The History of Cleaning Your Butt

US Patent for toilet paper

Toilet paper is one of the greatest inventions ever. The realization that you should be cleaning your backside after waste excretion is not a foreign concept from an evolutionary perspective. If you have a cat or dog, you know that they are notorious for licking their backsides after pooping. In fact, my grandma used to yell at her little chihuahua, "stop licking yo ass," any time she caught him cleaning himself. This brings up a more interesting point. Is cleaning yourself with an external object a foreign concept from an evolutionary perspective? And if so, how, and most importantly, why, do we now use sophisticated butt cleaning mechanisms like bidets, wet wipes, and toilet paper? 


The History Of Wiping Your Butt


Why do we need to wipe our butt? 

Many of humanities greatest innovators such as Einstein and Newton have been fortunate enough to become household names across the world. Unfortunately, we will never be able to identify the first human to slide a finger, hand or foreign object been the butt cheeks. We also will probably never identify the first human to decide it was necessary to wash up after you do number two. As we can see from the above story about my grandma's chihuahua, animals don't really have the habit of wiping after defecating.  

So what separates us from our evolutionary ancestors and the rest of nature? It comes down to our anatomical structure. Over time, we developed thick fatty muscular posteriors that allow us to stand upright. The development of strong gluteal muscles allowed us to become an exclusively bipedal species. This development took some time of course, as Australopithecus was walking around upright for millions of years but had a body that more closely resembled an ape. But as time went on, our ancestors with more sturdier hips survived and evolved into Homo Erectus. Home Erectus has its anal cavity tucked in between two big mounds of flesh sticking out behind the hips. Tucked buttholes experience a problem that exposed buttholes don't: fecal residue might linger in there, and the accumulation of bacteria in such a moist locale could cause infection. Women are especially vulnerable, given the proximity of the exposed vagina and urethra.

History of cleaning your butt. Protruding butts hide the anus which can trap bacteria

(The development of protruding butts hide the anal cavity which can trap bacteria and feces leading to infections.)


It's not hard to imagine that Homo Erectus was probably the first wiper. Understandably, not doing some form of cleaning over time probably lead to some form of discomfort.

So let's fast forward and talk about what ancient society was doing to address this problem. 


Ancient Rome

Way back in Ancient Rome - there were a few basic options for wiping: 

1. Your left hand

2. A handful of moss

3. A leaf from a fig tree

4. A spongia, or a sea sponge connected to a long stick

The extended length of a spongia was due to the design of Roman public toilets, which were long, shared marble benches with holes on top (for pooping), and holes at the front (for sponge-sticking). After completing number two, one retrieved the community spongia, rinsed it in a channel of running water at one’s feet, and pushed the stick between one's butt cheeks to clean the rectum. This is where the term “shit end of the stick” originated. Finally, one gave the spongia another rinse in the community channel and returned it to a bucket of community brine.

Spongia was used by the ancient romans for butt wiping purposes


6th Century China

The Chinese, who are responsible for the invention of an overwhelming amount of modern gadgets, was the first documented use of actual toilet paper. Later, in 851 AD, an Arab traveler to China remarked that “the Chinese do not wash themselves with water when they have done their necessities, but they only wipe themselves with paper.” Toilet paper was officially introduced in China in 1391 when big sheets of paper were produced in Korea for the Chinese royal family for personal hygiene uses. The area now known as the Zhejiang province manufactured ten million packages of between 1,000 and 10,000 sheets of perfumed toilet paper annually.

 Ancient Chinese Toilet Paper

(Early Chinese hemp fiber paper, used for wrapping not writing, on display at the Shaanxi history museum in Xi'An, China. Excavated from the Han Tomb of Wu Di (140-87 BC) at Baqiao, Xi'An. Photo by Yannick Trottier, 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



Before 1800's Eastern Europe & America

Wealthy Eastern Europeans wiped with hemp, lace, and wool, while the 16th-century French writer Francois Rabelais recommended using “the neck of a goose, that is well downed.”  In the late 1800s, French furniture makers invented the bidet, a small sink intended for washing the general downstairs area after using the bathroom.

Despite its popularity in France and certain fancy New York hotels, the bidet never caught on in the wider United States. In rural America, it was still common practice at the time to leave a corncob hanging from a string in the outhouse for people to wipe themselves with. Once the kernels were removed and the cob allowed to dry, the remaining kernel husk was fairly soft — or softer than a rock, at least. 


1800's The Invention Of Toilet Paper 

Before the 1800s, most people would use anything that came to hand to clean their butts. Conventional toilet paper was finally introduced by Joseph C Gayetty in 1857. “Gayetty’s Medicated Paper for the Water Closet” contained aloe and was marketed as a means to cure sores and prevent hemorrhoids, sold in packages of 500, flat, unperforated sheets for fifty cents a box. But Gayetty neglected to file a patent, so in 1891, an inventor named Seth Wheeler from Albany, New York patented a “Wrapping or toilet paper roll,". 

Toilet Paper Patent Showing Over



1900's Perfecting Toilet Paper

Toilet paper was still far from perfect. The 1900s marked the revolution in the evolution of softness for the toilet paper industry

1930 - Northern Toilet Paper was marketed as “splinter-free,” eventually leading to a softness revolution among toilet paper manufacturers.

1948 - "Fluffy,” the Northern cub, started appearing in advertisements.

1973 - Charmin patented a process to make their paper softer through-air-drying, fluffing up the paper in favor of the conventional method of squeezing it flat.

1986 - Georgia Pacific entered the premium toilet paper market with Angel Soft.

1993 - Charmin softened it some more, introducing Ultra Plus with Lotion and Aloe. 

The History of Cleaning Your Butt and Toilet Paper

(In 2003, annual global sales of toilet paper exceeded $19 billion.)


2000's: Electronic Bidets, Flushable Wet Wipes, and Toilet Paper Spray

Today in the age of the internet and over the top marketing, we have a plethora of fancy gadgets that can help improve your wiping experiences. Bidets are now sold as electronic and can be easily attached to your home toilet. Flushable wipes have dominated the hygiene revolution as consumers are now looking for the edge over traditional toilet paper by introducing moisture to their wipe. The interesting thing about flushable wipes is that many municipal governments are now campaigning against the use of "flushable" wet wipes, as they aren't really flushable. This is unfortunate for flushable wipe manufacturers, but fortunate for the environment. In response to this, we are now seeing other alternatives to flushable wipes pop up in the market. Toilet Paper Spray is the newest eco-friendly alternative to the flushable wipes. It's exactly what it sounds like: you simply spray your toilet paper to turn it into an eco-friendly truly flushable wipe.

History of toilet paper.

 (Consumers are looking for ways to make their bathroom trips a 

more pleasant experience)



From the index finger to toilet paper, the history of wiping your butt is filled with interesting innovations in human hygiene. Moving forward, the environment will become a central focus on our hygiene practices. We now know that making paper uses a lot more water than using a bidet and that flushable wipes aren't really flushable. As you upgrade and expand upon your hygiene practices, consider adding moisture to your routine with either a bidet or toilet paper spray. Both of these inventions will help you improve your hygiene and are eco-friendly alternatives to conventional practices. 




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