What did humans use to clean themselves after toileting before toilet paper?

Naturally, they used what was readily available. The simplest way was use of one’s hand, but if there was an alternative, it was likely preferred.

Different materials were used depending upon the country, weather conditions, social customs, and status. Ancient Greeks used clay and stones. In the era of Roman baths, men used a communal sponge attached to a wooden stick, which soaked in a bucket of saltwater between uses.

In coastal regions, mussel shells and coconut husks were available. Eskimos used moss or snow; the Vikings used wool.

Mayans and early/rural Americans used the cobs from shelled ears of corn. Other handy options were hay, leaves, grass, ferns, maize, fruit skins, animal fur, and, later, fabric, newspaper, magazines, and pages of books.

The first paper-like toilet paper was made in 1391 for the needs of the Chinese emperor’s family. By the late 1500s, paper became more readily available, resulting in the advent of the newspaper, which became a popular choice for toileting.

In 1857, Joseph C. Gayetty created the first commercially packaged toilet paper, a manila hemp infused with aloe. It was marketed for those with hemorrhoids.

His product was not a commercial success, in part because people did not want to buy toilet paper when catalogs came in the mail for free, and old sheets or clothes were available to use.

Initially, toilet paper came in individual sheets. In 1878, two brothers, Clarence and Irvin Scott, formed the Scott Paper Company, which introduced “tissue on a roll.”

In 1890, the Scotts’ Waldorf brand was marketed to hotels and drugstores rather than direct sales to the public. At the time, any reference to bodily functions was considered impolite at best; thus, the public was hesitant to openly buy toilet paper.

In 1897, perforated sheets on a roll were marketed by the Albany Perforated Wrapping Paper Company.

By the 1900s, people had replaced corncobs and other organic materials with whatever paper they had on hand. The mail-order catalogs were repurposed to the outhouse (until they were printed on glossy paper).

Americans nailed the Farmer’s Almanac to the outhouse wall, leading the company, in 1919, to precut the legendary hole in the upper-left corner of the magazine.

An old-timer remembered that during peach season, the individual tissue wraps were used in the outhouse.

By the 1930s, most urban populations had access to municipal running water, ushering in the advent of flushing indoor toilets in private homes. (In rural areas, access to running water came about 15 years later, or mid-1940s.)

The sit-down flush toilets with their newfangled indoor plumbing systems required a product that could flush away without clogging or damaging the pipes. Americans quickly embraced toilet paper.

That said, the quality of paper production varied widely. In fact, splinters were a common problem with early toilet paper. In 1935, Northern Tissue introduced splinter-free toilet paper!

In 1928, the Hoberg Paper Company introduced Charmin using a feminine logo with a beautiful woman. The marketing campaign focused on softness and femininity, thus avoiding reference to the paper’s actual purpose. Charmin introduced the economy-size pack of four rolls in 1932.

Do you remember the affable TV grocer of the 1970s who implored customers, “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin”? In 1978, a TV Guide poll named Mr. Whipple the third best-known man in the U.S., behind former president Richard Nixon and the Rev. Billy Graham.

In 1942, the first two-ply toilet paper was introduced in England, and today two-ply is the standard. In 1990, the U.K. introduced moist toilet paper, which was marketed in the U.S. by Kimberly-Clark in 2001.  

According to the toiletpaperhistory.net, the average person uses 57 sheets of toilet paper each day, and 100 rolls of toilet paper per year (over 20,000 sheets). Each day, 83 million rolls are manufactured.

Growth in this market is focused on developing countries, where some studies suggest that more than 70% of people do not use toilet paper due to cost and custom.


Doris Montag is a homespun historian and an exhibit curator who researches and displays historical collections of ordinary things, such as can openers, crochet, toy sewing machines, hand corn planters, powder compacts, egg cartons, and more. Contact or follow her on Facebook, HistoryofOrdinaryThings.

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