Life's Little Mysteries

What did people use before toilet paper was invented?

Toilet paper was a hot commodity in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Toilet paper was a hot commodity in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, toilet paper was nearly as hard to come by as personal protective equipment. Though toilet paper has existed in the Western world since at least the 16th century A.D. and in China since the second century B.C., billions of people don’t use toilet paper even today. In earlier times, toilet paper was even more scarce.

So what did ancient humans use to wipe after going to the bathroom?

It can be difficult to tell using the archaeological record, said Susan Morrison, a medieval literature professor at Texas State University and author of the book "Excrement in the Middle Ages; Sacred Filth and Chaucer’s Fecopoetics" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008). "Most of the material we don't have because it's organic and just disappeared," Morrison told Live Science. However, experts have been able to recover some samples — including some with traces of feces — and depictions of toilet paper’s precursors in art and literature.

Related: Why do some men take so long to poop?

Throughout history, people have used everything from their own hands to corn cobs to snow to clean up after bowel movements. One of the oldest materials on record for this purpose is the hygiene stick, dating back to China 2,000 years ago, according to a 2016 study in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. Hygiene sticks, also called bamboo slips, were wooden or bamboo sticks wrapped in cloth.

During the Greco-Roman period from 332 B.C. to 642 A.D., the Greeks and Romans cleaned their derrières with another stick called a tersorium, according to a feature in the BMJ. The tersorium, which had a sponge on one end, was left in public bathrooms for communal use. Some scholars argue that the tersorium may not have been used to clean people's behinds but the bathrooms they defecated in. People cleaned the tersorium by dumping it in a bucket of salt or vinegar water or by dipping it in running water that flowed beneath the toilet seats.

Greeks and Romans also tidied up with ceramic pieces rounded in the shape of an oval or circle, called pessoi. Archaeologists have found pessoi relics with traces of feces on them, and an ancient wine cup features a man wiping his bum with pessoi. Greeks may have also wiped with ostraka, ceramic pieces that they inscribed with the names of their enemies when voting to ostracize them. After the vote, they may have wiped their feces on their enemies’ names. However, these ceramic materials may have damaged the butt over time, causing skin irritation and external hemorrhoids, according to the BMJ.

Ostraka (also spelled ostraca) fragments from fifth century B.C. Athens.

Ostraka (also spelled ostraca) fragments from fifth century B.C. Athens. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

In Japan in the eight century A.D., people used another type of wooden stick called a chuugi to clean both the outside and inside of the anusliterally putting a stick up their buttocks. And though sticks have been popular for cleaning the anus throughout history, ancient people wiped with many other materials, such as water, leaves, grass, stones, animal furs and seashells. In the Middle Ages, Morrison added, people also used moss, sedge, hay, straw and pieces of tapestry.

People used so many materials that a French novelist, François Rabelais, wrote a satirical poem on the topic in the 16th century. His poem gave the first mention of toilet paper in the Western world, but he called it ineffective. Rabelais instead concluded that a goose neck was the best option. Though Rabelais was joking, "feathers would work as well as anything organic," Morrison said.

Granted, even today toilet paper isn't universal. For instance, the Australian news outlet SBS Punjabi lightheartedly mocked Westerns desperate for toilet paper early in the pandemic, urging them to "wash not wipe" with a gentle jet stream of water. 

Originally published on Live Science.

Tyler Santora
Live Science Contributor

Tyler Santora is a freelance science and health journalist based out of Colorado. They write for publications such as Scientific American, Nature Medicine, Medscape, Undark, Popular Science, Audubon magazine, and many more. Previously, Tyler was the health and science Editor for Fatherly. They graduated from Oberlin College with a bachelor's degree in biology and New York University with a master's in science journalism.