The Surprising History of Toilet Paper - OZY | A Modern Media Company


Because it’s better to have it and not need it than it is to need it and not have it.

By Sean Braswell

If you’ve ever fantasized about traveling back in time, chances are you focused on the finer points of the voyage, like how to tie a cravat or stop the Kennedy assassination. The grim reality of much of human history, however, would no doubt be rather unsettling for the modern traveler — and we’re not just talking about the overwhelming stench or threat of random violence, which anyone who has attended an English soccer match or outdoor music festival has a passing familiarity with.

No, the sh*t would really hit the fan on your time-traveling escapades just about the time the sh*t hit the fan, or more likely hit the rancid ditch you are hovering over as you decide … what to wipe with.

Defecators have not always been so particular.

Toilet paper. A simple, soft, elegant solution to an eternal dilemma, and a household staple whose absence we rarely contemplate until that frightful moment when the roll comes up empty and we realize we forgot to restock. But defecators have not always been so particular. A quick tour of history’s latrines demonstrates humankind’s remarkable creativity as well as its tendency to settle for whatever is within reach.

Before toilet paper, options were as myriad as they are disagreeable to modern wipers. The ancient Greeks used stones and pieces of clay while the Romans lifted their togas for a sponge-on-a-stick, which was kept in a container of salt water between deployments. Straw, grass and leaves were common in the Middle Ages and well beyond — unless you were an English noble and could afford to rip the pages from spare books or a French royal, who preferred lace until the arrival of the bidet.  

In more recent history, Americans’ wipe of choice has included newspapers, corn cobs (soaked in water to soften) and pages from the Sears Roebucks catalog or the Farmers’ Almanac, which had a hole so it could be hung for the purpose. Defecating in bodies of water has also been hugely popular across time and space, and many countries today, including India and Indonesia, still prefer the always available hand (in combination with water) to reaching for the Cottonelle.

By the late sixth century, wealthy Chinese were using paper to wipe.

Modern toilet paper has been traced to 1857 and an American inventor named Joseph Gayetty, who trumpeted his “medicated paper” as “the greatest necessity of the age!” But it would take the public decades to decide they should pay for a product when there were so many free alternatives lying around, particularly when “splinter-free” toilet paper (you read that correctly) did not hit water closets until the 1930s.

Gayetty, though, was not the first to dream up bathroom tissue: for that you have to turn back the dial in your time machine — about 1,300 years. That’s because, as with the compass, gunpowder, movable type and so many other innovations, Chinese inventors were centuries ahead of their Western counterparts. By the late sixth century, wealthy Chinese were using paper (also invented in China) to wipe, and by the 14th century, millions of toilet paper sheets (measuring 2 x 3 feet) were being made to clean the bottoms of the Imperial court.

China and the U.S. continue to dominate the market for toilet paper today. Collectively the U.S. spends more than $6 billion on bathroom tissue each year, and the average American uses 57 squares per day. Demand for toilet paper is also growing fast in China, which ranks second behind the U.S. in consumption, and, in recent years, the country has returned to its early days as a leading paper manufacturer.

China plays a major role in transforming high-quality office paper and newsprint into recycled paper products, including bathroom tissue, which means that newspaper and toilet paper remain closely linked today. In fact, one interesting byproduct of the shift to online media and the decline of print is more expensive, lower-quality recycled toilet paper.

So if your Seventh Generation feels a bit friendlier to the environment than to your bottom these days, you can blame your online news habits. But, hey, it certainly beats a corn cob.

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