offering your poop hand to them.
sheep's wool, which in my opinion would be nice if it's clean. Sailors would use old frayed rope or anchor lines… maybe not the most luxurious. Native Americans used leaves, people living in coastal and tropical regions would use coconut husks and shells. Alternatively people in the tundra would use snow or tundra moss. Now moss… moss I can get behind... It’s like a cushy baby wipe!Vikings would use discarded
Now in the Colonial Times, people would use corn cobs! CORN COBS. Once they were de-corned and dried, they apparently made great butt cleaners. Maybe it’s due to all of the little holes and grooves?
Don’t worry, it wasn’t always corn and maize, people also would go for newsprint, old rags, but what they really loved was using the Sears Catalogue as toilet paper as it was sent to your house for free and had over 500 pages for your bathroom-going pleasure. People also used their Farmer’s Almanacs from the year before, which was super handy because the books famously have a hole in the corner so you can suspend it with twine.
So there you have it- what we used to use before toilet paper was invented. Hope you enjoyed the post and that you now know some alternatives if the apocalypse were to ever hit!
Looking to find out more?
By Jason Daley SMITHSONIANMAG.COM July 26, 2016
Fishbourne Roman Palace pottery 'was toilet paper'