Things That Make Your Head Hurt- Episode 1: One Sheet or Two?

Person sitting on toilet
This episode is the first in the category ‘Things that make your head hurt’.  These are things that just seem so unreal you get a headache just thinking about them.  COVID showed us just how important toilet paper has become to modern-day living.  It was one of the most hoarded commodities during COVID shutdowns.

Ever wondered where toilet paper came from?   Read on …
Hello again and so glad you came back.   Thanks for staying subscribed; so far so good.
Thank you!


One Sheet or Two?

Not so much as makes your head hurt as it makes your eyes water.  Ever wondered about what the early pioneers used instead of toilet paper and when did we get the luxury of toilet paper?
Toilet paper is an important part of modern life, as the toilet paper wars associated with COVID lockdowns showed.  We have a phobia about being without toilet paper!

Although humans have wiped their bums for as long as we’ve been on earth, our approaches haven’t always been as simple (or comfortable) as grabbing some paper from the roll while you sit on your porcelain throne.  Instead, the ways we’ve wiped have been dictated by culture, climate, your place in the social hierarchy, and frankly, whatever was available at the time. So, what did we use before we had the luxury of triple strength and Flushable Wipes®?
Not that you would have any clues, because in movies you hardly ever see people go to the toilet.  You rarely hear people in a movie say “Excuse me, I just have to go to the toilet,” and even when people are on a do-or-die mission for days, this seems like a taboo subject to include in the script.
But back to the story.  Turns out, we used anything and everything before toilet paper.  Not much is known about how cavemen wiped their butts. But it stands to reason early humans used whatever was on hand. Leaves, sticks, moss, sand, and water were common choices, depending on the early humans’ environment.


What the Romans used before toilet paper

The first well-documented example of what people used pre-toilet paper comes from A.D. – or Roman times, to be exact. Romans used what was called a “Tersorium” – a sea sponge stuck on the end of a stick kept in either a bucket of salt water or vinegar. As the latrines for all but the elite were communal, tersoriums were shared (now that makes your head hurt!).
Now if you have ever picked up a sea sponge on the beach and put vinegar or salt brine on a cut, it is a deadly combination.  Needless to say, illness from intestinal disease was commonplace in those times.


Scraping methods

In China, wooden sticks were used for ‘scraping’ with the assistance of a piece of cloth (a Chinese version of a tersorium).  Not to be outdone, the Greeks used pieces of ceramic.  Some people had the names of their enemies written on them before they were used.  People who lived on islands or on the coast used shells and a scraping technique.  People indigenous to cold areas used snow, and sailors used ‘tow rags’ – a long piece of frayed rope that was used and then dropped back in the ocean for a ‘freshen up’!
Once agriculture was developed, options abounded – like hay and corn husks, but in Europe, they went the way of water.  Still to this day, the use of water (and not paper is common); bidets are widely used in many countries. In some countries I have been to, China and Taiwan, to name two, toilets are so sophisticated they have a control panel and do just about everything except actually go for you!
As an aside, my first experience with the ‘control panel toilet’ (come on confess, you have all tried it if you have the opportunity) was actually quite daunting.  As if the blast of cold water wasn’t enough to grab your attention, the burst of hot air afterward on your vitals certainly gets your attention.  So my advice, check the manual before you operate this machinery.

And then there was toilet paper:

Toilet paper was invented for the rich and famous in the 6th century in China, but it wasn’t until the 15th century that modern toilet paper became available in the Western world.  Joseph Gayetty of New York marketed packs of 500 sheets for 50 cents.  No doubt he got the idea from people using the Sears catalogue in outhouses, but when the catalogue began to be printed on glossy paper, well, let’s just say it didn’t do the same job.  Maybe it was from the Farmer’s Almanac that conveniently came with a pre-drilled hole to allow it to be pinned to outhouse walls.
Today much of the Western world still depends on toilet paper and despite the technology not advancing much over the last 100 years.  It is still a process of taking strong fibres from trees and using harsh chemicals to make them softer.  The fluffier and whiter your toilet paper, the more likely it is to contain high amounts of chemicals.

But who cares if it feels good – right?

I remember running a practical class when I was teaching microbiology to pharmacy students looking at the ability of multiple sheets of toilet paper to stop the transmission of bugs and germs.  They still get through whether it is one sheet or even five sheets!  So ‘Wash your hands, Geoffrey!”

Next time you visit the magic room, one sheet is as good as two, at least for the environment!

Who would have thunk it – right?
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Till next time,





©Copyright C London March 2024

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Calvin London

Calvin runs a boutique consulting company. He is an established author of over 50 publications but started this site to explore the lighter side of life and all the curious things it has to offer. He is developing a career as a freelance writer.