You ever look at a roll of toilet paper and think, “I’m so glad I was born in a time when we had this.”
No? Well, you’re about to.
Here’s the history of teepee, from the anus-shattering beginnings to wiping yourself with a cloud.
In the beginning…
As far as anyone knows, people used what they could. Maybe that sounds fine when it’s leaves (hope you recognize poison oak!), but it’s not limited to that.
No, our ancient ancestors were a hardier bunch and apparently were just as given to using rocks and seashells.
Think about that the next time you avoid splurging on the soft stuff. However much you might be treating your behind like a home remodel, at least you’re not breaking off shards of seashell in yourself.
Not that rocks sound that much better, though I guess it depends on the rock. Big difference between limestone and obsidian. Does soap count as a rock?
Now, there were some groups of people that used animal furs, which all told seems mercifully doable by comparison. If a little gross. But obviously, these weren’t in constant supply like rocks.
Anyway, it was pretty rough, both in terms of historical records and physical comfort, until Roman times. Of course, this is when it arguably gets weirder.
Seneca tells the story of a gladiator who committed suicide by stuffing the “tersorium,” or communal sponge, down his throat, which is among our first peeks into the Roman bathroom situation. There are also examples of open air communal toilets where people sat around and did their business in full view of everyone else.
It’s like a scene from Animal House or something except no one’s joking.
Also, the tersorium wasn’t a sponge like today, it was more like a sea sponge attached to the end of a stick that was left by toilets for people to share.
So we moved on from rocks and seashells, cool, but now you’re sharing the cleaning stick. It’s possible they used vinegar or some other solution to clean them between wipes but…well, better hope your predecessor in the toilet was civically minded.
The Romans used other tools if the tersorium and truly public restrooms don’t sound great to you, the most famous being the pessoi, a piece of ceramic. This puts us back at seashells again but with a little flair. It’s possible this started with the use of broken pottery shards that had representations of your enemy on them.
No one’s accused the Romans of holding grudges lightly.
Anyway, if all this was too weird or painful, they also used moss and, if you were patrician enough, cloth. Which I think makes the richest Romans the first to use something akin to toilet paper.
For the actual first use of paper, however, we have to look somewhere a world away.
And Then There Was Paper
The Chinese were the first to create paper starting in the 2nd century BC, so around the time the Romans were fighting the Carthaginians for those of you history buffs. What were the soldiers on those triremes using? Who knows. Considering where we’re at, I don’t know if I even want to.
Anyway, no one thought to try it as a softer wiping implement in China until the 6th century AD, which would be around a century after Rome first fell. So the whole Roman Empire rose and fell before anyone figured out that maybe rocks and porcelain weren’t the most soothing tools.
So much for human ingenuity, but chalk one for human stubborness and resilience.
However, once it did start getting used, it took off. By the 14th century in China, they were producing toilet paper at the rate of 10 million packages of 1,000 to 10,000 sheets annually. Whoa! It’s a hit!
It wouldn’t be until 1857 that this kind of commercially produced toilet paper would be available in the West. Instead, people used things like corncobs (yuck) and, when newspapers and magazines became prevalent, they used those.
Supposedly the Sears catalog was a favorite until they started using glossy paper. Maybe they discovered why people liked their catalog so much.
People generally made do until 1890 when the first true perforated toilet paper roll was released. The rest is history, with some advancement in quality of course.
The Last Square
I don’t know about you, but learning what people used to use in the toilet is strangely soothing. It reminds me of how lucky we are to live in a time when we don’t have to scour the beach for wiping material every time we answer nature’s call.
Next time you’re on the porcelain throne, consider what your great great great great great great grandmother had to deal with. I guarantee you it was not fun.