Toilet paper has always been an unspoken essential item, which is why it was one of the first paper products to be wiped clean from store shelves amidst coronavirus panic-buying. Before TP as we know it was mass-produced, people relied on less-than-pleasant ways to keep clean in the bathroom.
In history, the region and social customs were the main factors in determining what exactly people used in place of modern toilet paper. Some cultures used stones, shells, animal furs, snow, or water.
“The most famous example of ancient ‘toilet paper’ comes from the Roman world [during the first century A.D.] and Seneca's story about the gladiator who killed himself by going into a toilet and shoving the communal sponge on a stick down his throat,” says Erica Rowan, an environmental archaeologist. Those sponges were called tersoriums and were likely used once and then cleaned in a bucket of vinegar, or they were used as a toilet brush.
People in Ancient Rome would sometimes even use pieces of pottery that had their enemies names written on them, as a proverbial act of "soiling upon adversaries." Social class also dictated your bathroom habits in Ancient Rome. “Cloth was made by hand in antiquity so using cloth to wipe your bum would have been quite a decadent activity. It's the equivalent to using the softest and most expensive three-ply today," Rowan said.
The first recorded use of paper as actual toilet paper comes from 6th century China. By the 14th century, China was manufacturing and selling mass amounts of their version of toilet paper, and perfumed sheets were reserved for the Hongwu Emperor and his family.
Toilet paper didn't hit the market in the U.S. until 1857 with the invention of "Medicated Paper, For The Water-Closet."