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How Toilet Paper Was Invented and What People Used Before It

Want to know all about toilet paper? You’ve come to the right place. Toilet paper is such a common everyday item that it’s strange to think of a time when it didn’t exist. But it hasn’t been around forever! Toilet paper as we know it was invented less than 200 years ago. Before that, people used a variety of, um, interesting materials to wipe their tushie.

We thought it would be fun to take a look at what people used before toilet paper and how the bathroom staple was invented. Let’s dive into the history of toilet paper.

What did people use before toilet paper?

The question should be, what didn’t people use before toilet paper? Ancient and modern records indicate that people have used almost anything they could get their hands on — including their own hands (ew). There are a few notable items that caught our attention, though.

By D. Herdemerten - Wikimedia 

When In Rome…

Ancient Romans have long been famous for their bathhouses, toilets, and extensive sewer system. Most historians assumed that these inventions were a boon for public health. But new evidence shows that this wasn’t the case. The people of Rome suffered from many parasitic infections because of, not in spite of, the supposedly advanced sewer system.

One possible reason is the humid conditions of bathhouses and public toilets, as well as lack of knowledge about how disease spreads. 

Lacking hygienic toilet paper, the Ancient Romans used a sponge attached to a stick, known as a xylospongium (totally not a made-up word). In public toilets, the sponge was used by all and stored in a bucket of vinegar between uses. This sponge (which BTW looks awfully like a modern toilet brush) likely caused disease outbreaks and infections for the citizens of Rome.

What the Wealthy Used

Not content with sharing a communal sponge when it was time to do their business, wealthy Romans instead used wool soaked in rose water. Though it seems they still thought it perfectly acceptable to reuse it.

And over in France, royal families were fond of silk and lace (talk about wasteful!).

A Hodgepodge of Wiping Options

In the northern countries such as Scandinavia, moss and snow were wiping favorites, while in tropical regions like Hawaii, a coconut shell did the trick.

And in the rural farmlands of the United States, farmers and their families preferred one option above all — a corncob. Yep, a dried corncob, stripped of its kernels, was used widely throughout the 19th century. Even after toilet paper was invented in the mid-1800s, folks in rural areas still preferred the cob for its softness, convenience, and economy.

Paper becomes more popular

Gradually newspapers and cheap books rose in popularity as the method du jour across Europe and the United States. Issues of the Farmers Almanac hung in outhouses for reading and wiping. 

This practice became so popular that the publishers drilled a hole in the corner of the Almanac for easy hanging.

A Brief History of Toilet Paper

So when was toilet paper invented? The earliest documentation of toilet paper dates to the 6th century AD, in China. Meticulous records from the Ming Dynasty report that 720,000 sheets of paper were made for the Imperial court in Nanjing, the capital.

The paper was thick, soft, and fabric-like, and came in sheets 2 feet by 3 feet wide. We’re not going to think about why it was so large. The sheets were perfumed for the Imperial family, and the softest toilet paper was reserved just for them.

Similar products were made in European countries, but were mostly reserved for wealthy families. Common folk throughout the world had to make do with whatever was cheap, convenient, and available. 

Toilet Paper Goes Mainstream

In the modern world, toilet paper didn’t take off as a commercial product until the late 1800s. In 1857, American entrepreneur Joseph Gayetty created wide, single flat paper sheets infused with aloe. He stamped his name on every sheet and marketed them as “The Greatest Necessity for the Age. Gayetty’s Medicated Paper For the Water Closet.” 

The product flopped. Most Americans were perfectly happy to use sheets from magazines and newspapers, and weren’t inclined to pay for a similar product. 

But American entrepreneurs didn’t give up on the idea. Ten years after Gayetty’s failure, two brothers put toilet paper on a roll. American consumers still weren’t convinced, but the brothers found a market selling to hotels and drugstores.

 

Modern Plumbing Creates the Toilet Paper Boom

Around the early part of the 20th century, stores began selling rolls of toilet paper. But it took the invention of the toilet for it to really take off. Toilets and indoor plumbing connected to city sewer systems were becoming more common, and people needed something that was flushable and wouldn’t clog their toilets. Corn cobs and moss weren’t going to cut it. 

Toilet paper manufacturers caught on to this, and started claiming their product was endorsed by plumbers. It worked. By 1970 toilet paper was a solid everyday staple in American households.

Going Soft for Ultimate Comfort

By now it’s clear that humans haven’t always used the softest of materials to wipe their backside. As doctors began to weigh in on toilet time hygiene, though, it was clear that a cushy option was best for comfort, sanitation, and to avoid irritating the delicate tissues of your nether-regions.

But the history of toilet paper had a rough start. In fact, the first rolls sold were notorious for catching users unaware with wood splinters! It wasn’t until the 1930s that manufacturing processes improved enough to make a softer, more backside-friendly TP. 

But that cushy-soft toilet paper has led to some serious environmental problems.

The Rise of Eco-Friendly Toilet Paper

Today, over 7 billion rolls of toilet paper are sold in the US every year. That’s a little over 23 rolls per person per year!

Most of this toilet paper is made from trees or byproducts of the lumber industry. Globally, companies transform 27,000 trees a day into toilet paper, using trees from old-growth forests. The oldest trees in the forest provide the long fibers that are needed for ultra-soft toilet paper. But old growth trees take 150 years to reach harvest maturity, and once they’re cut down, they’re gone forever.

The traditional toilet paper industry is contributing to the rapid loss of the world’s forests by using virgin trees for this disposable product. Forest loss leads to loss of biodiversity and releases tons of stored carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The net result of deforestation and increased CO2 levels spell disaster for the fight to slow climate change.

Tree-free toilet paper is a relatively new yet important addition to the history of toilet paper. There are a few different options available, including hemp and bamboo. But the best eco-friendly toilet paper is made from bamboo. Bamboo is a fast-growing plant that regenerates after harvesting, making it a sustainable alternative to trees (it’s actually a grass!). The roots of an average clump of bamboo store 3-4 times as much carbon dioxide than any other plant in the world. And it produces the softness that consumers want and doctors recommend.

TL;DR: Toilet Paper History

Let’s sum up our toilet paper timeline:

  • Before modern toilet paper was invented, people used a variety of materials, including silk, moss, snow, or even their own hand.
  • The Ancient Romans used a xylospongium, a sponge attached to a stick that was shared in public toilets. 
  • Documents from the Ming Dynasty show toilet paper was invented for members of the Imperial Court in 6th Century AD.
  • Modern toilet paper was invented in the mid-1800s, but didn’t catch on until about 100 years later.
  • Unfortunately, toilet paper made from trees is now recognized to contribute to deforestation and climate change.
  • Tree-free toilet paper is an eco-friendly alternative made from bamboo, a fast-growing grass that captures more carbon dioxide than any other plant on earth.

So now you know more about toilet paper than you ever thought possible! We hope you enjoyed our brief history of toilet paper. Be sure to follow us on Instagram for the latest tips, inspiration, and product announcements!