Toilet paper has a long history, and its invention dates back centuries. The use of paper for hygiene purposes, including cleaning oneself after using the restroom, can be traced back to ancient civilizations.
About half of the world’s population makes use of this hygienic tool, but toilet paper as we know it today didn’t pop up until relatively recently.
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When Was Toilet Paper Invented?
The modern version of toilet paper was invented in 1391. In particular, it was designed for the Chinese Emperor family. It wasn’t just your odd toilet paper roll. In fact, Chinese toilet paper consisted of perfumed flat sheets stacked on top of each other. But if we don’t add the requirement ‘modern’ to it, toilet paper has been around for at least twice as long.
The Paper before Modern Toilet Paper
The toilet paper used by the Chinese Emperor family wasn’t invented out of thin air. The Chinese were already using something that can be seen as ancient toilet paper all the way back in the second century BC. It took some time to become popular, however. Only in the sixth century AD, toilet paper was used for wiping all over the empire.
The first toilet paper wasn’t bleached, as opposed to most of the toilet sheets today. In fact, the paper most likely wasn’t even specially made for hygienic purposes.
A medieval scholar from China writes the following about it: “Paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from the Five Classics or the names of sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes.”
So based on the above quote, we can be quite certain that ‘toilet paper’ was just any paper. Only by 1391, actual paper especially for toilet purposes was developed in China. If there was something that was particularly designed for toilet hygiene, it was rather a wrapping and padding material and didn’t yet resemble actual toilet paper.
When Did Toilet Paper Become Common?
The fact that the Chinese invented toilet paper didn’t mean that it was immediately a widespread commodity all over the world. In the 15th century, toilet paper became more common. However, only from the 19th century onwards, the toilet paper industry really started picking up. It started to be manufactured on large scales all over the world.
Commercially Packed Toilet Paper
The honors for the first commercially packed toilet paper go to a man by the name of Joseph C. Gayetty. He believed in the therapeutic qualities of his product, hence the name ‘The Therapeutic Paper’.
Just like the Chinese, Joseph Gayetty created a line of toilet paper with a scent. In fact, he medicated it with aloe, named it ‘Gayetty’s Medicated Paper’, printed his name on the flat sheets, and was out of business a couple of years later.
Gayetty’s Medicated Paper wasn’t really a hit, one might say, mainly because the public wasn’t yet prepared to pay for something that had been free up until then.
The First Toilet Roll
Up until 1878, toilet paper was exclusively in packages of flat sheets. But, as you might know, modern toilet paper comes in toilet paper rolls. The Scott brothers were the ones that came up with this idea, introducing the first roll of toilet paper in 1879. They sold it through their own company called Scott Paper Company.
The Scott Paper Company kept developing its product and eventually became the biggest seller on the American toilet paper market. However, they didn’t patent their invention, so many others could, and would, use their ideas and make them their own products.
In a sense, not putting a patent on the product might’ve helped with the evolution of toilet paper. For example, it led to the development of the first perforated toilet paper, the one that we still use to this day. Walter Alcock takes the props for this invention.
First Commercially Packaged Toilet Paper
While the Scott Paper Company played a big part in the invention of toilet paper, the first company that actually sold commercially packaged toilet paper was called the British Perforated Paper Company. As their name indicates, they took the perforated toilet paper of Alcock and developed it. In 1880, they sold the first boxes of individual squares.
Soft Toilet Paper
The history of toilet paper saw another important development in 1930. After about 50 years of refinement, somebody came up with the idea that guaranteed a lack of splinters in the paper. Apparently, nobody thought of it before, but the Northern Tissue company was the first one to produce a splinter-free toilet roll.
It’s not hard to imagine why the brand would become popular, to a point that it became the best-sold product. The race for the softest toilet paper was on, a race that was eventually won by another company.
Two friends named Procter and Gable started their Charmin brand, which introduced a technique where the paper was air-dried and squeezed while being produced.
Adding That Extra Layer
Still, up until 1941, all toilet paper was just made up of one single layer. In 1942, St. Andrews Paper Mill decided to change that by introducing the first toilet paper with two layers. The standard modern toilet paper has two or three layers, so the company really pioneered the next generation of toilet paper.
Toilet Paper Shortage
Everybody was running to the store to buy toilet paper at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the history of toilet paper sees another remarkable shortage. It started in Japan and was accelerated by a joke made by Johnny Carson, a popular American comedian.
Japanese women began buying massive quantities of toilet paper in 1973. They mostly started buying out of fear. The country was experiencing several crises all at once, including an oil crisis and a severe economic crisis. There was a real fear that the island would run out of all the resources they had, so they started hoarding.
Although there is some logic there, the response was a bit less logical. After all, it’s never good for a society to prioritize individual levels of comfort over societal safety and stability.
Americans followed suit, for reasons largely unknown. The USA also had some crises going on, but there was very little reason to react the same as the people of Japan. The toilet paper shortage now was a thing on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.
After a joke by Johnny Carson, things escalated. It was definitely a funny joke, but it created an even bigger run on toilet paper. Just like the Japanese, Americans had to deal with a toilet paper shortage for a couple of months.
What Did People Use for Toilet Paper Before It Was Invented?
You might wonder, what did people use before toilet paper was invented? Although it depends on the climate and the social hierarchy, it mostly revolved around a variety of natural materials.
The Early Years
Before toilet paper was a thing, people used anything that was free and available for hygiene purposes. Sadly, there weren’t any sheets of toilet paper popping up in nature, ready for harvest and use.
Therefore, people would often use wood shavings, hay, rocks, corn cobs, grass, or even shells. The start of toilet paper history was quite … painful.
If available, people would also use leaves, rags, or animal skin for their bathroom hygiene. More upper-class people would sometimes use luxury items like wool or certain cotton sheets as their toilet paper of choice.
Silk Road Inventions
The historical Chinese dynasties were quite influential, and their effects can be seen to this day. Although their inventions were definitely not limited to the bathroom, they sure influenced our behavior there. Before the Chinese started the evolution of toilet paper, they came up with another wiping solution in the form of a hygiene stick.
The sticks were made of bamboo or wood and had a cloth wrapped around one of the ends. The earliest models can be traced back to around 2000 years ago and were widely used in Asia and along the Silk Road.
The Roman Tersorium
One of the most popular ways to clean after your number two in the Roman Empire was with a tersorium, It’s basically a stick with a sponge attached to it. So not a lot different from what the Chinese invented. On the one hand, the Chinese had a cloth on a stick. On the other hand, the Romans had a sponge on a stick.
The Romans have written about the tersorium extensively, as can be seen in the works of the philosopher Seneca. One of his writings mentions the suicide of a German gladiator. Seneca described the gladiator who shoved a stick tipped with a sponge ‘devoted to the vilest uses’ down his throat to escape the wild animal in the arena. He sure escaped it.
Cleaning the Tersorium
The Roman tersorium was a communal tool, used in the very first public bathrooms. Everybody could access the water closet, which helped tremendously with keeping the city a lot cleaner.
While communal bathrooms were great, communal ‘toilet paper’ reused by the whole city was a bit less hygienic. Evidently, the social customs were quite different in these ancient times.
Although the sponges were passed around, they were still cleaned in between. For rinsing, the Romans used a saltwater or vinegar solution disposable within the public water closets.