The Soft Option: in celebration of the toilet roll

April 16, 20209:31 amApril 16, 2020 9:32 amLeave a Comment

Recently toilet paper has become a national obsession but what did people use before it was invented?

Well, you could wash or you could wipe, and in many parts of the world washing is still the preferred method. For wiping, depending on what was available where you lived leaves, grasses, moss, sticks or even stones were probably most commonly used.

The Romans, well-known for their civilized society, used a sponge on a stick, called a tersorium. In theory this was a hygienic method and the sponge was washed in water with salt or vinegar. But, although some people insisted on their own personal sponge, in public latrines they were shared.

The Vikings were a hardy bunch and are known to have used scrapers such as oyster or mussel shells, animal bones or even shards of broken pottery. All you had to do was find a suitable shape and check for sharp edges before proceeding.

Elsewhere people used what was to hand, for example this extract from an American poem of around 1900 describes the outhouse toilet and the availability of a corn cob:

The torture of that icy seat could make a Spartan sob
For needs must scrape the gooseflesh with a lacerating cob
That from a frost-encrusted nail hung pendant by a string
My father was a frugal man and wasted not a thing

American poem, c.1900

During the medieval and Tudor periods people often used rags that could be washed and re-used. Although archaeological excavations have discovered remnants of cloth in cesspits showing that everyone didn’t recycle. The type of fabric used would depend on your wealth rough wool for a lowly monk, fine linen for nobility.

In ancient China they used sticks and spatulas and the writings of a 6th century Chinese scholar contain the earliest known reference to using paper. Ahead of the game the Chinese imperial family were using rice-based toilet paper from the late 14th century.

In the West if paper was used it had to be recycled from old books and newspapers. As paper fell in price, so its use in the toilet increased. Specially made toilet paper was available from 1857. Created by an American, Joseph C. Gayetty, Gayetty’s Medicated Paper came in a pack of loose, flat sheets.

During the summer of 1858, described at the time as the Great Stink, the Thames was so contaminated with human waste that Queen Victoria was forced to abandon a river cruise because of the overpowering smell. Rumour has it that when she saw sheets of toilet paper floating in the water and asked what they were she was told they were ‘notices’ warning people not to bathe.

The invention of a machine capable of making a perforated roll of paper in 1871 led to the toilet roll as we know it. Soft, absorbent crepe paper, the forerunner of tissue, became popular in the USA from 1907 but in conservative Britain this luxury was slow to catch on and the preference for hard paper continued into the 1950s. One of the best known brands was Izal, hard, shiny, non-absorbent and medicated with disinfectant its distinctive smell permeated school and public toilets for generations and was enough to strike fear into the heart of anyone needing to answer a call of nature.

You can learn lots more about the history of the toilet by visiting Gladstone Pottery Museum’s Flushed With Pride gallery when the museum re-opens.

Written by Joe Perry (Curator, Local History)

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