How Toilet Paper Works

The Long, Stained History of Toilet Paper
The typical American supermarket aisle is flooded with various types of toilet tissue. JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

It may surprise you to learn that widespread use of toilet paper is a fairly recent thing — less than 200 years old. So, what did people do before that?

They used leaves, rocks, sticks, mud, clay, corncobs, snow, or any other objects that could be used for wiping, or (ouch) scraping. In ancient Roman times, it was common for people to use a shared stick with a sponge at the tip. Thankfully, between uses, the sponge was soaked in very salty water, which helped to inhibit bacterial growth [source: Wolf].

Still, toilet paper is not a new invention. As with so many other firsts, it was the Chinese who dreamed up the dandy idea of sweeping away doo-doo with good old paper. And they did so all the way back in the 6th century C.E. The Chinese invented paper itself in the 1st century C.E., using the pulp of mulberry trees.

We don't know the name of the man who invented toilet paper, but by the 6th century, a court official was opining that, "Paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from the Five Classics ... I dare not use for toilet purposes." By the 14th century, a million packets of toilet paper — each with between 1,000 and 10,000 sheets — were being produced in just one Chinese province [source: Smyth].

Apparently, this Chinese invention of toilet paper never caught on in Europe at the time. Rich people used cloth or hemp to clean themselves. The poor used rags, leaves or their own hands. King Henry VIII had a designated "Groom of the Stool", and the job responsibilities were exactly what you think.

The rise in newspaper publishing in the 1700s provided a ready cheap source of paper for taking care of your business. And in the 1800s, Americans commonly used pages from the Old Farmer's Almanac and Sears Roebuck catalogs to clean themselves, although Sears received many complaints once it switched to glossy pages. The Almanac even had a hole punched in the corner, making it easy to hang in an outhouse [sources: Rodriguez, Dugan]. It took a very long time for toilet paper to be available for purchase and even longer for people to see a need to buy it.