What Did People Use Before Toilet Paper?

What Did People Use Before Toilet Paper?image preview

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.

Photo courtesy of ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com

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 salt water 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.

Corncobs?

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.

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Bernice Blackburn
Bernice Blackburn
5 months ago

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

Jonny
Jonny
5 months ago

This is very helpful, especially with it being such an odd topic. Written well, and with wit, thank you Edward

Steve
Steve
7 months ago

Thank you. Best.

Pat Ballard
Pat Ballard
9 months ago

My grandfather, a farmer, always carried three corn cobs in his back pocket. I always love to give him a hard time about it.

Jennifer Sutherland
Jennifer Sutherland
9 months ago

General Knowledge for my students her ein Santiago de Chile. Hugs!

Christine
Christine
9 months ago

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!

Michael
Michael
9 months ago
Reply to  Christine

Quite humorous I thought, glad I’m not the only one. Take care and steady safe.

Regina Clarke
Regina Clarke
10 months ago

Great to know!

Evan
Evan
10 months ago

Don’t forget Mullein! There’s only one way to mitigate this invasive plant…

Darlene T.
Darlene T.
10 months ago

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!!

Michelle
Michelle
10 months ago
Reply to  Darlene T.

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…

Trish
Trish
9 months ago
Reply to  Michelle

Peach skins? Lol…

Ron C
Ron C
10 months ago

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.

DC
DC
10 months ago
Reply to  Ron C

There was always a fight over the yellow index pages. They were softer.

Lou C
Lou C
10 months ago

Even for a retired plumber the subject is disturbing!!!
ordered a “Butt washing seat” just in case this hoarding of TP continues!!!

Sarah M
Sarah M
10 months ago

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.

Gloria
Gloria
10 months ago
Reply to  Sarah M

Use a wash cloth. Then ri se in sink before putting in laundry . SEPERATE wash cloths from face ones and ” butt”ones..

Sarah M
Sarah M
10 months ago
Reply to  Gloria

Thank you SO much, Gloria! Washcloth works great. You saved my butt – literally!

Susan
Susan
6 months ago
Reply to  Gloria

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.

Diane
Diane
10 months ago
Reply to  Sarah M

Cut paper towel in half, or wrinkled wax paper, or old news paper! Wet it. Do not flush these.

Eliseo Art Arambulo Silva
Eliseo Art Arambulo Silva
10 months ago

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”.

Wilma Brooks
Wilma Brooks
10 months ago

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.

matt
matt
10 months ago

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.

julie
julie
10 months ago

so if you run out of toilet paper use newspaper

Ann McGarity
Ann McGarity
10 months ago

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.

Curt
Curt
10 months ago

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!

L. Johnson
L. Johnson
10 months ago

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

Me Me
Me Me
10 months ago

Uses a wash rag and wash and sanitize it afterwards.

TIFF
TIFF
10 months ago

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.

Cindy Kueczynski
Cindy Kueczynski
10 months ago
Reply to  TIFF

My mom was born in the early 20’s and also shared the corn cob story

Gwen
Gwen
10 months ago

My dad, who was born in 1929, used to say, “He would walk by an outhouse with a corn cob in his hand.”

Beverly Dwyer
Beverly Dwyer
10 months ago

Toilet paper should be made from hemp not our much needed trees.

pj
pj
10 months ago

In days of old when knights were bold
and paper not invented
they wiped their asses upon the grasses
and went away contented

Laken
Laken
10 months ago

that must have been very painful for the native American knowing they used rocks and oysters

Danny H. Sturm
Danny H. Sturm
1 year ago

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.

Appy Horsey
Appy Horsey
10 months ago
Reply to  Danny H. Sturm

Yes, that’s confirmed. More than one of “those countries” wipes with their (left) hand. (GROSS, in MY opinion. NASTY!!)

Patricia Kiszka Casto
Patricia Kiszka Casto
10 months ago
Reply to  Danny H. Sturm

In some areas it was thought that left handed persons were less intelligent.

Larry
Larry
9 months ago

I worked for many years in an engineering environment with 10 other engineers, 7 of which, including me, were lefties.

beth pruett
beth pruett
1 year ago

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!

biswanath bhattacharyya
biswanath bhattacharyya
1 year ago

but nothing is like simple water.

Florence Vangeri
Florence Vangeri
1 year ago

So much info about toilet paper! Who knew it could be so entertaining?

Susan Higgins
Susan Higgins
1 year ago

Glad you enjoyed the article, Florence!

Carl Wisniewski
Carl Wisniewski
1 year ago

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?

Susan Higgins
Susan Higgins
1 year ago

Hi Carl, they were a one time use, then usually burned or buried. And they weren’t soft. Ouch!

Katie
Katie
10 months ago
Reply to  Susan Higgins

My grandfather&law had a bucket of water in his out house to soak the corncobs in .that made them softer.

Jake Schwartz
Jake Schwartz
10 months ago

One time use only

Kenneth Hayes
Kenneth Hayes
1 year ago

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.

Jenny Lake
Jenny Lake
1 year ago

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!

Susan Higgins
Susan Higgins
1 year ago
Reply to  Jenny Lake

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!

Amy
Amy
2 years ago

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.

Rebecca
Rebecca
2 years ago

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. 🙂

Susan Higgins
Susan Higgins
2 years ago
Reply to  Rebecca

Thanks, Rebecca, glad you enjoyed the article!

Kathy Bazzi
Kathy Bazzi
2 years ago

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!

Lillian J Giangiulio
Lillian J Giangiulio
2 years ago

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?

Susan Higgins
Susan Higgins
2 years ago

Hi Lillian, burying the items would be the best thing.

thomas
thomas
2 years ago

Next to corncobs Spanish moss works real well.

Pap
Pap
2 years ago

Lacking TP, I once used snowballs in the high country. It was cold but did a good job.

Susan Higgins
Susan Higgins
2 years ago
Reply to  Pap

Thanks for sharing, Pap! (funny!)

Chris from Florida
Chris from Florida
2 years ago

Chris again : quick correction that was I-10 WEST side somewhere close to Stockton?….Sorry those on east side and regards…Happy Easter everybody

Chris from Florida
Chris from Florida
2 years ago

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…

John jones
John jones
2 years ago

If you accidentally dropped something like your cell phone, into an outdoor toilet how would you retrieve it? …. hmmm

Susan Higgins
Susan Higgins
2 years ago
Reply to  John jones

John, we’d say “hope you have insurance!”

Alice Griffin
Alice Griffin
3 years ago

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!

Glenda
Glenda
3 years ago

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.

john
john
3 years ago

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.!!

john nelson
john nelson
3 years ago

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 !!

Phyllis
Phyllis
3 years ago

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.

Piper
Piper
3 years ago

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!

Wynn
Wynn
3 years ago

Good ole Sears and Roebuck catalogue, you could still see the ads on your butt after wiping if anyone was looking! LOL

chesstauren
chesstauren
3 years ago

Historically speaking, the healthiest way to wipe your ass was to rinse it with water, preferably in a running river. That perhaps civilizations close to rivers (Egypt, Sumeria, India, Chin) thrived so well…

Scott
Scott
4 years ago

Loggers and others working in the woods very seldom have pockets left on their shirts!

Tai
Tai
4 years ago

My great grandmother would use a washcloth; a new one every day. You learned not to use those in her house.