A Brief History of Toilet Paper.
In the late 1990s archaeologists in China discovered wall inscriptions and writings on silk that had been buried underground for more than 2,000 years. But some of the artifacts on which ancient Silk Road travelers left their mark came not so much from their minds as from their rear ends.
In a toilet used between 111 and 109 BC, researchers discovered a “treasure” of bamboo “wipe sticks,” each wrapped at one end with a bit of cloth—the oldest bum fodder on record.
Around the same time that sticks were doing their hygienic duty along the Silk Road, the Chinese invented paper. Initially produced and sold as a luxury good, paper had a wiping prowess that wouldn’t be discovered by members of the Imperial Court for another 700 years. Several hundred more years would pass until toilet paper began to show up outside of China, replacing cheap local hygiene solutions like leaves and shells.
We should be thanking the Chinese for finding an alternative to “wipe sticks” (aka “shit sticks”): the toilet paper was invented around the 6th century.
Well, even when paper was first introduced as paper, it was a high-quality luxury product. And there is some record of it being used at the Chinese court as toilet paper. But this wasn’t something that ordinary people had.
So for many centuries people were getting on with business, so to speak, in their own improvised, ad hoc way. People in coastal areas were using shells, which seems quite a robust way of dealing with the problem. Wool, obviously—sheep’s wool scraps. Leaves. Later on, in rural America, the corn cob (кочерыжка от кукурузы) —a dried corn on the cob with the corn taken off—was almost iconic.
The “shit stick” was literally a flat wooden stake used for wiping in early Buddhist practice. Archaeologists have found bamboo shit sticks in toilets on the Silk Road in China that date back over 2,000 years, and shit sticks from Nara, Japan from the 8th century. Besides the term, which made its way into the Oxford English Dictionary by the end of the 16th century, the shit stick never really caught on in the Western world.
In ancient Rome, the preferred bum fodder was the xylospongion.
What was that exactly? The xylospongion is a sponge on a stick. It was a purpose-built product. But the thing about that is that it was multiple use. So you would go into your Roman toilet, do your business, use the sponge on a stick, and then put it back. You would rinse it off in the waste bathwater and put it back in a jar of vinegar, ready for the next user.
John Harrington was one of the inventors of the first toilet in England in 17th century. Harrington devised Britain’s first flushing toilet, which he called the “Ajax”.
In the 19th century people used to use waste paper, and well into the 20th century. Everyone did. The idea of using special medicated paper [to wipe your bum] was a strange idea. This is the genius of toilet paper. American inventor and early toilet-paper pioneer Joseph Gayetty came up with the idea to use a specialy made paper, and people stopped using printed paper.
By the early 20th century toilet paper was sold as a roll of perforated sheets. But advertising, purchasing, and even having it visible in the home was considered quite shameful. What creative ideas did people come up with to avoid having to talk about or look at toilet paper?
In suburban Britain in the 1970s and ’80s— you get the lovely frilly toilet roll cover that lives in the bathroom. Used to be a dolly—a little plastic dolly with huge skirts that covered the shameful roll. Everybody knows what was under there, but you never look at it or speak of it. And you would never have to say the words “toilet paper.” It would just say, “Give the bearer two rolls of Scott,” or whatever it was, and they would presumably slip it to you in a brown paper bag under the counter.
So it’s this fascinating idea of secrecy and shame, but it also goes hand in hand with a strange idea of refinement. Around the same time, the toilet roll was the thing that the refined lady had around the home—clearly because it was expensive. Once consumerism takes over, it becomes this desirable commodity, and people start showing off about it.
The golden age of toilet paper may now be coming to an end based on a variety of factors, one of which is environmental.