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.
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
pages from real books – none of that low-class catalog paper in those privies! England
Some of my cousin’s ancestors were ship captains out of
, 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. Boothbay Harbor
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!