With toilet paper, or rather the sometimes frenzied demand for toilet paper, being in the news recently, it is a good time to look at the medieval origins of this very useful product.
Before we begin, it should be said that the toilet paper we commonly use today is a nineteenth century invention – credited to Joseph C. Gayetty, who began selling his “medicated paper for the water-closet” in 1857. Over the next few decades, the use of toilet paper greatly accelerated, helped along by another invention – the flush toilet.
Prior to this, people used a variety of methods to clean their backsides – the ancient Romans had a sponge on a stick, which after cleanings was placed into a bowl of vinegar to be decontaminated. In the Middle Ages, people would make use of sticks, moss and other plants. Archaeological findings from cesspits of monasteries in Ireland and Norway included small pieces of cloth that were used like toilet paper.
However, in medieval China a new method of cleaning had gradually developed. The invention of paper has traditionally been dated to the year 105 CE, although archaeological evidence shows that it was used even earlier. Paper found many uses within China, and by the sixth century we have our earliest record reference to it being used for personal hygiene. A scholar named Yan Zhitui wrote a letter to his family members, in which he remarked “Paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from the Five Classics or the names of sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes.” This implies that he made use of less-worthy documents for such purposes.
By the ninth century the use of paper for toilet purposes seems to have widespread enough that even foreign writers were noticing it. As part of a work on China and India, the Arabic scholar Abu Zad al-Sirafi does not approve of the practice:
The Chinese are unhygienic, and they do not wash their backsides with water after defecating but merely wipe themselves with Chinese paper.
Still it seems that in medieval China, toilet paper was well-used, at least among the wealthier classes. As part of Joseph Needham’s massive work Science and Civilisation in China, the historian notes that by the fourteenth century, toilet paper was being manufactured on a large scale:
Toilet paper was made from rice straw, the fibres of which were tender and required less time and labour to process; it thus cost less than any other kind of paper. Great quantities of such paper were needed for daily use, and for the imperial court alone, it was specified in 1393 that the Bureau of Imperial Supplies manufactured 720,000 sheets, two by three feet in size, for the general use of the court and 15,000 sheets, three inches square, light yellow, thick but soft, and perfumed, for special supply to the imperial family. The quantity manufactured every year was so great the refuse of straw and lime which accumulated in the imperial factory formed a mound that was called Elephant Mountain. Even early in this century, the annual production of paper for toilet use in Chekiang alone amounted to ten million packages of 1000 to 10,000 sheets each.
Despite its use in China, toilet paper did not catch on with the rest of the world – at least not until the 19th century. However, we do know that people did make use of paper to clean themselves after using toilets, but like Yan Zhitui they would simply get it from books or newspapers that they did not want to keep. For example, in 1747 a British nobleman wrote to his son about an unnamed “gentleman” who would read when having to go to the toilet:
He bought, for example, a common edition of Horace, of which he tore off gradually a couple of pages, carried them with him to that necessary place, read them first and sent them down as a sacrifice to Cloacina (a Roman goddess of the ‘Great Drain’ in Rome’s sewer system)…I recommend you to follow his example. It is better than only doing what you cannot help doing at those moments and it will make any book which you shall read in that manner, very present to your mind.
Top Image: Photo by Brandon Blinkenberg / Wikimedia Commons