10 Gross Things People From History Actually Wiped With Before Toilet Paper
Americans love toilet paper. The United States spends $6 billion a year on it—more than any other country in the world. The average Joe uses 23.6 rolls a year. But we haven't always been wiping this way.
While the first reference to using paper for hygienic purposes dates back to 6th century China, modern toilet paper wasn't invented until the end of the 19th century. Even then, it took a few decades for manufacturers to get the splinters out. It wasn't until around the 1930s that toilet paper gained mass appeal. And in many areas of the world, people still don't use it.
And, perhaps this is better left unsaid, but humans have always been defecating. So the question naturally arises: before toilet paper, what did people wipe with?
Fair warning: the history of wiping is unsanitary, full of sharp edges, and will probably change the way you look at corn.
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A Communal Sponge On A StickPhoto: D. Herdemerten / Wikimedia Commons
Ancient Romans were terrified of the demons and devils lurking in their sewer systems, but what they should have been scared of were the bacteria and diseases they passed around by wiping with a communal sponge attached to a stick.
That's right: after Junius was done doing his business, he would wipe with an old sponge, dip it in salt water, and then pass that sponge to Cassius sitting nearby. Keep in mind that some public bathrooms had as many as 80 toilets (or rather, holes) all facing inwards. So that's 80 buttholes, one sponge.
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A Goose's NeckPhoto: skepticalview / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0
Gargantua and Pantagruel is a satirical novel by a 16th-century French monk in which one of the characters speculates on the best way to wipe oneself after he deems paper inefficient and not wholly cleansing. After running through some options, his conclusion is that "the neck of a goose, that is well downed, if you hold her head betwixt your legs" is the perfect way to clean one's certain orifices. As one analysis surmised, "Some have seen the whole discussion as emblematic of the 'new era' of the Renaissance, when old certainties were washed away and the purpose of everything had to be rediscovered afresh.
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Ceramic ShardsPhoto: The Portable Antiquities Scheme/ The Trustees of the British Museum / Wikimedia Commons
Evidence suggests that the ancient Greeks wiped with tiny stones made from broken pieces of ceramic (pessoi). They even had an axiom about it: three stones are enough to wipe. Of course, using shards of ceramic was not great for anal health, and led to skin damage, rashes, and hemorrhoids.
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Using rags to wipe was a common practice in both early America and Europe. One 19th century report out of London noted that "three shovels full" of rags were uncovered from a cesspool used for public defecation. Ideally, these rags would have been washed. However, washing them in the river Thames would have been counterproductive as, at the time, the river was essentially all sewage.
That said, reusable rags may be making a comeback, as they're ecofriendly and gentle on the skin.
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Hemp And A Knight To Wipe For YouPhoto: Esther Groen / Free Images
In 15th and 16th century France, wiping using hemp (as well as lace and wool) was a luxury available to a small wealthy minority.
Of course, French kings did not dare wipe themselves, but instead employed Chevalier Porte-Coton, or “Knights of the Toilet Roll,” to wipe for them. Many kings, such as Louis XIV, even held court while using the commode.
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An Old Rope Dangling In Seawater
You would think that, on a 17th-century sailor's diet of salted meat and sauerkraut, bowel movements would be few and far between. But in the event of a movement, sailors would dangle an old rope off the side of a ship and haul it up when they needed to wipe.