If you’re like most people, you take toilet paper for granted. After doing your business, you causally pull a length of paper off the roll. Then, a few wipes later, you’re up and ready to go. Of course, if your mom or dad is in the vicinity, you will undoubtedly hear those words that kids love so much: “Don’t forget to wash your hands and flush the toilet!”
Since most schools do not include the history of toilet paper in their curriculum, it’s up to me to enlighten you. First, we should begin with a definition. According to Wikipedia, toilet paper is “a soft paper product used to maintain personal hygiene after human defecation or urination.” I guess the folks at Wikipedia never shoved toilet paper up their nostrils to stop a bloody nose or used it to squash tiny spiders.
Toilet paper has had an odd history. Do you remember that the Romans invented plumbing thousands of years ago only to be forgotten for centuries? Well, it appears that something similar happened with toilet paper.
Based on extensive research (I checked Wikipedia again), the first recorded use of toilet paper occurred in China around 851 AD. After that, nothing much was written about the subject until the 14th century rolled around. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) special sheets of toilet paper were fashioned for the imperial court. They were made of soft cloth that was cut into squares two by three feet in size. Some of the toilet paper was even perfumed.
The rest of the world wasn’t as lucky as Chinese royalty. Here is a partial (or should I say painful?) list of what was used before toilet paper caught on with the people:
• Romans in public baths used saltwater-soaked sponge on a stick.
• English nobility used pages from books.
• Common folk in the Middle Ages used straw, hay and grass.
• Sailors used the frayed end of an old anchor cable.
• Americans used corncobs, newspapers, leaves and pages from the Sears Roebuck catalog.
• Inuit used snow and moss. (Inuit is the polite word for Eskimos.)
• French royalty used lace.
• Wealthy people in many countries used perfumed wool.
The invention of modern toilet paper did not occur until 1857, when Joseph Gayetty sold his medicated paper in packages of flat sheets. Evidently, most people saw no reason to pay for Mr. Gayetty’s product when they had free alternatives laying all over the house. It wasn’t until the Scott Company came out with rolls of toilet paper in 1890 that the public saw the true value of this invention. Thank heavens for Mr. Scott!
First Published in the Washington Post, June 1, 2009