Home » What Did People Use Before Toilet Paper?

What Did People Use Before Toilet Paper?

Discover the fascinating history of personal hygiene practices before the advent of modern toilet paper. This comprehensive guide explores ingenious alternatives, environmental considerations, and global cultural perspectives. Toilet paper is a ubiquitous part of our daily lives, but have you ever wondered what people used before this modern convenience? Delve into the intriguing world of personal hygiene practices from ancient civilizations and explore the ingenious alternatives employed throughout history.

Key Takeaways

In this article, you’ll gain a deep understanding of:

  1. The diverse methods employed by ancient civilizations for personal hygiene.
  2. The evolution of toilet paper from primitive alternatives to the soft, multi-ply rolls we use today.
  3. Insights into the environmental impact of traditional toilet paper and sustainable alternatives.
  4. A global tour of toilet paper etiquette and cultural practices.
  5. How to make informed choices about toilet paper for a more sustainable future.

Toilet Paper: A Brief History

Ancient Civilizations and Personal Hygiene

Before the advent of modern toilet paper, various ancient civilizations devised their methods for maintaining personal hygiene. These methods were as diverse as the cultures, reflecting their unique values and resources.

What Did People Use Before Toilet Paper?

1. Leaves and Plant Material:

  • People in many regions used leaves, moss, and plant materials for wiping after using the restroom. Some leaves, like large ones from the aloe plant, were soft and practical.
  • Indigenous peoples in North America used large, soft leaves and even flat stones for cleaning.

2. Water and Hand:

  • Ancient Rome: Romans often used a sponge on a stick called a “spongia” to clean themselves. After use, the sponge was soaked in water and vinegar for reuse.
  • Ancient Greece: Greeks utilized pieces of broken pottery called “ostraka” to scrape and clean themselves. Pebbles and clay were also popular choices.

3. Clay and Stones:

  • Less developed societies employed clay, stones, or pebbles as abrasive cleaning materials. Although it wasn’t the most comfortable option, it accomplished the task.

4. Shells:

  • Coastal communities sometimes used shells, with their smooth surfaces, as a primitive form of toilet paper. This practice was common in ancient coastal civilizations.

5. Corn Cobs:

  • In North America, settlers used corn cobs when other materials were scarce. They would dry and flatten the cobs before use.

6. Linen and Cloth:

  • Wealthier individuals in certain societies used cloth or linen, which they cleaned and reused. This practice is well-known, particularly among the Ancient Egyptians.

7. Hay and Straw:

  • In rural areas, hay and straw were readily available and served as alternatives to toilet paper. People would bundle them for cleaning.

The Transition to Soft and Perfumed Toilet Paper

The concept of modern toilet paper, as we know it today, began to take shape in the late 19th century. Joseph Gayetty introduced the first commercially available toilet paper in 1857, medicated and sold as “Gayetty’s Medicated Paper.” It was a far cry from the soft, multi-ply rolls we use today.

Over time, toilet paper evolved, becoming softer, more absorbent, and perfumed for added comfort. The introduction of perforations made tearing off individual sheets convenient.

The Environmental Impact of Toilet Paper

Sustainable Toilet Paper Options

With growing concerns about deforestation and environmental impact, consumers today have more sustainable choices. Some eco-friendly alternatives to traditional toilet paper include:

  • Recycled Toilet Paper: Made from post-consumer waste paper, it reduces the demand for virgin pulp.
  • Tree-Free Toilet Paper: Utilizing materials like bamboo or sugarcane, tree-free options are more sustainable.
  • Biodegradable Options: These toilet papers break down more easily, reducing strain on sewage systems.

Environmental Impact of Traditional Toilet Paper

  • Traditional toilet paper production contributes to deforestation, as it relies on virgin wood pulp.
  • Bleaching processes can release harmful chemicals into the environment.
  • Transportation of toilet paper over long distances adds to carbon emissions.

Toilet Paper Etiquette Around the World

The Cultural Significance of Toilet Paper

Toilet paper isn’t just a matter of personal hygiene; it carries cultural significance. Different societies have unique practices and etiquettes related to toilet paper usage.

Cultural Practices and Hygiene

  1. Japan: In Japan, high-tech toilets with built-in bidet functions are common, promoting cleanliness and reducing the need for paper. Bidets offer various water pressure and temperature options for personal comfort.
  2. Islamic Culture: Islamic tradition encourages water use, often through a vessel known as a “lota” or a bidet shower. The left hand is typically reserved for this purpose, while the right is used for eating.
  3. European Countries: Many European countries prefer folded toilet paper, while others favor bidets. Italy, for instance, is known for its bidet usage.
  4. India: In India, water, often from a handheld jug or faucet, is commonly used for cleansing. The left hand is traditionally used, and the right is reserved for eating.


The history of what people used before toilet paper is a testament to human ingenuity and adaptability. From leaves and shells to the soft, sustainable options of today, our approach to personal hygiene has evolved dramatically. Understanding this history helps us appreciate the convenience of modern toilet paper while also considering more sustainable alternatives for the future.

Incorporating eco-friendly choices and respecting cultural practices are essential steps toward a more mindful and sustainable approach to personal hygiene in the modern world.

Bath Arcadia
Bath Arcadia