The History of Toilet Paper: From Ancient China to your Bathroom Wall

Have you ever looked at the toilet roll holder affixed to your wall and wondered about how  toilet roll was invented and how it ended up in the form it takes today? I’m willing to bet that your answer is probably no; we simply use it to wipe away our ‘business’ and leave the bathroom without a second thought about the history of something we use every single day. But I’m definitely not what you would call your average person. I’m quite the history buff and I love learning about the past of things, even the history of toilet paper, and even more so when it’s something your average history book isn’t going to touch upon.

Even if you don’t think you need to know about the history of toilet paper (and to be fair you probably don’t) I think it’s always worth knowing a bit of seemingly useless trivia – particularly if you’re fond of the odd pub quiz! People may begin to wonder why you know so much about toilet paper, but at least you’ll get a few free pints. Or maybe an odd look or two.

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What Did People Use Before Toilet Paper?

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empty-toilet-roll

Paper itself is said to have contributed to a Golden Age in China, with the pulp making process attributed to a chap called Ts’ai Lun (pictured right), a Chinese court official who mixed mulberry bark, hemp, and rags with water. He then mashed it into a pulp, pressed out all the excess liquid and then hung it out to dry in the sun. However, this is the modern method of making paper, and the discovery of material bearing written Chinese Characters from 8 BC suggests that paper was in fact in use more than 100 years before Ts’ai Lun’s contribution. Paper made from wood didn’t actually begin until the late 1800s. All this is fascinating of course, but where does toilet paper come into it?

The first documented use of toilet paper occurred in 6th Century AD China, where scholar-official Yan Zhitui mentioned the use of toilet paper by writing “paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from the Five Classics or the names of sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes” (source). This suggests that the Chinese had already begun using paper as a means to clean themselves, although it does not mention any paper that was manufactured specifically for this purpose.

By 1391 toilet paper was being used as a luxury item by the Chinese emperor, with only royalty allowed access to the “sacred wiping sheets” (they didn’t actually call it that, I think).

Yes, before we begin talking about how toilet paper came to be we should really touch upon what people used before. It’s not the loveliest subject to talk about, but at the end of the day I’m writing about – and you’re reading it – the history of toilet paper here and it’s not exactly going to be a spotless ride.

People were actually quite creative when it comes to choosing what they’re going to wipe themselves with, thus proving that humans are a creative bunch no matter what topic comes our way. If a river was nearby then your hand would be all that was required, as you could simply do your thing and then use your hand to wipe with water from the river. That sounds pretty nasty, but it’s even more so when you consider that they often also washed and drank from the same water source.

When not dirtying their drinking water they could also be found using rags, wood shavings, grass, leaves, hay, moss, snow, sand, stone and even, oddly, seashells. I’m betting that some of them weren’t exactly as delicate and comforting as today’s modern toilet paper. It also depended on the social customs of that particular people. Wealthy people used materials such as wool, lace or hemp whereas Ancient Romans adopted the use of a sponge on a stick, which may still sound crude but at least it sounds downright better than rubbing a stone down there.

The Rise of Toilet Paper

That title makes it sound like some sort of ancient civilisation rose to world domination based upon their invention and adoption of toilet paper, although I guess if you weren’t using a stone to wipe yourself you’d probably end up getting a lot more done in your day. Ancient China can be credited with the invention of toilet paper, as they can with many inventions, so you can sort of make the argument that such inventions – no matter how trivial they may seem to us today – contributed towards the creation of their mighty empire.

Cai-lun

Two years later the Bureau of Imperial Supplies were manufacturing 720,000 two by three feet in size sheets of toilet paper a year, for the use of the imperial court in the capital of Nanjing. 15,000 sheets were for the Emperor Hongwu’s family alone, which were made of special soft fabric and each sheet was even perfumed. I suppose you could say it’s the ancient equivalent of that expensive premium toilet paper you always see on the shelf in the supermarket but can never justify buying.

The Commercial Availability of Toilet Paper

Toilet paper as we see it today, packaged together and placed on supermarket shelves, is widely credited to Joseph Gayetty. The American inventor first introduced his paper in 1857 as ‘Gayetty’s Medicated Paper’ that was sold in packages of flat sheets and watermarked with his name. By 1890 toilet paper on a roll had been introduced by the Scott Paper Company, becoming the USA’s leading producer. However, Scott didn’t go as far as printing their name on the paper (they didn’t want to be associated with selling toilet paper directly) and would sell it through intermediaries and private labelers according to their specifications. Arthur Scott would later join the company in 1896 and argue that toilet paper needed to become a branded product with set specifications.

The mid-20th century would see the rise of brands we have comes to see daily; such as Kleenex and Charmin, and by the 1970’s ‘premium toilet paper’ would arrive. This led to a softer paper, and eventually paper that was fused with lotion and aloe. Today the majority of toilet paper tends to have some sort of pattern or design on it, with plain white toilet paper tending to be part of the cheaper bracket. Coloured toilet paper is also available across Europe, although Scott discontinued their coloured toilet paper in the USA in 2004.

Today the toilet paper industry is worth $2.4 billion a year in the USA alone, with twenty-six billion rolls of toilet paper sold yearly. This contributes to a worldwide industry of over $19 billion (2003), making toilet paper big business. It’s hard to go through a day without seeing some sort of advert for toilet paper; whether it be on TV, in the newspaper or even on a billboard as you’re driving home.

Is Toilet Paper Used Everywhere?

You may have grown used to seeing a roll of toilet paper affixed to the wall in every bathroom you walk into (unless you’re in a nightclub or pub, as it’s usually either nowhere to be seen or the full roll has been thrown in the toilet by someone who’s probably had a bit too much to drink) but in other places it’s not so common. Other places, India in particular, consider using water as a more sanitary method than paper. They’ll either use water to fully cleanse themselves as with the earlier river example; or grab rags, leaves, sticks and more before washing their hands with soap (hopefully!).

You’ll also find toilet paper lacking in areas where there’s nowhere to dispose of it, usually because there’s no plumbing infrastructure available. When I was in Cyprus on holiday you were instructed to throw toilet paper into the bin instead of flushing down the toilet like we’re used to. It’s safe to say that it made for a very stinky toilet after a couple of days in the hot sweltering weather.

…and you thought that learning about toilet paper would be boring! Next time you’re visiting the bathroom, or even when you’re thinking about which toilet roll holder to buy, at least you have something to ponder.


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