It can be tempting to think back to a time of ample toilet paper supplies in a time of panicked pandemic buying or to wonder how individuals used to clean extra-soft three-ply sheets in the age before 24-packs. Today, hundreds of millions of people worldwide, particularly in the Middle East and Asia, do not even bother with things, preferring to finish their visit to the bathroom with a clean rinse of water instead. But as they record how people wiped themselves in other cultures back in the day, historians and anthropologists have done a lot of fascinating dirty work.
You could have used a tersorium to wash off if you relieved yourself in a public latrine in ancient Rome. These ancient devices consisted of a stick with a sponge soaked with vinegar or salt water attached. Throughout Roman literature, they are mentioned, including a gruesomely unforgettable passage in a letter from the philosopher Seneca to Roman official Lucilius relating to the suicide of a German gladiator who shoved a stick tipped down his throat with a sponge “devoted to the vilest uses” rather than go into the arena to die of wild animals.
A sponge-topped stick called a tersorium, according to ancient sources, was used by the Romans. However, archaeologists are not quite sure if it was used to clean the facilities in the bathroom or the user of those facilities. Used communally, it is thought that the humble tersorium inspired the public bathroom design of the period. Small troughs were thought to be sources of continuously flowing water at the foot of Ephesus’ public lavatories, all the better to dip your tersorium in. Archaeologists have yet to discover a preserved example, however.
The sponge-on-stick controversy has yet to be resolved by archaeologists. But samples of pessoi, a more modest, ancient Greek and Roman toilet paper counterpart, have been discovered. Pessoi have been discovered in the ruins of ancient Roman and Greek latrines, consisting of small oval or circular pebbles or bits of broken ceramic. On a 2,700-year-old drinking cup that shows a man squatting and using his rock, they’re also immortalized. A mention in the Talmud is also rated by Pessoi.
Another imaginative pre-toilet-paper wiping solution excavated at the site of a former stop on the ancient Silk Road in northwest China in 1992 confirms this. Seven so-called hygiene sticks, bamboo or wood sticks wrapped with cloth and intended for wiping in a latrine field, were discovered by archaeologists there. The fabric was coated with what seemed to be human excrement on the 2,000-year-old sticks, and microscopic examination of the feces indicated that they contained a number of parasites found in human intestines.
On toilet paper, China was ahead of the curve, too. In materials written by Yen Chih-Thui, in the sixth century A.D., the earliest reference to toilet paper was found. A scholar who, for personal reasons, clearly had access to discarded texts, but said he did not dare clean himself “on the names of the sages.” But the practice appears to have been in place earlier than that. Researchers say the hemp paper such as that found in the second-century A.D. tomb. Instead, Emperor Wu Di, too crude and rough for printing, was used in the toilet.
By 1393, for the Chinese imperial family, rice-based toilet paper was mass-produced. In addition, it took the Western world until 1857 to have the first mass-produced toilet paper. That is the year J.C. was introduced by inventor Joseph Gayetty. In an effort to alleviate American behinds from the ravages of newspapers, corn cobs and other improvised toiletries, including the Sears mail-order catalog, Gayetty’s Medicated Paper for the Water Closet.
Aloe-infused sheets of manila hemp dispensed from Kleenex-like boxes were the first items made specifically for cleaning one’s nethers. In 1857, they were invented by a New York entrepreneur named Joseph Gayetty, who believed hemorrhoids were prevented by his sheets. Gayetty was so proud of his therapeutic paper for the bathroom that on each sheet he had his name written. But he was limited in his performance. With the Sears Roebuck catalog, Americans quickly became used to washing, and they saw no reason to spend money on anything that came for free in the mail.
In 1890, when two brothers named Clarence and E, Toilet paper took their next leap forward. The notion of toilet paper on a roll was popularized by Irvin Scott. The brand of The Scotts became more popular than the medicated wipes of Gayetty, partially because they developed a steady trade selling toilet paper to hotels and drugstores. But getting the public to voluntarily purchase the commodity was still an uphill task, mainly because Americans felt humiliated by bodily functions. The Scott brothers were, in truth, so embarrassed of the quality of their work that until 1902 they did not take proper credit for their invention.
Toilet paper was also being sold as a therapeutic commodity in the early 1900s. But a new tack was attempted by the Hoberg Paper Company in 1928. The firm launched a brand called Charmin on the advice of its advertisers and fitted the label with a feminine logo depicting a glamorous woman. The genius of the campaign was that the company could avoid talking about the actual function of toilet paper by evincing softness and femininity. Charmin was extremely successful, and the plan helped the company survive the Great Depression. (Charmin also helped to sell four rolls of economy-size packs in 1932.) Decades later, the fragile ladies were replaced by babies and bear cubs, promotional vehicles that still stock the aisles today.
In developed countries, even though the markets are booming, toilet paper manufacturers have to charge more per roll to make a profit. That’s because the cost of production is increasing. Pulp has become more costly over the past few years, energy prices are increasing, and even water is becoming scarce. Toilet paper companies will need to continue to hike their rates. The question is, can Americans survive without it if toilet paper becomes a luxury item?
The reality is that, for a very long time, we have lived without it. And a lot of people do, right today. The Washlet, a bathroom fitted with a bidet and an air-blower, is becoming increasingly common in Japan. And water remains one of the most popular methods of self-cleaning all over the globe. For instance, many places in India, the Middle East, and Asia still rely on a bucket and a spigot. In order to follow more money-saving initiatives, will Americans ever part from their beloved toilet paper? Or are we going to continue flushing away our cash? Time will tell.
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