What did people use before toilet paper was invented?

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Dear Cecil: This is entirely on the level. It is also the kind of question only you can answer. What did people use before toilet paper was invented? Name withheld, Baltimore


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Thank your lucky stars you live in the twentieth century, bucko. Let me tell you about … corncobs. You may not believe this, but it was once common practice in rural America to leave a corncob hanging from a string in the outhouse for purposes of personal hygiene. The string, I gather, was to permit the cob to be reused. For those who were punctilious in these matters, or else blessed with an abundance of corncobs, a box of disposable cobs might be provided instead. In coastal regions, the cob might be replaced by a mussel shell.

For those who had access to it, paper from discarded books or newspapers was often preferred to either of the foregoing. The meteoric growth of the Sears Roebuck company, for instance, is thought to be partly attributable to the protean nature of its catalogs, which, historians tells us, might serve a family of regular habits for an entire season. As with the cob, the catalog would be hung in the outhouse on a string and pages torn off as needed. It’s said the use of coated stock, which was nonabsorbent, was a source of great consternation to farm families when Sears began printing color pictures in the catalog earlier in this century.

English lords, in attempting to teach their sons to be cultivated gentlemen, often advised purchasing an inexpensive volume of verse for use in the loo. The idea, of course, was that while you were sitting there in a contemplative state you’d be able to read a few stanzas, following which the paper could be put to other ends, so to speak. It hasn’t escaped my notice that my magnum opus, The Straight Dope: A Compendium of Human Knowledge, is also well suited for this purpose. Maybe we should perforate the pages, for maximum comfort and ease.

For more data on this fascinating topic, see An Irreverent and Almost Complete Social History of the Bathroom (1983), by Frank Muir.

Fun with corncobs, part two

Dear Cecil:

Re your column about substitutes for toilet paper: I do not know how much comment you want to spare on this topic, but if you would like to read one of the most hilarious discussions ever written on the best thing to cleanse oneself with, you should go straight to Rabelais. He has a whole chapter devoted to the subject, with a very surprising Number One choice.

— Steve S., Los Angeles

You refer to chapter 13 of Gargantua, the cockeyed epic by Francois Rabelais (1483?-1553). Frank’s reputation as a comic genius is proof that if you tell enough dirty jokes, write in French, and wait 400 years, posterity will proclaim you one of civilization’s leading lights. In the chapter in question, the giant Gargantua tells of his efforts to find the ultimate in sanitary comfort:

Once I did wipe me with a gentlewoman’s velvet mask, and found it to be good; for the softness of the silk was very voluptuous and pleasant to my fundament. Another time with one of their hoods, and in like manner that was comfortable; at another time with a lady’s neckerchief, and after that some ear-pieces made of crimson satin; but there was such a number of golden spangles in them that they fetched away all the skin off my tail with a vengeance. This hurt I cured by wiping myself with a page’s cap, garnished with a feather after the Swiss fashion. Afterwards, in dunging behind a bush, I found a March-cat, and with it daubed my breech, but her claws were so sharp that they grievously exulcerated my perineum. Of this I recovered the next morning thereafter, by wiping myself with my mother’s gloves, of a most excellent perfume of Arabia. [He continues in this vein for several pages.] But to conclude, I say and maintain that of all arse-wisps, bum-fodders, tail-napkins, bung-hole-cleansers and wipe-breeches, there is none in this world comparable to the neck of a goose, that is well downed, if you hold her head betwixt your legs: and believe me therein upon mine honour; for you will thereby feel in your nockhole a most wonderful pleasure, both in regard of the softness of the said down, and of the temperate heat of the goose; which is easily communicated to the bumgut and the rest of the intestines, insofar as to come even to the regions of the heart and brains. And think not that the felicity of the heroes and demigods, in the Elysian fields, consisteth either in their Ambrosia or Nectar, but in this, that they wipe their tails with the necks of geese.

And you guys think I’m a kink.

Fun with corncobs, part three

Dear Cecil:

Your recent response to the question, “Was there life before toilet paper?” was not quite the rest of the story. Perhaps you’ve gotten a little behind in your research, but there are at least a billion folks in South Asia and elsewhere who have never had their tushes in contact with Charmin, Cottonelle, or for that matter page 207 of the old Sears catalog.

I became aware of these cultural differences on an early morning trip to Santa Cruz airport north of Bombay, India, many years ago. In dawn’s first faint glow, and half-asleep, I peered out the window of the airport bus to view a vast field covered with what appeared to be thousands of storks, or possibly giant egrets, apparently waking. A closer inspection, however, revealed not birds but thousands of white-clad citizens, clutching their dhotis and saris as they stooped to perform an act common to all humankind. They had, as far as I could see, no folded pieces of paper, no catalogs, nor half-rolls of toilet paper, such as I prudently carried in my briefcase. Rather they carried with them small brass pitchers filled with water. These folks, I might add, were inhabitants of tiny, makeshift hovels clustered around Bombay’s outskirts — squatter’s settlements, so to speak.

Later in my trip I sought the services of an Indian physician for a persistent problem of an alimentary nature. After I described my symptoms, he wanted a sample for microscopic inspection. Observing my furtive glance for a handy roll of tissue, he sternly lectured me on the unhygienic way we Westerners tend to these matters in contrast to the Asian way of using water and the left hand. Thank heavens, since I am somewhat ambidextrous, I remembered to use my right hand while fishing in my billfold for some rupees to pay him and in shaking hands while leaving.

More could be added, particularly on the muscular coordination and dexterity required to perform in the middle of an open field without, for example, rocking back on your heels or worse. Practice, I gather, makes perfect. For further insight on this question, consult Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar.

— Philip T., Fairfax, Virginia

Another example of the brutal indignities heaped upon us longsuffering lefthanders. We bear it quietly — for now.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.