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Reposted from the East Kingdom Gazette <>:

*Life Before Toilet Paper*

Ancient public toilets in Ephesus

There are some things in our society that are so basic, so integral to our
lives that we cannot imagine going without.  Toilet paper is one of these
items.  Since 1857, when toilet paper first became commercially available,
we have used it to cleanse after using the bathroom.  This begs the
question; what did people use to clean themselves before toilet paper?
This work will provide an overview of what people used to cleanse
themselves after defecating in Rome, China, Japan, India, the Islamic
states and various areas of Europe between 400 C.E. and 1600 C.E.

Buddhist Precepts for Monks in India
Islamic Precepts for Worshippers
Western Europe

We begin in Rome, in the communal toilets adjacent to the city’s
bathhouses.  These communal bathrooms were semi-circular or rectangular
rooms containing long benches along the walls, with individual round spaces
carved into them.  Running water flowed underneath them to wash away the
waste.  According to William E. Dunstan in his book *Ancient Rome*, “Public
latrines, though often lavishly decorated with statuary and singing
fountains, proved dimly lit and poorly ventilated.  They became overcrowded
retreats for the unprivileged living in multistory tenements lacking
toilets.” [1]

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, in his series of letters known as *Moral Letters to
Lucilius* references a sponge affixed to a stick as being used for
cleansing after defecating.  In his 70th letter, he relates a tale of
suicide in which this implement, commonly referred to by scholars as a
*spongia*, played a pivotal role.  “A captured German, who was making ready
for the morning exhibition, withdrew in order to relieve himself, the only
thing he was allowed to do in secret and without the presence of a guard.
While so engaged, he seized the stick of wood, tipped with a sponge, which
was devoted to the vilest uses, and stuffed it, just as it was, down his
To date, there appears to be no other specific reference to the spongia in
ancient text.

Sources speculate that the spongia would be stored in either a bucket of
salt water, or would be placed in front of the public toilet in a stream of
running water that ran in front of the commode in communal bathrooms.
These spongia were used by everyone who utilized the public toilets.

The Roman elite used chamber pots or toilets within their own homes instead
of using the communal commodes whenever possible.  Instead of the spongia,
it is conjectured that they cleansed with rosewater and soft wool while in
their homes.[3]
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*Buddhist Precepts for Monks in India*
We move from Rome to India, where Buddhist monks were fastidious about
cleanliness.  So fastidious, in fact, that they had very particular rules
regarding the use of the bathroom.  These rules are outlined, in detail, in
early versions of the *Vinaya Pitaka*, the Buddhist canonical for monks.
Each of the seventeen rules were to be followed each time one used the
toilet facility.

   1. One should not defecate outside of the cesspool.
   2. While standing outside, one should clear his throat.
   3. Anyone sitting inside should also clear his throat.
   4. Having put aside the (upper) robe on a bamboo pole or a cord, one
   should enter the place properly and unhurriedly.
   5. One should not pull up one’s lower robe before entering.
   6. One should pull up one’s lower robe while standing on the toilet
   7. If the place is splattered it should be washed.
   8. One should not groan or grunt while defecating.
   9. One should not wipe oneself with a rough stick.
   10. One should not drop the wiping stick into the cesspool.
   11. If the basket for wiping sticks is full, the wiping sticks should be
   thrown away.
   12. One should then cover oneself (with one’s lower robe) while standing
   on the toilet shoes.
   13. One should not leave hurriedly.
   14. One should not leave with one’s lower robe pulled up.
   15. One should pull it up while standing on the rinsing-room shoes.
   16. One shouldn’t make a smacking sound while rinsing.
   17. One should not leave any water remaining in the rinse vessel.[4]

Further evidence to the Buddhist doctrine of cleansing after defecation is
found in an anecdote within their guidelines for monks which tells a story
of the consequences of not rinsing oneself after defecating:

“Now at that time a certain *bhikkhu*, a brahman by birth, didn’t want to
rinse himself after defecating, (thinking,) ‘Who would touch this vile,
stinking stuff?’ A worm took up residence in his anus. So he told this
matter to the *bhikkhus*. ‘You mean you don’t rinse yourself after
defecating?’ (they asked). ‘That’s right, my friends.’ Those *bhikkhus* who
were of few wants … criticized and complained and spread it about, ‘How can
a *bhikkhu* not rinse himself after defecating?’  They reported this matter
to the Blessed One…”[5]

The monks utilized what they referred to as a wiping stick to scrape feces
after defecating.  The stick was smooth and slightly rounded, and was used
to remove large pieces of feces before the monks rinsed themselves with
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*Islamic Precepts for Worshippers*
Buddhism is not the only religion that has strict rules about personal
hygiene.  Worshippers of Islam had similarly stringent requirements for
cleanliness.  The Qur’an is adamant about personal hygiene, which is why it
is not surprising that Muslims also had very specific rules when it came to
cleansing after defecation.  Abu Hureyrah, companion to the prophet
Muhammad, narrated many edicts to the followers of Islam; cleansing after
defecation included, between 590 and Muhammad’s death in 632 C.E.  “When
any one of you goes to the Gha’it (toilet to defecate), let him take with
him three stones and clean himself with them, for that will suffice him.”[6]
He also stated, “I never saw the Messenger of Allah come out of the toilet
without first (cleansing himself) with water.”[7]

Rules, based on the narrations of Abu Hureyah, are outlined in *Qadaa’ Al
Haajah*.  A redacted set of these rules is itemized below.

   1. When entering the toilet, one should say the *A’udhu* (*isti’adha*) and
   *Basmala*and then recite a prayer.
   2. When entering the toilet, one should not have in one’s hand anything
   on which the name of Allahu ta’ala or any verse of the Qur’an al-karim is
   3. One should enter the toilet with one’s left foot and exit with one’s
   right foot.
   4. One should recite the prayer “*Alhamdu-lil-laa-hil-la-dhi adh-haba
   ‘a-nil a-dhaa wa ‘a-faa-ni*” when exiting the toilet.
   5. After cleaning one’s private parts, one should cover them immediately.
   6. One should neither face the *Qibla* nor turn one’s back toward it
   while urinating or defecating.
   7. One should remove the feces on one’s anus with one’s finger and wash
   one’s hand. If there are still traces of filth, one should wash them with
   8. One should dry one’s private parts with a cloth after washing them.
   9. One should not look at one’s private parts or spit into the toilet.
   10. One must not urinate into any water, on a wall of a mosque, in
   a cemetery, or on a road.
   11. Cleaning the private parts with stones and similar materials is an
   acceptable substitute for cleaning them with water.[8]

One will note that the process of cleaning oneself after defecating is
specifically addressed.  The utilization of one’s own hand appears to be
the preferred method, followed by rinsing and washing the hand.
?w=251&h=300″ alt=”Japanese wiping sticks. ” width=”251″ height=”300″ />

Japanese wiping sticks. This Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons image is from
the user Chris 73 and is freely available at // under the
creative commons cc-by-sa 3.0 license.

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The Japanese, like the Indian Buddhists, used sticks to clean themselves
after defecating.  Flat, rounded sticks, called *chu-gi*, were uncovered in
ancient cisterns dating as far back as 750 in the ancient Japanese capital
of Nara.  During what is called the Nara Period, between 710 and 784, the
capital had 10-15cm trenches dug and water diverted through them, making a
drainage system.  Citizens would squat over these trenches, with a foot on
each bank of the trench to urinate and defecate; the waste being washed
away from the city.  The dirty sticks would be washed in the running water,
and retained for future use, or dropped in the trench for disposal.[9]
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*Western Europe*
In Western Europe, materials available for sanitation varied based on your
wealth and social standing.  It is conjectured that rags were used
throughout Europe and were the most common materials used for anal
cleansing.  Ronald H. Blumer states his work entitled *Wiped:  The Curious
History of Toilet Paper*that clothing too threadbare to be worn would be
utilized for anal cleansing repeatedly until it was no longer fit for that
purpose as well.[10]
Archeological digs under monasteries in Europe have found remnants of the
tattered, holey rags used by monks and nuns for toilet purposes.  Finer
wools and linens worn by the elite were used for their sanitary needs once
they were no longer suitable to be worn as clothing.

Not everyone used rags, however.  In the household records of Duc de Berry
in 1400, for example, there is reference to quantities of flax and hemp
being purchased in a raw, unspun state for the express purpose of anal
 And though few household records like these have survived, literature
has.  Toilet humor–also known as scatological humor–is not a wholly modern
notion.  *La vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel*, written by François
Rabelais between 1532 and 1564, was full of scatological humor.  Chapter
1.XIII, “How Gargantua’s wonderful understanding became known to his father
Grangousier, by the invention of a torchecul or wipebreech” is a perfect
example.  This chapter of the famous work is solely dedicated to the
discussion of anal wiping:

“I have, answered Gargantua, by a long and curious experience, found out a
means to wipe my bum, the most lordly, the most excellent, and the most
convenient that was ever seen.  What is that? said Grangousier, how is it?
I will tell you by-and-by, said Gargantua.  Once I did wipe me with a
gentle-woman’s velvet mask, and found it to be good; for the softness of
the silk was very voluptuous and pleasant to my fundament.  Another time
with one of their hoods, and in like manner that was comfortable.  At
another time with a lady’s neckerchief, and after that I wiped me with some
ear-pieces of hers made of crimson satin, but there was such a number of
golden spangles in them (turdy round things, a pox take them) that they
fetched away all the skin of my tail with a vengeance.  Now I wish St.
Antony’s fire burn the bum-gut of the goldsmith that made them, and of her
that wore them!  This hurt I cured by wiping myself with a page’s cap,
garnished with a feather in the Switzers’ fashion.

“Afterwards, in dunging behind a bush, I found a March-cat, and with it I
wiped my breech, but her claws were so sharp that they scratched and
exulcerated all my perinee.  Of this I recovered the next morning
thereafter, by wiping myself with my mother’s gloves, of a most excellent
perfume and scent of the Arabian Benin.  After that I wiped me with sage,
with fennel, with anet, with marjoram, with roses, with goud-leaves, with
beets, with colewort, with leaves of the vine tree, with mallows,
wool-blade, which is a tail-scarlet, with lettuce and with spinach leaves.”

By the end of his diatribe, there is seemingly nothing that the young man
won’t use.  In fact, when he comes to wiping with paper, he has this to
say, “Who his foul tail with paper wipes, Shall at his ballocks leave some

Though a humorous work of fiction, it does provide insight to what might
have been used for anal cleansing.  The author is clearly utilizing the
absurd in the name of his art, but it is not unreasonable to take grains of
truth from the document.  It is quite likely that leaves, moss, straw,
discarded pieces of clothing, etc. would have been utilized by all walks of
life depending upon their region and the materials available to them.

It is suggested in numerous works on the subject that leaves, moss, shells,
and the like would have been used for cleaning after defecation, though
none of these works have been able to provide evidence to support their
assertions.  It is not unreasonable, however, to make such a conjecture.  A
soft leaf, unspun wool, and straw would have proved to be useful if no
other means of cleansing were available.
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While their Western counterparts were using leaves, rags, or sponges soaked
in saltwater, and other areas of Asia were using sticks to clean their
anuses, the Chinese were manufacturing paper to address their sanitary
needs.  There is little written on the invention, manufacture, and use of
the predecessor to the modern toilet paper, but there is mention of paper
being used in the eliminatory process as far back as the first century.
Joseph Needham, in his collection of works entitled *The Science and
Civilisation of China*, cited that the Chinese used paper made from rice
straw for sanitary purposes.  Chinese scholar Yan Zhitu stated in 589 that
“paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from Five Classics or
the names of sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes.”  Additionally, an
Arab explorer during the Tang Dynasty, is noted as having stated “They [the
Chinese] are not careful about cleanliness, and they do not wash themselves
with water after they have done their necessities, but they only wipe
themselves with paper” in his memoirs detailing his travels to China.[14]

The Chinese eventually began manufacturing a specific type of paper to use
after defecation, known as *tshao chih*.  According to Chinese records
maintained by the Imperial Bureau of Supplies, over 720,000 sheets of *tshao
chih* were manufactured in 1393 alone.   The imperial family, however,
received “…15,000 sheets, three inches square, light yellow, thick but
soft, and perfumed.”[15]
In fact, the use of *tshao chih* was so prevalent, Zhejiang Province (aka
Chekiang Province) alone used ten million packages of 1,000 to 10,000
sheets in 1393 for its population of 2,138,225.[16]

Until the 19th century, paper was made exclusively by hand, and therefore,
was more expensive to procure.  It would have been more cost effective to
use materials that were readily available, such as leaves and old rags
instead of paper.  As paper became easier and less expensive to
manufacture, its use for cleansing after defecating became more common and
eventually took its place as the preferred method for cleaning in most
parts of the known world.  Today it is estimated that modern Americans use
approximately 100 rolls of toilet paper per year.  With nearly 390,000,000
people in the US, Americans use 39,000,000,000 rolls of toilet paper each
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Bennett, Howard. “EVER WONDERED about the history of toilet paper?” *The
Washington Post *(2009): 1-2.
Accessed 10/27/2014.

Bhikkhu, Thannissaro, ed.,  *The Buddhist Monastic Code II*. Thanissaro
Bhikkhu, 2001.

Blumer, Ronald, H. *Wiped:  The Curious History of Toilet Paper*.
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 2nd edition, 2013

Chavez, Amy “From the ditches of nara to the Otohime, a lav story” *The
Japan Times* (2014)

Dunstan, William E. *Ancient Rome*. Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield
Publishers, Inc., 2011.

Guanglin Liu, William. *The Chinese Market Economy, 1000-1500*.  Albany,
NY: State University of New York Press (2015).

My Religion Islamic. “Islamic Toilet Etiquette” (2015)
<>:  Accessed

Needham, Joseph. *Science and Civilisation in China, Vol. 5, Part 1*:
Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1954.

Rabelais, Francois; Translation by Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty. *Gargantua
et de Pantagruel*: 1653

Schofield, Hugh. “Filthy secrets of medieval toilets” *BBC News (*2003)
<>:  Accessed 10/27/2014

Seneca, Lucius Annaeus. “Moral letters to Lucilius” Letter 70
<> :
Accessed 02/15/2016

“The Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad at Your Fingertips”
<>: Accessed 02/15/2016

“Islamic Toilet Etiquette“
<>: Accessed 02/15/2016
Back to Top


Dunstan, William E. *Ancient Rome*, pg 359.

letters to Lucilius/Letter 70”

Dunstan, 359

Thannissaro, ed.,  *The Buddhist Monastic Code II*, pg. 108

Ibid, pg. 107.

1, Book 1, Hadith 44  <>

1, Book 1, Hadith 354 <>

Toilet Etiquette“  <>

Amy “From the ditches of Nara to the Otohime, a lav story” *The Japan Times*

Blumer, Ronald, H. *Wiped:  The Curious History of Toilet Paper*


Rabelais, Francois, *La vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel* Chapter 1.XIII

pg 78.

Needham, Joseph Science and Civilisation in China, Vol. 5, Part 1

Needham, 123

Guanglin Liu, William *The Chinese Market Economy, 1000-1500*, p 13
Appendix A

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