Who Invented Toilet Paper—and What Came Before

At the start of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, store shelves were quickly emptied of toilet paper, revealing the important, but unspoken, role of merchandise in modern society. Although humans have cleaned their bottoms for as long as they have walked on Earth, “three-ply” and “extra-soft” did not always describe toilet hygiene. Before the introduction of mass-produced, commercially available toilet paper in the mid-1800s and the continuous improvements made in the early 20th century, people relied on less luxurious ways to wipe their buttocks.

Seashells with common sponges

Throughout history, local customs and the climate often dictated how anal hygiene was practiced. Social hierarchy also had an impact on toilet habits. What is clear is that humans, at all times, have used a variety of natural tools and materials to clean themselves. In ancient times, wiping with stones and other natural materials and rinsing with water or snow were common. Some cultures have opted for animal shells and furs.

“The most famous example of ancient” toilet paper “comes from the Roman world [during the first century A.D.] and Seneca’s story on the gladiator who committed suicide by entering the toilet and pushing the common sponge on a stick in his throat, “says Erica Rowan, environmental archaeologist and professor of classical archeology at the University of London. Sponges, called 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.

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