At the onset of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, store shelves were quickly emptied of toilet paper, revealing the commodity’s prominent, yet unspoken role in modern-day society. Although humans have cleaned their bottoms for as long as they have walked the Earth, “three-ply” and “extra-soft” didn’t always describe toilet hygiene. Before the introduction of mass-produced, commercially available toilet paper in the mid-1800s and the continued improvements made into the early 20 century, people relied on less luxurious ways to wipe their bums.

From Seashells to Communal Sponges

Through history, local customs and climate often dictated how anal hygiene was carried out. Social hierarchy also had in impact on toilet habits. What’s clear is that humans in all time periods have used a variety of natural tools and materials to clean themselves. In very ancient times, wiping with stones and other natural materials and rinsing with water or snow was common. Some cultures opted for seashells and animal furs.

“The most famous example of ancient ‘toilet paper’ comes from the Roman world [during the first century A.D.] and Seneca's story about the gladiator who killed himself by going into a toilet and shoving the communal sponge on a stick down his throat,” says Erica Rowan, an environmental archaeologist and a lecturer in classical archaeology at the University of London. The sponges, known as tersoriums, may have been used once or cleaned in a bucket of vinegar or salt water and reused, or they may have been used more like toilet brushes than toilet paper.

Tersorium, or Xylospongium
D. Herdemerten/Creative Commons BY 3.0
A sponge on a stick, known as tersorium or xylospongium.

Beyond the communal sponge, Greco-Romans also used moss or leaves and pieces of ceramic known as pessoi to perform cleansing. Pieces of pessoi may have started as ostraca, broken bits of pottery that often had the names of enemies inscribed on them—a proverbial way to soil upon adversaries. 

Small fragments of cloth found in a sewer in Herculaneum, Italy, one of the towns buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., could have been used as another form of toilet paper, although Rowan points out, “Cloth was made by hand in antiquity so using cloth to wipe your bum would have been quite a decadent activity. It's the equivalent to using the softest and most expensive three-ply today.”

In 1992, archaeologists discovered 2,000-year-old hygiene sticks, known as salaka, cechou and chugi, in latrines at Xuanquanzhi, a former Han Dynasty military base in China that existed along the Silk Road. The instruments, cut from bamboo and other wood, resembled spatulas. The ends were wrapped in cloth and contained traces of preserved fecal matter.

The Introduction of Paper as a Wipe

Joseph Gayetty, toilet paper
Library of Congress
"The greatest necessity of the age! Gayetty's medicated paper for the water-closet."

Although paper originated in China in the second century B.C., the first recorded use of paper for cleansing is from the 6th century in medieval China, discovered in the texts of scholar Yen Chih-Thui. In 589 A.D, he wrote, “Paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from the Five Classics or the names of sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes.”

By the early 14th century, the Chinese were manufacturing toilet paper at the rate of 10 million packages of 1,000 to 10,000 sheets annually. In 1393, thousands of perfumed paper sheets were also produced for the Hongwu Emperor’s imperial family.

Paper became widely available in the 15th century, but in the Western world, modern commercially available toilet paper didn’t originate until 1857, when Joseph Gayetty of New York marketed a "Medicated Paper, for the Water-Closet,” sold in packages of 500 sheets for 50 cents. Before his product hit the market, Americans improvised in clever ways.

Barry Kudrowitz, associate professor and director of product design at the University of Minnesota, has studied the history and use of toilet paper. Through the 1700s, corncobs were a common toilet paper alternative. Then, newspapers and magazines arrived in the early 18th century. “The ‘legend’ goes that people were primarily using the Sears catalog in outhouses, but when the catalog began to be printed in glossy paper people needed to find a replacement,” says Kudrowitz. Americans also nailed the Farmer’s Almanac onto outhouse walls, leading the company to pre-drill the legendary “hole” into their publication in 1919.

The first perforated toilet paper rolls were introduced in 1890, and by 1930 toilet paper was finally manufactured “splinter-free.” Today, softer, stronger and more absorbent describe toilet paper found in American homes.

Toilet Paper Hoarding

Roman latrine
English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images
A Roman latrine built in stone around AD 124, in part of the Roman province of Britannia.

Shifts in attitudes and practices over time, including those associated with bathroom habits and hygiene, can help explain why people in modern society feel compelled to have toilet paper on hand, particularly during a crisis. For instance, in the Middle Ages, people considered human waste both good—being valuable and worth money (excellent for crops)—and bad—filthy and disgusting (excellent for humor and insults). 

“The good is little accepted today, despite endeavors to [re]use excrement for energy,” says Susan Signe Morrison, a professor at Texas State University and author of Excrement in the Late Middle Ages: Sacred Filth and Chaucer’s Fecopoetics.

In ancient Rome, public toilets consisted of stone or marble slabs with a series of holes in them. There were no dividers and therefore no privacy. People ended up (quite literally) sitting right next to each other and sharing the communal sponge. Now, most Americans would be embarrassed at the mere thought of running out of toilet paper.

“It’s psychological,” says Morrison. “We hoard toilet paper because we fear having to face our poo. If we run out of toilet paper, how will we wipe our bottoms?”