top of page

Toilet paper


14 toilet paper A 8HS_4846-Hook-Paper-14

(Picture: Hugh Sainsbury/Crossness Engines Trust)

Over centuries and millennia, humans have used various techniques and substances for cleaning themselves after going to the toilet. Ancient Greeks and Romans used pessoi, pebbles or pieces of broken ceramics; Romans also used sea sponges attached to sticks (like the replica shown here). Buddhist texts advocate the use of sticks and earth to clean oneself. Cloth-wrapped sticks were used in China some 2000 years ago, and in AD 589 the Chinese writer Yan Zhitui mentioned the use of paper made with rice straw. Over time, grass, leaves and animal fur have also been used for cleaning behinds.

2 Roman B1 8HS_4843-Sponge-2.jpg

(Picture: Hugh Sainsbury/Crossness Engines Trust)

Vikings were known to use scrapers – oyster or mussel shells, animal bones, even broken pottery. In Britain during the Middle Ages, textile scraps were used, then either washed and reused or discarded; pieces of coarse cloth were found in cesspits beneath the latrine at St Albans Abbey during excavations in 1924, possibly torn from monks’ old habits. In the US, many people took corn (maize) cobs into the toilet, or – as in Britain – used old newspapers or pages torn from catalogues. Indeed, from 1919 the American Farmer’s Almanac was printed with a hole in the top-left corner, to make it easier for readers to hang it on a hook in outhouses where it could be read – before those pages were used for wiping.


When Joseph Gayetty first sold his product in 1857, it was marketed as ‘Medicated Paper for the Water-Closet’; the sheets, made from Manila hemp, were treated with aloe and intended for use by people with haemorrhoids. Gayetty advertised it as ‘The Greatest Necessity of the Age’ – and, though his claims were pooh-poohed by experts, it set a precedent for many products that followed.

14 toilet paper C 8HS_4823-Izal-14.jpg

(Pictures: Hugh Sainsbury/Crossness Engines Trust)

The Scott Paper Company is widely credited with producing the first toilet rolls in the US in 1879; perforated toilet-paper rolls were introduced in 1890. Shiny, hard, non-absorbent papers – including medicated Izal – were typical until softer products arrived from the 1930s.


In many parts of the world, though, wiping with paper is unusual and may be unacceptable culturally or for religious reasons. Instead, water is used to wash the nether regions – either using a jug or other receptacle, or with a bidet or jet of water, through a separate hose or from a nozzle integrated into the toilet bowl. The use of paper can cause toilet and sewer blockages, and its production is estimated to be responsible for the felling or around 27,000 trees every day.

bottom of page