Can you imagine waking up in a world with no toilet paper? What would you use? Can you imagine what people did before toilet paper became so ubiquitous? Toilet paper is among the most essential modern luxuries people take for granted so let’s take a look at how our ancestors dealt with the dirty business of wiping before the existence of good old “TP.” It turns out different societies tackled this problem in a variety of ways, so where you are in history matters almost as much as when.
Before Toilet Paper the Romans Used “Poop Sponge Sticks”
Romans used a “tersorium,” essentially a sponge attached to a long stick, as a toilet paper substitute. Often they would leave these submerged in salt water or vinegar, taking them out to do their “business,” and then kindly leaving them submerged for the next user.
Their favorite form of public restrooms involved long marble benches with holes cut out at even intervals, so you could have a cozy conversation with your neighbors while defecating. Additionally, these public bathrooms were gender neutral, so people of all ages and sexes could hang out on the potty bench together, building community the “old” old fashioned way.
Poorer Romans had to make do with shards of clay, ideally without sharp edges to avoid any unfortunate accidents. Believe it or not these Roman tactics are probably the most hygienic on our list (especially, poop sticks in a vinegar vessel).
If you don’t have toilet paper, then the Roman tersorium poop stick shown here is a great way to wipe! (D. Herdemerten / CC BY 3.0 )
Toilet Paper Hard to Make? Many Humans Wipe With Water!
Among poorer populations globally, using just water and your hand was a tried-and-true method for wiping your bum. In particular, the running water in rivers and streams were widely utilized for carrying excrement away and providing an abundant supply of water for hand washing afterwards.
Parts of Africa and the Middle East still feature ancient versions of bathroom amenities known as “squat toilets,” which operate exactly as you’d expect. Like the name suggests, instead of having a seat you literally “pop a squat” over some form of hole in the ground and relieve yourself, using a handy bowl of water to wash your privates once you are finished.
Many ancient cultures often only wiped with water and their left hands, famously giving us the modern word “sinister,” which used to directly translate to the word “left.” They would just be sure to wash the hand carefully afterward and avoid handling food (or even greeting people!) with their left hands!
Americans Used Corn Cobs to Clean Their Holes!
Before toilet paper became widely used in the 1800s, colonial and Native Americans utilized corn cobs in place of toilet paper. Although there is also evidence of other organic materials like moss, leaves, and bark sometimes showing up for bum cleaning, it seems there was something great about corn cobs.
Several reasons for the corn cob preference include how readily available they were as a resource, and apparently how effectively they completed the task as they could be both moved in a single direction or rotated at a single spot. They were so comfortable and effective in fact, that even after toilet paper became readily available many Americans refused to give up their trusty corn cobs!
Ancient Greeks used shards of pottery called “pessoi” to clean themselves after pooping. And as an insult they wrote the name of individuals listed for ostracization on ostraca pottery pieces selected for bum wiping! (Gary Todd / CC0)
The Greeks Used “Revenge-wipe-insult” Ceramic Fragments!
Ancient Greeks used shards of pottery called “pessoi” to clean themselves after going “number 2” but added a particularly savage twist to the practice. When a community would vote to have a particularly disliked or troublesome individual removed, they would do so by writing their name on a pottery shard called an “ ostraca” (thus giving us the term “ostracized”).
They would commonly recycle ostraca as pessoi, allowing them to directly apply fecal matter to the names of their enemies! A similar practice involved using seashells in place of pottery fragments.
Unfortunately, this practice is among the least hygienic and the abrasive nature of these ceramic tile pieces often led to unpleasant side effects like rampant skin irritation or even hemorrhoids.
The Inuits Used Snow for Toilet Paper!
The Inuit people of the Arctic Circle famously entrusted their posterior hygiene to one of the most readily available resources they had: snow. This frigid method is actually considered to be relatively hygienic and apparently particularly refreshing. Still utilized in a pinch by those caught by “nature’s call” while camping or hiking, this trick is worth remembering for a frigid day somewhere in the future.
The Japanese used these chuugi poop sticks, which are from the 7th century AD, to clean their bums and then, finally, China invented paper. Before long, toilet sticks became toilet paper! (Chris 73 / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
In Japan and China? Wooden or Bamboo Bum Sticks!
Ancient Japanese people used a wooden stick or piece of bamboo called a “chuugi,” sometimes wrapped in cloth, to clean themselves both inside and out.
This method was also used by the Chinese until, surprise surprise, they invented toilet paper sometime around the 6th century AD. In fact, this type of “stick method” was pretty common all over the world in ancient times.
The Vikings Wiped Their Butts with Wool or Rope!
When on land, Vikings most often used sheep’s wool in place of toilet paper. However, like most other pre-modern sailors, when at sea they would go into the ocean directly and use trailing bits of ropes, normally submerged, for bum cleaning. They would then deposit the rope back under the ocean and let the movement of the ship and the sea do the sanitizing so it would be ready for the next person.
Of the various methods described, can you guess which is the heavy favorite to not only make a comeback but actually displace toilet paper? Giving you a moment to guess… the answer is… good old H2O!
Sales of modern bidet attachments have exploded in recent years, and although they still require a bit of drying with some toilet paper (although some come with hair dryer like attachments for drying), the amount of TP used is drastically less.
In the end, water is perfect for cleaning and bidet attachments are too. The water methods require fewer natural resources and provide superior cleanliness, so maybe those ancients were on to something after all!
Top image: An empty toilet paper holder! Source: Lasse Kristensen / Adobe Stock
By Brendan Beatty