Wiping your bottom in bygone times

Let’s be honest here – almost everyone is secretly fascinated by the question as how people wiped their bottoms in times past, and the recent world wide burst of pandemic inspired panic buying of toilet paper has inspired lots of articles along the lines of this one from Country Life in the UK.

These articles all cover some fairly standard material – the Roman sponge stick, Gayetty’s invention of toilet paper in the mid 1800’s, and how people were originally resistant to the idea of spending good money to wipe your bum, when cheap disposable printed material was readily available.


Gayetty claimed (falsely) that printers ink gave you haemorrhoids and that using his medicated paper lubricated with aloe would avoid the problem.

Most people ignored him and continued to use newspapers and the like – the invention of cheap wood pulp based paper by Charles Fenerty in the mid nineteenth century led to a vast expansion of paper production and cheap printed material, meaning that most people had easy access to scrap paper to use in the toilet.

And of course the toilet would have most likely been a cess pit or bucket type arrangement than a flushing toilet – as in this example in an officer’s house on Norfolk Island


Prior to then most paper was relatively expensive rag based paper (which is why the paper in pre-1860 books and documents is less prone to decay and brittleness and lasts better than many post 1860 papers), and too expensive to be used for such a mundane purpose as cleaning one’s bottom.

Stories from the English Civil War and elsewhere about soldiers profaning prayerbooks and psalters by ripping them up and using them as toilet paper are most likely propaganda from one side or the other – in a religious age the idea of someone using the Book of Common Prayer for such a practice would have seemed sacriligeous in the extreme.

I’ve no doubt that it may have happened – I’m sure that most people would have simply used what was to hand and prayerbooks might have been it – but on the whole most people would have used leaves or bits of rag and moss, and perhaps occasionally bits of scrap paper, but on the whole there wasn’t that much paper around.

The elite might have had access to paper, and scholars might have repurposed used bits of scrap paper, but on the whole most people would simply have used scrap material or leaves.

I suspect, but have no proof, that is one was to compare rural seventeenth and eighteenth century cesspits between those in towns and those in the country one would find more use of scrap material in urban contexts and of organic material such as leaves in rural contexts.

Given the stiffness of most early rag papers, paper in the seventeenth century might not  have been as effective as you might hope and  like Izal and other early hard toilet papers – more suited to scraping than wiping.

Izal of course, horrible hard paper as it was, had the advantage over newsprint that it did not block drains, so it and other similar products gradually took over as people moved from having pit toilets to flushing toilets, even if they were still outside in the back yard and was still in common use until the 1960s and beyond.

Forestry Commission toilets in Scotland well into the seventies used to have this Izal look alike that was printed Government Property – Now wash your hands, and public toilets in England retained Izal style paper for a long time – basically it was thought that it was so unpleasant to use that no one would steal it.

So what we see is a union of two technologies – woodpulp paper to make paper cheap enough to be treated as a disposable product, and flush toilets which required the use of something that could be flushed down the drain without causing a blockage …



About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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