Saturday, August 23, 2014


I’m writing a novel, one that takes place in the 19th century. It’s harder than you might think—not in a general sense, though. After all, people and rivers and oak trees and cows and brick buildings haven’t changed very much.
No, the difficulty is in the detail of everyday life in the mid-1800s.

There are some details that I just never thought about until now—details such as: what did people use for toilet paper?
So I’ve done lots of research on it...

Ancient Romans, who were big on public baths and privies, used a sponge on the end of a stick (now that brings to mind some pretty funny images). It was kept in a trough of salt water that ran in front of rows of privy seats and was used over and over by goodness knows how many people...(and that’s a whole different set of images!).

Richer people used wool (I get a severe rash from wool against my skin; I can’t imagine what would have happened to me if I used it as toilet paper!) and pieces of fabric.
Poorer folks – those who used the great outdoors – used leaves, ferns, clumps of hay or grass. They oftentimes used streams and rivers as direct toilets, sometimes taking off their clothes or simply lifting their skirts, squatting in the rivers, then washing themselves in the river/lake/stream and redressing.

In New England outhouses, our forebears had a bucket or wooden box that hung on the wall that had a collection of rags, corncobs, and loose hay – after wiping, we’d throw whatever we’d used down into the privy hole. Corn cobs were popular; also corn husks, which probably weren’t too awful when recently shucked from the cob, but when they dried out, they must have been dreadful!
In the wintertime, those tough New Englanders used handfuls of snow for cleanliness; the thought of that makes my toes curl.

Later on (or whenever a family ran out of corncobs and hay), pages from catalogs were a popular solution; you could read your Sears catalog while doing your business, then crumple up the page and wipe with it. Somewhere, I read that rich earls and lords in England used pages from real books – none of that low-class catalog paper in those privies!

Some of my cousin’s ancestors were ship captains out of Boothbay Harbor, and they had coils of old halyards and other lines from their schooners. They’d cut the ropes into small pieces and fray the strands, then make a loose ball of threads and use that for wiping, throw it overboard.

But then, in the late 1860s, a trio of innovative brothers named Scott (think of today’s Scott Paper Company) began to manufacture packaged toilet paper—first as individual sheets, then on rolls.
Perforated rolls came along in the 1870s, and by the end of the century, companies such as Sears, Montgomery Ward, Charles Williams Stores and others were all marketing toilet papers in their catalogs:  toilet paper of extra-quality, silk velvet; soft, firm perforated papers with fascinating names – Japps Tissue, Manhattan White Crepe Tissue, White Rose, Snow White Crepe, Nippon Crepe, and Watersmeet Crepe Tissue.

So, the next time you find yourself in the bathroom (john, loo, jake, outhouse, biffy, latrine, W.C., gong, head, privy, necessary or throne room) please give silent thanks to those Scott brothers, the first commercial makers of soothing papers for us all!

Thursday, August 14, 2014


Lucius Wilder Sabin played cornet in a Navy band; he served for years on the Richmond, a wooden steam sloop, flagship of the Asiatic Fleet. Between 1879-1881, the Richmond cruised through the ports of China, Japan and the Philippines, and the men played various concerts throughout the area.
          Lute wrote many letters home to his family in Boston...I’ve transcribed most of them, and am fascinated by his descriptions of Shanghai—his reports of playing in the Public Gardens, at Grand Dinners, at private residences of notables in the city during that time.
          This letter is one of my favorites: a letter Lute wrote to his younger sister, Ethel Sabin, my great-great aunt, who was about five or six years old in 1879...

Shanghai China Nov 9th 1879

Dear little Sister,
          I promised to write to you again and I will do so now. I was very glad to get your letter sometime ago and I said I would answer it right off but I have waited a long time.
          I went into the old Chinese City the other day and saw some funny things there the little Chinese girls dont wear any dresses they have a little sack and little pants their heads are shaved and all the hair they have got is two little tails over their ears and they look funny enough. I went into the Prison and saw some very bad men with great big chains on them and they were all dirty, and looked very bad. I guess you would not like to see them. I saw some pretty toys & playthings for little boys and girls and when I come home I will bring you some of them...
 is most a year since I enlisted and left Boston. I guess I will be home in about a year and a half more. I want to see you and Mother & Father and Brother and Sister very much and you must write to me & tell me all about them...
          Write Soon to
                   Your Absent Brother