What Did People Do Before Toilet Paper?
Take a look at some of the crazy things people used before toilet paper existed. You'll be amazed!
Anyone who’s been camping will tell you that a handful of dry leaves sure comes in handy when there isn’t any toilet paper around (and, as many of us know, unfortunate, accidental brushes with poison ivy can happen!). But you may be surprised to learn that before the mass production of toilet paper, the choices for “cleaning up” were far more varied than you might imagine.
The Early Days of Toilet Paper
Toilet paper was invented in China. The earliest historical accounts of using wads of tissue paper to clean up after… well, afterward, are found in the 6th century. The first toilet paper was manufactured on a large scale for that particular use, occurring in what is today Zhejiang province in the 14th century.
Modern toilet paper wasn’t commonly available in the United States until the mid 19th century. Before it was manufactured in the ubiquitous 4 ½” rolls we all know and love, toilet paper came in bundles of flat sheets, roughly the size of the box of today’s facial tissues (which are larger sheets, folded).
The father of American toilet tissue is said to be J.C. Gayetty, and his “Gayetty’s Medicated Paper for the Water-Closet” was available from the Civil War era, well into the 1920s.
Before Toilet Paper…
But what did people use before toilet paper was readily available? That depends on what part of the world you are from:
- Traditionally, people in the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent use water and the mechanical action of the left hand.
- Parts of Europe, too, use strategically aimed jets of water, or separate fixtures known as bidets. In those cases, toilet paper is simply used to dry off.
- In Japan, flat sticks, a bit like tongue depressors, known as chügi, were drawn from left to right over the soiled area.
- In ancient Greece, pottery shards were used with a similar scraping motion. Sometimes these pottery fragments would be inscribed with the name of an enemy before being used.
- In Rome, people cleaned themselves after using a public latrine with a sea sponge lashed to a stick, stored in a bucket of saltwater or vinegar. It was considered polite to give the sponge a cursory rinse and a squeeze before putting it back in the bucket to get it ready for the next person.
- Native Americans used twigs, dry grass, small stones, and even oyster or clam shells.
In rural agrarian communities, handfuls of straw were frequently used, but one of the most popular items to use for clean-up was dried corncobs. They were plentiful and quite efficient at cleaning. They could be drawn in one direction or turned on an axis. They were also softer on tender areas than you might think. Even after toilet paper became available, some people in Western states still preferred corncobs when using the outhouse.
But Wait… There’s More!
Frugal settlers without indoor plumbing also deployed squares of newspaper, pages of telephone books, or the Sears Roebuck catalog because the paper was newsprint style, which was good for absorbency and softness.
And some would even resort to using the pages of our own Farmers’ Almanac, which was often faithfully (and conveniently) hanging in the outhouse.
This past year, Americans bought over seven billion rolls of toilet paper, most of which is soft and designed to dissolve in water, making it friendly to our sewer and septic systems.
May 6 is “Read Your Farmers’ Almanac in the Bathroom Day.” Find out how to celebrate!
We’d love to hear your comments or suggestions on this matter!
Edward Higgins is a freelance writer, artist, home chef, and avid fly fisherman who lives outside of Portland, Maine. He studied at Skidmore College and Harvard University. His article 10 Best Edible Insects appears in the 2020 Farmers' Almanac.
Great conversation topic at our next dinner gathering lol
Our work is done- ha!
My aunt used to hang old telephone books. Used to hate using the bathroom at her place.
Part of the reason we use such huge quantities of toilet paper, is the way we “sit” on the toilet seat. It squeezes the buttocks together, causing them to be un-avoidably soiled. To reduce this tendancy, leave the seat UP, instead sit on the rim, with knees spread wide. You will need much less paper.
If even 20% of Americans adopted this practice, billions less trees would be cut down.
I wonder if the almanac in the outhouse is where magazine reading in the bathroom came into being!
Most likely, Marcia. And then if there was no TP, people used the pages!
The one about using pottery chards really got me laughing think how painful that must have been. Maybe more painful than the”corset”. And the corncob?! No thank you
Lol LOL I cannot imagine either, even the sponge, how discusting and most of all the bacteria.
This is very helpful, especially with it being such an odd topic. Written well, and with wit, thank you Edward
Thank you. Best.
My grandfather, a farmer, always carried three corn cobs in his back pocket. I always love to give him a hard time about it.
Was he from Vermilion,SD?
General Knowledge for my students her ein Santiago de Chile. Hugs!
Thank you for the hilarious and informative article. I heard that before 1935 most toilet paper was full of splinters! One less thing to be concerned about now, unless the selfish hoarders have wiped-out the supply of toilet paper at your local stores. A pox on their bathrooms!
Quite humorous I thought, glad I’m not the only one. Take care and steady safe.
Great to know!
Don’t forget Mullein! There’s only one way to mitigate this invasive plant…
I loved it when my mom bought a crate of peaches. They were wrapped in soft tissue paper we used in the outhouse!! No wonder she canned lots of peaches!!
But what did you do between crates of peaches? It seems like it’d be hard to stay on top of the problem, because the more peaches you eat, the more you have to use the outhouse…
Peach skins? Lol…
Using the outhouse at my grandparents farm in the 50s meant using a few pages from the Sears catalogue. Crumpling up the page made it a bit softer.
There was always a fight over the yellow index pages. They were softer.
Even for a retired plumber the subject is disturbing!!!
ordered a “Butt washing seat” just in case this hoarding of TP continues!!!
Hi Farmers Almanac,
The stores in my neighborhood are all out of toilet paper, kleenex etc. due to people stocking up for the coronavirus outbreak.
Can you recommend any alternatives that I can use?
Not to rush your response or anything, but my stomach is not feeling great.
Use a wash cloth. Then ri se in sink before putting in laundry . SEPERATE wash cloths from face ones and ” butt”ones..
Thank you SO much, Gloria! Washcloth works great. You saved my butt – literally!
During my time overseas (Military) used separate clothes i.e. washcloths (smaller than U.S. – same principal) One time use dropped in bucket with dreft soap (same as I did for diapers for the baby), soak, drain water, rinse, wash, and fold. Cost savings and softer on the bum. ** same info I gave my children… and eyes rolled “really Mom” ewwww. Gotta do whatcha gotta do.
Cut paper towel in half, or wrinkled wax paper, or old news paper! Wet it. Do not flush these.
Your article did not mention the “Tabo” or water-dipper very commonly found in Filipino households, even here in the USA. Some malls in the Philippines, even in Manila never have toilet paper (you bring your own in your bag if you prefer that) only a pail with water and the “tabo”.
Thanks for all of the information on early pioneer days.
Makes us really appreciate our modern day times.
I grew up during the 40’s & 50’s so I remember some
of the uses of magazine paper.
huh.. No. You Americans are really confused about the use of bidet. In Europe you use water from a bidet and soap AFTER you wipe your butt with toilet paper. Then dry with a little towel.
so if you run out of toilet paper use newspaper
My mother’s cousin,Auntie Doris,.had a tippler lavatory in her cellar. Beside it was stashed a pile of magazines for use as toilet paper. I didn’t like visiting Auntie Doris.
If you’re outdoors and don’t have access to TP and you’re considering using leaves, never, ever use oak leaves. They are loaded with tannic acid and will burn something fierce!
When I was a little girl, my aunt and uncle would tell me stories about how Native American Indians would use small pine trees as “toilet paper”. When asked how. Was told they walked over the little trees until they felt clean.
I sure hope no one was walking behind them. Lol
Uses a wash rag and wash and sanitize it afterwards.
My mother was born in very rural Nebraska in the 1940s and they had 2 rooms, seven children, & no running water or electricity. She always talked about having an outhouse and using corn cobs for tp. She said it was very unpleasant to put it politely. She also says that if anyone dared use the sears catalog, the almanac or newspapers to wipe they would have gotten whooped by the rest of the family. They used that paper to cover the walls in the privy and in the house for insulation. My grandparents lived in the same house until I was a teenager. By then they finally had lights.
My mom was born in the early 20’s and also shared the corn cob story
My dad, who was born in 1929, used to say, “He would walk by an outhouse with a corn cob in his hand.”
Toilet paper should be made from hemp not our much needed trees.
In days of old when knights were bold
and paper not invented
they wiped their asses upon the grasses
and went away contented
that must have been very painful for the native American knowing they used rocks and oysters
I was just wondering if the lack of toilet paper was why mothers would smack their left – handed children’s hands to deter them from using it for more sanitary reasons. Then I saw that short line about Arabs using their left hands to clean themselves. Is that confirmation? Curious. I LOVE etymology.
Yes, that’s confirmed. More than one of “those countries” wipes with their (left) hand. (GROSS, in MY opinion. NASTY!!)
In some areas it was thought that left handed persons were less intelligent.
I worked for many years in an engineering environment with 10 other engineers, 7 of which, including me, were lefties.
I am a single senior and I live on a fixed income. I have to cut back on expenses, so I cut up some really soft towels into strips to use when I do number 1. For number 2 I use baby butt wipes. I keep toilet paper for company. I have noticed the rolls aren’t as soft and they have gotten much smaller. Now that I’ve been doing this for a month, I can’t believe how gross using dry paper on my bottom feels when I do use it. Using a soft cloth is very absorbent as opposed to toilet paper. It’s so much cheaper too!
but nothing is like simple water.
So much info about toilet paper! Who knew it could be so entertaining?
Glad you enjoyed the article, Florence!
Were corncobs a one-time use or were they cleaned between use?
If so, how were they cleaned and kept soft enough not to scratch?
Hi Carl, they were a one time use, then usually burned or buried. And they weren’t soft. Ouch!
My grandfather&law had a bucket of water in his out house to soak the corncobs in .that made them softer.
One time use only
Never used over. Actually corn cobs are soft. Thrown in hole where went to bathroom in outhouse. Either outhouse had to be moved, or poop had to dug out and put in manure wagon which farmers spread in fields.
When I was a kid my grandparents had no running water and lived very much like pioneers. The outhouse did have corncobs available but the mainstay was Sears Roebuck catalog. Worked well enough and you could browse through it while sitting.
Dear Farmer’s Almanac,
I’m planning a long hike (the Southern California section of the Pacific Crest Trail) and was hoping to do it without carrying toilet paper, because I want to reduce the weight of my pack as much as possible. I’m thankful for everyone in the comments who mentioned plants that can be used as TP, but I’m wondering if any of the species mentioned could be found in the area I’ll be hiking. Do you know of any plants found in Southern California that make good toilet paper?
This topic makes me think back to when my high school stopped having toilet paper in the girls’ bathroom, apparently because people were using too much and clogging the pipes. People just started bringing paper from home, but on the first day without paper I hadn’t known to do that, so I had a very uncomfortable day of not being able to use the bathroom. To make matters worse, the cafeteria served chili that day!
Hi Jenny, that’s not quite our area of expertise. But you could go visit your local agriculture extension before the trip and ask them what sort of native plants you’ll see on the trip. Or find some of the online chat boards of those who have been on the hike and pose the question. Good luck and safe travels!
I used to work for a nonprofit in Ecuador. We were constructing outhouses in a village that didn’t have any. Before we got there they used the forest or the river, which led to contaminated water and health problems. Of course, until the first outhouses were built we had to do the same thing (during the day anyway – we spent our nights in a larger town that had plumbing). I was too embarrassed to ask the locals or my coworkers what they used instead of toilet paper, so I just hoped I wouldn’t need to ____ while at the village.
Another strange thing about this village was that the streets were absolutely covered in popsicle wrappers. There was no litter of any other kind, and I never saw anyone actually eating a popsicle. My only guess is that a truck carrying popsicles overturned on the road outside the village sometime shortly before we arrived.
After our first day of work, the villagers had a celebration to welcome and thank us. There was a big spread of papaya, fried plantains and other foods, followed by a dance. I ate too much or danced too much or both, and ended up needing to do what I had hoped I wouldn’t have to. Suffice it to say that the popsicle wrappers came in handy.
Oh my goodness!!!! I have enjoyed reading this article, Amazed by information I might need to put to use someday. Growing up we lived in a mansion of a farm house, just beautiful, but my favorite outside structure was the Honeysuckle covered 3 holer outhouse. We used it when gardening, laying out in the sun swimming, playing and just a quick trip to potty. One summer we painted the inside with a peach colored milk paint. I enjoyed having my friends over and they were delighted to use the facility. We hung a mirror, had a shelf with fake flowers to decorate. When we would visit our grandmother in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, we used the Sears Catalog or news paper. Fortunately in our “Honeysuckle House” we used good old Toilet Paper. 🙂
Thanks, Rebecca, glad you enjoyed the article!
This reply is to the person that was concerned about the Muslim way of cleaning after using the facilities. I am Muslim. We have always used water, whether it is from a jug, a bidet, or a hose attached to the water supply. It is very clean. I. The old days they would use their hand, but I don’t know if any bathroom that didn’t include soap or some other kind of disinfectant. Muslims are raised to be clean. I don’t know if anyone cleaning themselves 5 times a day so they can pray!
So what would be the ideal thing to do with grass or corn cobs or whatever you end up using, if you were trying to survive in nature? Burn it? Bury it?
Hi Lillian, burying the items would be the best thing.
Next to corncobs Spanish moss works real well.
Lacking TP, I once used snowballs in the high country. It was cold but did a good job.
Thanks for sharing, Pap! (funny!)
Chris again : quick correction that was I-10 WEST side somewhere close to Stockton?….Sorry those on east side and regards…Happy Easter everybody
Few years ago raveling I- 10 far east part in Texas on the one very simple and dirty rest area I noticed couple paralleled dried brown fingermarks on the wall…We used to call them “skis” Just asked attendant who “did it” he answered slowly “amigos” but anyway did not rush to clean it…
If you accidentally dropped something like your cell phone, into an outdoor toilet how would you retrieve it? …. hmmm
John, we’d say “hope you have insurance!”
In 1970, I went to France as an “au pair”. They used sheets of very thin tissue with a waxy coating on one side. I assumed it was to protect the fingrs, but I was not dextrous enough to manage to keep the waxy side away from my bottom…i preferred to use it as writing paper!
With all that discussion, I can’t believe that no one mentioned crumpling the catalog page and working it between your hands to make it soft before use.
Born and raised in northern Minn. in the early 40″s , we we well acquainted with the two holer. Didn’t spend much time there in the winter.We even had 2 outhouses to use at the one room country school. Called Sidel Hill school. We were grades 1-8.Only one teacher. I’m sure we didn’t have the luxury of store bought toilet paper, or the kids would have taken it home We used sears, Monkey wards, the Farmer magazine that was subscribed to at our house. But, we made sure never to use the pages advertising pitch forks, knives, or razor blades!!. It was a real treat when we started going to school in town. Heated lavatory..we had to call it the “LAVATORY”, not the can. That was OK…we got to use store bought toilet paper, (the”never- slip” kind) I think some of the 16 year old 6th graders wanted to fail a grade or two just for the convenience of that wonderful facility. FOND MEMORIES.!!
Born in the early 40’s in northern Minnesota, a flush toilet would have been a luxury. A one room school house and 2 out side toilets. I dont think we had store bought t.p. We for sure didn’t have it at home. Any catalog was used, be it sears, monkey wards, or the large Farmer magazine that we regularly subscribed to.Only used the softer ,crushable pages…but never used the pages advertising pitch forks, knives, or razor blades, etc !!! Never spent much time there in the dead of winter. Glad when we started going to school ln town . Tried to hold the urge til we got to school .Warmer seats and real toilet paper !!
I grew up in the 50’s where most country folk had out houses. We use big old catalogs. It was a great day when my dad finally put in a bathroom. And we used real toilet paper. My father-in-law, a farmer, would go out in the field and work with corncobs to use if “nature” called upon him to use the bathroom.
I made “toilet rags” out of flannel, doubled and sewn around the edges. I put used ones in a can with a lid. Then I wash like I used to wash diapers and sanitize by putting vinegar in the rinse water. They work far better than paper and since I made them out of left over flannel, didn’t cost anything!