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A brief history of toilet paper

How, exactly, did toilet paper become the center of so many people’s attention?

In the earliest days of the coronavirus health emergency, long before any “shelter in place” orders had been anticipated by the majority of the public, people were grabbing up toilet paper from local stores, enough to have caused most stores to put a cap on how much TP shoppers were allowed to buy. Apparently, the thought of weathering an epidemic without anything to wipe oneself with in the bathroom ranks high on people’s list of terrible things to be afraid of.

With toilet paper suddenly so prevalent on our minds - and with the news so full of truly concerning matters - we thought we’d offer a somewhat lighter look at the history of TP, and what human beings did before the stuff was invented.

That, according to many historians, was in the 14th century, when papers for use as hygienic tools began to be mass-produced, though it was a different product altogether for centuries. For one thing, it took hundreds of years for anyone to think of putting the stuff on a roll. The first patent for a roll-based toilet paper dispenser was issued in 1883.

It all began in China, where paper had been used in various ways since the 2nd century, though the first suggestion of someone using it in a bathroom manner would not show up until the 6th century. According to “Science and Civilization in China: Volume 5, Chemistry and Chemical Technology, Part 1, Paper and Printing,” by Joseph Needham and Tsien Tsuen-Hsuin, a Chinese scholar named Yan Zhitui, in 589 A.D., recorded one of the first ever descriptions of people using paper for bottom wiping purposes. He wrote, “Paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from the Five Classics or the names of the sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes.”

By the Ming Dynasty, in the 14th century - according to the same scholarly volume attributed above - the imperial court was recording an annual supply of 720,000 sheets of toilet paper. These are described as coming in pieces measuring 2 ft. by 3 ft., presumably from which “users” would tear off the desired amount, and reportedly often perfumed, especially when used by members of the Emperor’s family.

Meanwhile, at the same time, in other parts of the world, wealthy folks were less prone to employ paper products when conducting such intimate acts of cleanliness as they were inclined to use things like hemp, wool, lace and other fabrics. Lace seems a wasteful and torturously rough choice, but perhaps the texture served the same purpose as “ripples” those animated bears love so much in the Charmin commercials on TV. The poor folks, however, were left to more attainable wiping accoutrements, with various historical reports suggesting, that, at one time or another, rustic folks used leaves and grass, fruit skins, corn cobs and moss, even sand, rocks, seashells and, when the weather permitted it, some nice bracing snow. On the website Sapiens.org, science historian Stephen Nash posted in a piece titled “What Did Ancient Romans Do Without Toilet Paper?’” that said Romans used a little item called a Tersorium, which the good Mr. Nash goes on to describe as “A toilet brush for your butt,” basically a sponge on a stick.

“Our ancient Roman,” he explains in graphic detail, “would simply wipe him-or-herself, rinse the tersorium in whatever was available - running water and/or a bucket of vinegar or salt water - and leave it for the next person to use. That’s right, it was a shared butt cleaner.”

By the 16th century, as paper became more and more commonly used for toiletry, there were still the occasional holdouts.

In the novel “Gargantua and Pantagruel,” the French author Francois Rabelais constructed a hilarious passage in which his hero explores a large array of post-defecation cleansing practices, ultimately deciding that the neck of a goose was the best for thorough cleaning. Paper he rudely dismissed with a charmingly crude little nursery rhyme, translated non-rhymingly into English as, “Who his foul tail with paper wipes, shall at his ballicks leave some chips.”

It was an American fellow named Joseph Gayety who, in 1857, invented what we now think of as toilet paper, though it was initially marketed under the name of Gayety’s Medicated Paper. Sold in flat packages containing small sheets with the name “GAYETY” printed smack in the middle, the product reportedly provided much comfort to many a saddle sore cowboy in the American West. A New Yorker named Seth Wheeler produced the first toilet paper dispensers, and the mass-produced paper to go with them. That was in the late 19th century, and one has to assume that the use of toilet paper still carried a degree of danger, based on the fact that it was not until the 1930’s that the Northern Tissue company advertised its own version as being “splinter-free.” So reported CBC Pirate Radio’s Terry O’Reilly in 2017 on a program titled, Now Splinter Free: How Marketing Broke Taboos.”

Of course, even today, not everyone accepts that toilet paper is worth raiding the grocery store for, even in times of national crisis. Around the world, there are still plenty of countries where paper is either too expensive, too unsanitary (since it requires certain disposal infrastructure not every culture has), or too crude. Many to this day prefer good old-fashioned water for their bathroom sanitation practices. When a bidet is not available, either using warm water or cold, cleansing can always be accomplished using such original devices as hemp, lace, sand, or corncobs.

People do, when toilet paper (or a sponge on a stick) is not available, simply use their hand and a some water from a bucket.

And yes, in most cases, they then wash their hand.

Presumably with lots and lots of soap.

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