Toilet Paper: A Very Poopy History

Alex and I got into a conversation last night right before going to bed and it piqued my curiosity. I was so interested that I lost sleep thinking about it. We were able to do a little research before going to sleep, but I was still intrigued so I did a bit more digging today. And let me tell you, this shit is bananas. (That pun is killer; I promise you’ll get it later!)


Alex was telling me that in the early 20th century Jewish residents of the Lower East Side had lots to do before Friday night, their Sabbath and their day of rest. Work was absolutely forbidden, so all the things had to get done the day before. One task was ripping up pieces of newspaper. I asked why, and Alex told me it was for their bottoms, and the wiping of them. I got a chuckle thinking about everyone having black streaks on their butts after wiping with old newspaper, but then I wondered, “If that’s what people were using in the early 20th century, when was toilet paper widely introduced?”


Well, let me tell you: evidently, the Chinese invented toilet paper sometime in the 7th century, but it was such a luxury item that no one except royalty could afford to pamper their bottoms. For about 1300 years, people just used whatever they could find. In France, the rich would use pieces of lace. Francois Rabelais wrote that he often used “the neck of a goose, that is well downed”.  I would think that’s a one way ticket to getting your nuts bitten off by a large, angry water fowl, but what do I know? Poor people used just about anything they could find laying around, such as rags, leaves, hay, rocks, sand, moss, seaweed, apple husks, seashells, ferns and wood shavings, which gives me a whole new meaning to the phrase “tearing you a new one.”


For people living in colder climates, using a handful of snow wasn’t that uncommon. (Side Note: Do you guys know what an Eskimo gets when he sits on the ice for too long? POLARoids! Hahahaha!) But, by far the worst is what many sailors wiped with, which was frayed anchor cables. Seriously, why not just use sand paper and a splash of turpentine?

Fray In Cable

This is an anchor cable. Ouch.

In early America, we were very happy with using old corncobs, but catalogs changed it all. Sears and Roebuck’s were very popular, but the Farmers Almanac was by far the best as it came with a little hole in it to hang in your outhouse. They were free, and way better than using apple cores and woodchips.



Notice the conveniently placed hook for the outhouse.












In the mid 19th Century, a guy named Joseph Gayetty invented the first mass-produced toilet paper. It was called “The greatest necessity of the age!  Gayetty’s medicated paper for the water-closet”. The paper was soaked with aloe, and I believe would have made for pleasant toilet time, but the product was too expensive. 500 sheets coast $.50, which is about $15 in today’s money. So, people just kept on using the old Farmers Almanac.


But, after the Civil War, the Scott Brothers came up with a new product. It was much cheaper, widely available, and not soaked in aloe. One drawback was the new toilet paper was not terribly soft, and often had splinters in it. As the flushable toilet became more widely available, the need for toilet paper soared. The old pipes couldn’t handle things like Sears and Roebucks, or an ear of corn, so people started to make the switch. But people still had to suffer with a splintery butt up until the 1930’s, when Northern Tissue started to use “Splinter Free” paper for all those delicate bottoms. And thus, modern toilet paper is born! The Charmin website has a cute story about their name, check that out here.


Now and again Alex and I like to romanticize about a time period that we would love to go and see, like Coney Island circa 1908. But then we read this shit, and I can’t tell you how happy I am to be right here in the 21st century not getting my butthole ravaged by woodchips and anchor cables.

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