Monday, August 13, 2012

How the Romans wiped (history of toilet paper pt. 1)

There are two types of people: those who clean with water after defecation, and those who clean with paper. I've already discussed the company Who Gives a Crap and their philanthropic toilet paper. Gizmodo posted a brief article on the history of toilet paper that a friend was kind enough to bring to my attention.

The Romans used to use sponge sticks:

Romans had some of the most sophisticated restrooms in the world, with dual streams of water: one for defecating in, and another to rinse off the sponge stick which you shared with all of the other guests in the restroom. The wealthy Romans, however, would use scented water.

The Toilet Paper Encyclopedia has a fairly fascinating historical list of different materials people have used throughout history to wipe, including:

Wealthy French: lace, wool and hemp
Middle Ages: hayballs, a scraper/gompf stick kept in a container in the privy
Early Americans: rags, newsprint, paper from catalogs, corncobs, and leaves
Viking Age/England: discarded sheep and lambs wool
Hawaiians: coconut shells
Inuit: snow and Tundra moss
Sailors from Spain/Portugal: frayed end of an old anchor line
Medieval Europe: Straw, hay, grass, gompf stick

It's a fairly eclectic mix, but consider, if you will, what people use: trash, right? Things that are discarded. This makes sense, of course, because (for the most part, anyway) you don't want to keep anything that has shit on it. But wiping is an intimately physical act--these materials get close to a part of our bodies that very little gets to get close to. We have to be ok enough with these external items to let them come to an internal part of us.

Or is it that way? Instead, is there a shared concept amongst these groups that defecation is a "trash" process that is external to other parts of our self? We don't wipe out face with a Sears Roebuck catalog page, but we will wipe our ass with it. Our concept of our body is inherently divided and hierarchical; some parts of us are more intimately associated with our concept of our selves (faces, for example, are some of the most important parts of our bodies with this) and others we have distanced ourselves from (the anus).

For more on toilet paper in history, be sure to check out the Virtual Toilet Paper Museum (yes, it exists) for a fascinating and addicting photo gallery. This story of toilet paper and what we can learn about people from it will continue in later posts.

Check out part two of the history of toilet paper here


  1. Thankfully technology has moved on from toilet paper now to much more hygienic, cheaper and comfortable forms of cleaning ourselves with the invention of the bum gun. Can't stand to use toilet paper anymore.

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