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What Did People Use Before Toilet Paper?

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What Did People Use Before Toilet Paper?

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 anyone knows, 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, afterwards, 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

Pre-TP?

But what did people use before toilet paper was readily available? That depends on what part of the world you are from:

(Continued Below)
  • 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.

We’d love to hear your comments or suggestions on this matter!

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63 comments

1 thomas { 05.07.18 at 2:37 pm }

Next to corncobs Spanish moss works real well.

2 Susan Higgins { 05.08.18 at 10:28 am }

Thanks for sharing, Pap! (funny!)

3 Pap { 05.07.18 at 11:19 am }

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

4 Chris from Florida { 03.21.18 at 8:05 am }

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

5 Chris from Florida { 03.21.18 at 7:39 am }

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…

6 Susan Higgins { 03.08.18 at 10:45 am }

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

7 John jones { 03.08.18 at 9:44 am }

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

8 Alice Griffin { 12.29.17 at 4:14 pm }

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!

9 Glenda { 12.06.17 at 7:57 pm }

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.

10 john { 10.11.17 at 2:04 pm }

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.!!

11 john nelson { 10.11.17 at 1:41 pm }

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 !!

12 Phyllis { 05.07.17 at 9:51 am }

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.

13 Piper { 05.07.17 at 9:26 am }

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!

14 Wynn { 05.07.17 at 6:06 am }

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

15 chesstauren { 04.30.17 at 8:39 pm }

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…

16 Scott { 09.03.16 at 11:32 pm }

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

17 Tai { 09.03.16 at 5:02 pm }

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

18 Tim { 09.03.16 at 3:01 pm }

Royalty always used the less fortunate.

19 Michael T { 09.03.16 at 2:23 pm }

I watched a tribe chief in the Amazon squat, do his business, and then use his right hand to brush his business end – brushing his fingers back and forth a time or two across his business end. He then got up and continued along. It seemed he had no idea of sanitation. He did his business out in the open where the whole world could see.

A survival trainer here in the NW taught the use of a “But Rag” – a bandana that was used, rinsed off or cleaned, and then used again as needed.

20 Bobbi { 07.30.17 at 3:56 pm }

LOL!!

21 Mark { 09.03.16 at 2:19 pm }

A bear was taking a dump in the forest when a rabbit walked by. The bear said, “Hey rabbit, does poo stick to your fur?”

“No,” replied the rabbit.

The bear picked up the rabbit and wiped his butt with him.

22 Britt { 05.28.16 at 12:46 am }

Well, I guess that explains why I found some literature stating that in the Middle East they preferred to shake hands with the right……And to the lovely lady at the top stating that the out house smelled awful, please know that my Grandma’s did not. She stated that she would pour in a bag of lye everyday, and that would take away the odor to the point that others used to brag that her outhouse did not even smell like it had been broken in before. It probably kept down a lot of the diseases too that outhouses were known to bring about. That lye will kill anything!

23 Clinkster { 05.10.16 at 5:43 pm }

I’ve always wondered why we don’t use cloths – like the cloth diaper once used it would sit in a pail of vinegar water waiting for a good hot wash in the washing machine.

24 Susan { 05.10.16 at 11:00 am }

I remember when my mother told me we were going to see my grandparents new bathroom, the first attached to their house. Until then they had only had outhouses. These were my dads parents who had lived on a ranch all their lives. My mother, a city girl and always the skeptic, was appalled when we got there only to find the “new bathroom” was really just an outhouse connected to the house! Needless to say, we never were allowed to use it. It smelled awful.

25 Chuck { 05.09.16 at 12:31 pm }

I remember my grandfather (who was a chacacter) telling me that when he was a boy in the 1890s that they used dried corn cobs. They used 2 colors red and white. The red one was for wiping and the white one was for checking your attempt. Lol

26 Joan Jackson { 05.07.16 at 7:57 pm }

Are mullien or lambsear leaves the same as skunk cabbage? Maybe in the same family. They are very large soft furry leaves that grow in a vertical cylindar cabbage formation, but not spherical like real cabbage. I saw them in Colorado camping and was told the leaves make good toilet paper.

27 Lilly { 05.06.16 at 4:42 pm }

My grandfather in Puerto Rico used the cob of the corn. He would let it dry it wasn’t rough.

28 Exael { 05.06.16 at 3:56 pm }

I’m from Mexico and so my grandparents, they told me they use the wrapping paper from corn tortillas, its kind of like kraft paper of today, it supposed to be better when you just unwrapped the tortillas because tortilla steam make it soft and warm.

29 AM { 05.06.16 at 3:01 pm }

My Mom & Dad lived through the great 1929 depression in NY and also told of using papers some fruits came wrapped in as very special “wipes”… My Dad especially liked to tell the tale when someone mistakenly also used the papers cactus fruit came wrapped in…just typing that made me squirm…

30 Pat { 09.03.16 at 5:02 pm }

Yep good old peach papers

31 RM { 05.06.16 at 2:58 pm }

Sears catalog pages….and ( did no one else use?) the papers that peaches were packed in.

32 Julie Barraque { 05.06.16 at 2:33 pm }

Hey Griz!! Are you the same Griz I knew on Maui back in the early 90’s???
I love Farmer’s Almanac and always use their gardening guide every year to plant my seeds and seedlings 😀 I love reading these posts!

33 Keith Monson { 05.06.16 at 2:24 pm }

Someone might have mentioned this but in the early days of toilet paper both in the box and on the roll the paper was of such high quality that people actually wrote letters on it and used the lesser quality paper (some so bad you could actually see splinters of wood in it) to clean themselves after going to the bathroom. If a soldier got a “Dear John” letter during World War 1 it very likely was written on toilet paper. (and if he read it in the latrine most likely used as toilet paper!) 😀

34 Cindy { 05.05.16 at 11:37 pm }

Mullein leaves are soft and excellent to use if out of TP.

35 Harry Travis { 05.05.16 at 7:39 pm }

I was born in 1948 and liven in the country all the time and the outhouse in the back…. sears and roebuck catalogues, brown paper sacks, cotton leaves, cotton. newspapers… we were so poor we couldn’t pay attention good.. and the only paper I saw was school but afraid to use it……and we didn’t have a indoor toilet until the late 60’s

36 LarryB { 05.05.16 at 4:24 pm }

I use my right hand…
A real man uses a squirrel…(a weasel if too much drinking the night before.)

37 Kathey { 05.05.16 at 10:32 am }

I too was bore in Eastern Tennessee in 1950. In the city there were regular bathrooms with flushing toilets, but in the country there were outhouses until the 1970’s or later in some areas. We had the best one in the County, a two-seater!!! Missionaries came by one day and pitched in with digging. Daddy made it really deep. When my city cousins came to visit, they just loved the country until it came time to make the final trip out at night. Mama led the way, with flashlight. They didn’t like that wonderful outhouse at all, and we had toilet paper, with supply of corncobs just in case.

38 Jay { 05.05.16 at 10:04 am }

When I was a small child in early sixties my great uncle and aunt had a house in what was than a rural area in Maryland and they had an outhouse which we kids thought was so cool ! One night during a fierce thunderstorm another great uncle was out using the outhouse and a huge wind came and blew the house away , we found him laying on the ground with his pants down on his ankles but he was fine , just shaken ! Outhouse was gone so my great uncle put in a indoor bathroom ! Lol I was only maybe 6 yrs old but I still remember and laugh about it ! The other funny part of it is that the land that they lived on which was quite a bit of land , the state bought from them for a lot of money to build a new city and super highway system on and my great aunt passed away in 2005 a very wealthy woman !

39 Robert { 05.05.16 at 7:27 am }

I am 81 and we had an out house. The joke of the time was a person ordered toilet paper from the Sears catalog. Sears replied, please order using the catalog #. Customer replied, If I had the catalog I would not be ordering the toilet paper.

40 Griz { 05.05.16 at 12:31 am }

I live in rural Alaska.
And we still use a outhouse on a daily basis, 12 months of the year.
But I gotta admit, I am thankful for Costco toilet paper!

Take care, be safe.
God bless.
Griz – Alaska

41 andy { 05.04.16 at 8:03 pm }

Too bad the 2-ply 4-1/2 inch square sheet we all love is not the standard for public and commercial buildings! There the “cheater sheet” is all too often the standard – is is often 3-1/2 inches square and is a very thin single fold sheet to keep the cost down. The Sears catalog and corn cobs are probably more useful and certainly historically correct.

42 Jeffrey { 05.04.16 at 7:54 pm }

I remember first encountering a bidet in Paris 40 years ago. There was one in my hotel room. I had thought that these were only for ladies. I was wrong. They are fairly standard in France and now also in fancy Asian hotels.

You can retro-fit a standard American toilet with a bidet attachment quickly and cheaply (~ $30). Honestly, it’s life-changing experience. So squeaky clean, quick & sensible. Just a few sheets of TP to pat dry. An unpleasant and never-quite-adequate operation becomes pleasant and thorough. It’s like hosing down your driveway. It makes anything else seem just primitive.

43 hazel { 05.04.16 at 6:29 pm }

I was born in 1928 and used the outhouse as a child. We were supplied with old Sears Roebuck catalogs there. At night we used a metal or china pot and it was emptied in the morning.

44 B. Leonard { 05.04.16 at 4:08 pm }

If you’re born on a farm, you use two red corncobs and one white one. First a red one.Then the white one, just to see if you were going to need the other red one!

45 B. Leonard { 05.04.16 at 4:03 pm }

Perhaps the most disgusting example of human hygiene is the Muslim Way… they just use their bare hands and God only knows what they wipe their hands on after … if they even bother!

46 Bobbi { 07.30.17 at 4:11 pm }

I like your comment…I think I will look into that!!
Thanks for your input!

47 Larry { 05.04.16 at 1:26 pm }

Why does an “enlightened” society refuse to accept a water-jet cleaning device on every toilet in lieu of dry paper? Folks, seriously, do you really think a dry paper cleaning vs water makes any sense at all? Do you scrub your fresh pulled garden carrots with dry paper in hopes of removing all the dirt and mud? Do yourselves an immense favor – go online and research “bidet” at your favorite online shopping site. For under $40 per toilet, you too can enjoy the convenience, efficiency, and comfort of a using water instead of paper. Well, you’ll still use paper, but only to pat yourself dry. I have yet to meet anyone who has regretted for one second switching to this method.

48 Donnie Johnson { 05.04.16 at 12:44 pm }

I remember the corncob days very well. And some times the Sears catalog, the old one of course. Brown paper bags. Dang I’m old!!!

49 Judy { 05.04.16 at 12:24 pm }

We had an outhouse when I was a kid, and when the toilet paper ran out, there was always newspaper to use. I hated having the ink from the daily news on my hands and elsewhere. But after reading this article, I guess it wasn’t so bad after all. All I have to say is I’m so thankful I didn’t ever have to use a bathroom in Rome. One “community” sponge on a stick in a pot of vinegar for everyone to use is really hard to imagine. No way.

50 owen mcnamee { 05.04.16 at 12:14 pm }

No mention of the medieval use of the shirt tails.

51 Mr.Mario { 05.04.16 at 11:52 am }

After visiting relatives in Brazil, I found their method was different from ours. They used toilet paper but didn’t flush it but put it in a lidded container next to the commode and removed the insert bag periodically. This was the same in airports I found. Apparently the sewerage system or septic tanks are not able to handle the paper. So no one flushed even toilet paper! I decided that this would be a good idea for my own septic system and adopted it until I realized how unsanitary using a dry paper to “clean” one’s self is! So I adopted using wet wipes that are by far a better “paper” with which to clean! They are moist, antibiotic, some contain aloe, and most are gentle enough for use on babies. I then deposit those in my bagged receptacle and take out the bag each week. With a small step on can there is no odor and easy to use. And I personally feel much, much cleaner than using dry “paper.” And they are softer than any other paper I have used.

52 Linda in Iowa { 05.04.16 at 10:09 am }

Born in 1948, our house had an outhouse in distant back yard; i don’t remember what we used to clean ourselves with, maybe toilet paper because in 1950 i was 2-yrs-old and would not yet have been large enough for the outhouse so i probably had a small potty chair, as i do remember that my grandmother had that for me at her house. For camping, i do remember using leaves and did not like that method at all. Sometime in my childhood (the 1950s) our home had an indoor bathroom with flushing toilet.

53 Jacqueline Melville { 05.04.16 at 10:06 am }

I teach Colonial farm life and tell students that in the American colonies they used lambsear leaves for the privies. Very soft leaves and very prolific growers.

54 Art { 05.04.16 at 9:09 am }

Remember the outhouse at my Grandparents and the catalog stash. They were good except for the glossy pages ( slippery ). They also provided warmth in the winter as there was a metal pot used to burn the pages for heat.

55 Faye Giordano { 05.04.16 at 9:09 am }

My grandmother told me that the early immigrants to New York City used the discarded tissue papers from individual wrapped pieces of fruit as toilet paper. A problem arose when they included the tissue papers used for prickly pairs!

56 Alice { 05.04.16 at 9:03 am }

I was born in the late 50s, but we still had an outhouse for a few years before my daddy enclosed a tiny area on the back porch to make a bathroom with a flush toilet. We used catalogs and corncobs for wiping. We had to use buckets at night. Nothing so glamorous as a chamber pot…we had used lard cans, 5-gallon size for adults and 1-gallon size for the smaller kids. We tried to use them quick because they left a ring around our bottoms if we sat on them too long! Definitely wouldn’t sit there long enough to read the Famers’ Almanac 😉

57 Es { 05.04.16 at 8:45 am }

I was born early 40’s, I remember we had to go to the toilet during the day and we had a white enameled ‘pot’ that we used at night, and then it had to be dumped each morning. I do remember that if we ran out of toilet paper before we got back to the store, we used the catalog. We only went to the store every couple of weeks and did’nt have much money either and there was 9 of us and I am sure used a good bit of paper. I retired from Sears and got a copy of the last catalog. I laughed and wondered if someday I would need that again. LOL.

58 Valerie { 05.04.16 at 8:36 am }

Rags are one of the best cleaning implements for the toilet. They are washed as needed afterwards.

59 Marilyn J { 05.04.16 at 8:25 am }

Very interesting article!

60 Marjorie { 05.04.16 at 8:24 am }

All I can say is that I am thankful that TP was available and used when I was growing up!! (I was born in the mid 1940’s) My aunt had a summer place in the Catskill Mountains with a pump in the kitchen, an outhouse and a box potty to use at night. I have no memory of whether TP was used or not! I was a city child and the outhouse terrified me!!! Especially after I had seen a snake on the path!

61 Nina Adamson { 05.04.16 at 8:02 am }

I was born in rural middle Tennessee in 1945 and am very familiar with an outhouse. Can remember very well using old catalogues for toilet paper. The pages were thinner in those days and it worked quite well. Indoor plumbing was never installed in our small farm house but by the late 1950’s we did have toilet paper in the outhouse.

62 Brittany { 05.04.16 at 7:49 am }

How about moss? I’ve heard that people used that and that it was quite nice.

63 rush { 05.02.16 at 4:17 pm }

Early European settlers learned from the Native Americans how useful mullien leaves could be as toilet paper. Better than Charmin when used in the proper direction. The leaves were also good as bandages for wounds. The plant itself has strong tap roots that drill hard clay and make it more arable and suitable for growing crops. The long seed heads (cobs) provided flowers for earache medicine and the dried cobs made torches (when dipped in wax and or pine pitch) to keep insects and pests away, as well as, to light the way to the outhouse at night.

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If you notice a hole in the upper left-hand corner of your Farmers' Almanac, don't return it to the store! That hole isn't a defect; it's a part of history. Starting with the first edition of the Farmers' Almanac in 1818, readers used to nail holes into the corners to hang it up in their homes, barns, and outhouses (to provide both reading material and toilet paper). In 1919, the Almanac's publishers began pre-drilling holes in the corners to make it even easier for readers to keep all of that invaluable information (and paper) handy.

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