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No Toilet Paper! What Methods Did The Ancients Use For Cleaning?

An analysis of old customs makes us privy to a slice of ancient life

Would it be possible to wake up in a world without toilet paper? What would you use? What did people do before toilet paper was so widely available, in your opinion? Let’s look at how our ancestors handled the unpleasant task of wiping before there was toilet paper, one of the most basic contemporary conveniences that people take for granted. It turns out that different societies approached this issue in a variety of ways, making your location in history almost as important as when you were born.

Before Toilet Paper the Romans Used “Poop Sponge Sticks”

The “tersorium,” or just a sponge hooked to a long stick, was used by the Romans as a replacement for toilet paper. Frequently, they would take these out to do their “business,” submerge them in salt water or vinegar, and then graciously leave them submerged for the next user.

Their preferred design for public restrooms had long marble benches with holes drilled into them at regular intervals so users could converse comfortably with their neighbors while defecating. Furthermore, these public restrooms were gender neutral, allowing individuals of all ages and sexes to congregate on the toilet bench and foster community the “old” fashioned way.

Poorer Romans had to make do with shards of clay that ideally had no sharp edges in order to avoid any unforeseen incidents. You wouldn’t believe it, but these Roman strategies are among the list’s most hygienic (especially, poop sticks in a vinegar vessel).

If you don’t have toilet paper, then the Roman tersorium poop stick shown here is a great way to wipe! (D. Herdemerten / CC BY 3.0 )

Toilet Paper Hard to Make? Many Humans Wipe With Water!

Wiping your buttocks with simply water and your hand was a tried-and-true technique among underprivileged populations worldwide. In instance, the flowing water in rivers and streams was frequently used to remove waste while also providing a plentiful supply of water for subsequent hand washing.

The outdated “squat toilets” that are still present in some areas of Africa and the Middle East function as you would expect. As the term implies, you physically “pop a squat” over a hole in the ground to relieve yourself instead of sitting down, using a handy bowl of water to wash your privates once you are finished.

The term “sinister,” which now refers to the word “left,” was reportedly coined by many ancient cultures who frequently only used water and their left hands to clean. Just make sure you thoroughly wash the hand afterward, and refrain from using your left hand to handle food or even to shake hands!

Americans Used Corn Cobs to Clean Their Holes!

Colonial and Native Americans used maize cobs as toilet paper before it was widely adopted in the 1800s. It appears that corn cobs had some amazing qualities, even though there is evidence of other organic materials like moss, leaves, and bark occasionally showing up for bum cleaning.

The preference for corn cobs can be attributed to a number of factors, including their accessibility as a resource and, presumably, how well they performed the task given that they could be rotated or moved in a single spot. In fact, they were so pleasant and efficient that many Americans insisted on using them long after toilet paper became widely accessible.

Ancient Greeks used shards of pottery called “pessoi” to clean themselves after pooping. And as an insult they wrote the name of individuals listed for ostracization on ostraca pottery pieces selected for bum wiping! (Gary Todd / CC0)

The Greeks Used “Revenge-wipe-insult” Ceramic Fragments!

The ancient Greeks added a particularly savage twist to the tradition of using “pessoi,” or ceramic shards, to wipe themselves after going “number 2”. Writing a person’s name on a “ostraca,” a piece of pottery, allowed a society to decide whether or not to have them removed. This practice gave rise to the term “ostracized.”

They frequently recycled ostraca as pessoi, allowing them to directly apply fecal matter to the names of their enemies! A related approach substituted seashells for pottery shards.

Sadly, this method is one of the least hygienic, and the abrasiveness of the ceramic tile fragments frequently caused unfavorable side effects including severe skin rashes or even hemorrhoids.

The Inuits Used Snow for Toilet Paper!

Snow was one of the most easily accessible things the Inuit people of the Arctic Circle relied on for their personal cleanliness. This freezing technique is actually thought to be rather hygienic and reportedly particularly refreshing. This tip is worth keeping in mind for a chilly day in the future. It is still occasionally used by those who are “nature’s call” when camping or trekking.

The Japanese used these chuugi poop sticks, which are from the 7th century AD, to clean their bums and then, finally, China invented paper. Before long, toilet sticks became toilet paper! (Chris 73 / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

In Japan and China? Wooden or Bamboo Bum Sticks!

For both internal and external cleaning, the ancient Japanese utilized a “chuugi,” or wooden stick or piece of bamboo, which was occasionally covered in cloth.

The Chinese likewise employed this technique until, surprise surprise, they created toilet paper in the sixth century AD. In actuality, this kind of “stick method” was quite widespread all over the world in ancient times.

The Vikings Wiped Their Butts with Wool or Rope!

When on land, Vikings typically substituted sheep’s wool for toilet paper. However, like most other pre-modern sailors, when at sea they would go into the ocean directly and use trailing bits of ropes, normally submerged, for bum cleaning. The rope would then be thrown back into the water, where it would be sanitized by the movement of the ship and the sea in preparation for the next user.

Can you determine which of the different approaches outlined is most likely to replace toilet paper in the future? I’ll give you a second to guess…and the solution is simple…good old H2O!!

Sales of modern bidet attachments have exploded in recent years, and although they still require a bit of drying with some toilet paper (although some come with hair dryer like attachments for drying), the amount of TP used is drastically less.

In the end, both water and bidet attachments are ideal for cleansing. The water technologies offer higher cleanliness while using fewer natural resources, so maybe the ancients had it right after all.