A Painful Fact: Toilet Paper Wasn’t Always Splinter-Free

At the onset of the 2020 pandemic, store shelves were quickly emptied of toilet paper, revealing the commodity’s prominent role in modern-day society. Although humans have cleaned their bottoms for as long as they’ve been on earth, “3-ply” and “extra-soft” didn’t always describe toilet hygiene. Before the introduction of mass-produced, commercially available toilet paper in the mid-1800s and the continued improvements made into the early 20th century, people relied on less luxurious ways to wipe themselves. What’s clear is that humans in all time periods have used a variety of natural tools and materials. In ancient times, they used stones and other natural materials, and rinsing with water or snow was common. Some cultures even opted for seashells and animal fur. Ancient Romans used a communal sponge on a stick — known as a tersorium — cleaned in a bucket of vinegar or salt water and reused. Greco-Romans used moss or leaves, as well as pieces of ceramic known as pessoi. By the early 14th century, the Chinese were manufacturing toilet paper at a rate of 10 million packages annually. The first perforated toilet paper rolls were introduced in 1890, and by 1930 toilet paper was finally manufactured “splinter free.”