Today, toilet paper is such an essential household item that it’s hard to imagine life without it. After all, it was the first “panic purchase” to disappear from the shelves as the COVID-19 pandemic rolled in. If there was one thing people didn’t want to go without while social distancing at home, it was a soft roll of TP.
That would have baffled people just over a century ago, who needed a lot of convincing to switch to “medicated toilet paper” after millenia of wiping their bums with whatever was available: pages from catalogs, letters, cornhusks, leaves, and even rocks.
Ancient “Toilet Paper”
In addition to the typical leaves and whatnot, a few ancient civilizations came up with their own wiping inventions. In ancient Rome, a popular wiping tool was the xylospongium, which was essentially a sponge on a stick, according to the book How the Toilet Changed History by Laura Perdew. The stick allowed them to wipe more modestly, since it kept the hands farther from the, um, mess.
The other big invention might sound a little bit more familiar: paper. China invented paper (for writing, not wiping) in the 1st century, and they started using it for their bums in the 6th century. But this was nothing like today’s small rolls of TP: The toilet paper produced by Chinese factories in the late 14th century came in massive 2-feet-by-3-feet sheets.
Wiping with Your Favorite Catalog
The Chinese may have been the first to create the toilet paper industry, but when the printing press was invented in 1440, paper gradually became a worldwide choice for wiping. Pages from newspapers, catalogs, and books were popular ways to rub the bum clean. When the Sears & Roebuck mail-order catalog was released in 1894, it became a staple in outhouses (and not for reading material).
Not surprisingly, this was often used as an insult. People would wipe with news stories about people they didn’t like, with letters from enemies, or with World War I propaganda papers that they disagreed with. Mozart once wrote a letter to his father in 1780 claiming that he “wiped his arse” with his contract with the archiepiscopal court of Salzburg.
But more often, what you wiped with was simply what was convenient. Many newspapers and catalogs embraced this, and they were printed with a hole in the corner so they could be easily hung by a nail in an outhouse.
Industrialization and Constipation
The mid-19th century is most famous for bringing a massive surge of industrialization and urbanization—but another claim to fame is the introduction of modern-day toilet paper.
A couple things led to this innovation. For starters, industrialization nurtured the easy spread of disease. Hygiene at the time was lacking, to put it gently, and people were living in filthy, close quarters.
As diseases became rampant, health campaigns and sanitation programs rolled out in cities. Cleanliness became a personal and community responsibility—and for the elite, it was a status symbol. It meant you had access to clean (or cleaner) water, and probably didn’t work a dirty factory job. Naturally, it was a good time for something "frivolous" like fancy toilet paper.
The other factor was the prevalence of constipation at the time. Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (yes, the Corn Flakes guy) was one of many loud critics of the mainstream diet at the time, which he believed was too heavy in meat, dairy, eggs, and salt, and was to blame for high rates of constipation and other diseases.
Around that time, constipation was deeply feared, as it was believed that fecal matter that sat in the colon for too long would poison the body from the inside out (a process they called autointoxication). As a result, Dr. Kellogg advocated for a simple vegetarian diet that focused on grains, fruits, and nuts, and his ready-to-eat Corn Flakes were a successful attempt to promote a healthy and fiber-rich breakfast. (Learn more about the history of breakfast cereal here.)
Toilet Paper: From Quackery to Staple
So the stage was set: New York entrepreneur Joseph Gayetty released his “medicated toilet paper” to the market in 1857. The paper itself was made from hemp, and it was “medicated” because it contained aloe. It wasn’t yet in a roll, but came as a pack of sheets.
You might think that the world would quickly embrace this new product, but it took some convincing—a lot of convincing, actually. It was dubbed as quackery, snake oil, “the latest absurdity,” and a scam, even and especially by doctors.
Gayetty turned to fear to market his product. On the packaging, it warned that “printer’s ink is rank poison,” and all the wiping with rough catalog pages and ink led to hemorrhoids. (More likely, hemorrhoids were being caused by straining during bowel movements, a result of the aforementioned constipation.)
Other ads guilted moms for daring to harm their kids’ tushes with “inferior” toilet paper, or they showed doctors on packaging or employed them to give testimonies.
Gayetty may have been a laughing stock, but copycat companies quickly joined the new industry, including the Scott Company and Hakle. Then there was the Albany Perforated Wrapping Paper Company, which introduced perforated toilet paper (patented in 1871). Perforated toilet paper was such a technological breakthrough that even today, “some Orthodox Jews refuse to tear toilet-paper along its perforations on the Sabbath, opting to use a foot or elbow to do the tearing instead,” writes Richard Smyth in his book Bum Fodder.
Finally, toilet paper became trendy, and eventually the norm. While toilet paper companies made some dubious claims about its health benefits, nobody could deny that this paper was much softer and gentler than corn cobs, sticks, and rough newspaper pages.
Toilet Paper Today
After perforation, toilet paper companies popped up one after another, racing to create rolls that were the softest, biggest, most absorbent, and most pampering. This created luxury for your behind, but it hasn’t always been positive progress.
The challenge of the last century or so has been balancing the desire for ever-softer toilet paper with the delicacy of sewage pipes—not to mention the more recent environmental effort to conserve forests. The softest toilet paper often requires virgin wood pulp, which contributes to deforestation.
Toilet paper isn’t the only hygiene product Americans now consider staple items. Learn more about the history of personal hygiene here.