I was actually going to talk about the history of toilet paper - how it was developed and changed over time - but given the last few weeks of toilet paper hoarding, addressing the alternatives out there seems to be the most appropriate step.
It is fair to say that toilet paper is an essential staple in the lives of many in the 21st Century. If there is one thing we have learned over these last couple of weeks it’s that people actually think that they need toilet paper to survive. But - believe it or not - long before toilet paper was invented, we somehow got by. How did we do it? Let’s explore that now by taking a brief look at pre-toilet paper history.
Before the advent of modern toilet paper at the end of the 19th Century, a variety of materials were used for the same purposes. Different materials were used depending upon the country, weather conditions, social customs and status of people.
The first documented use of toilet paper in human history dates back to early medieval China in the 6th century AD. They originally made toilet paper with bamboo, then mixed the bamboo with cotton linen rags soaked in water. Then they smashed these materials with wood.
Toilet paper only became really popular in China from the fourteenth century when the Imperial Court of the Ming Dynasty started having it manufactured for the purpose. In 1393 the Court ordered no fewer than 720,000 sheets to be made to keep the royal seat clean. The astonishing thing is that each sheet measured the equivalent of 60 cm by 90 cm. That's nearly 26,000 square miles of paper! The Emperor Hong Wu was particularly delicate in his habits and ordered 15,000 sheets to be made especially soft and perfumed for his personal use.
Other civilizations were not as adept at making their own toilet paper so early on in history, and made do with other alternatives:
With this history in mind it is important to remember that, while we may not be using primitive alternatives like our ancestors (unless you go camping, of course!), many people around the world are already living with minimal toilet paper, and have been doing this for some time.
In many European countries today, the use of toilet paper is considered dirty and unhygienic, as well as terribly bad for plumbing systems and the environment. The bidet is the most commonly used apparatus as an alternative to toilet paper.
In these countries the most common practice is a thorough, soapy wash and rinse afterwards using a 'bidet.' This is a sort of low basin with hot water tap and soap that you sit on and is usually placed next to the toilet for convenience. In fact, many countries do not flush toilet paper down the toilet and will have special waste bins to place used toilet paper. I remember this was the custom in Greece. It was quite the eye-opener but it became the norm for me while I was there.
Bidets are also commonly found in Middle Eastern countries and throughout East Asia, especially in Japan. According to estimates, bidets are present in about 80 percent of bathrooms in these areas. That’s got to make for some less clogged plumbing systems.
The bidet is believed to have originated in France in the early 1700s, which is also where it found its name. Bidet means “horse” in French, or more specifically a “cob,” which is a strong, short-legged horse. More specifically, the term is a visual allusion to how one is supposed to use the contraption.
The bidet hasn’t become popular in Canada or the United States yet. Because the fixture was a French invention, it was rejected by the English, and that sentiment could have drifted across the pond. It has been noted by The Times newspaper that during World War II, American soldiers saw bidets in European brothels, "perpetuating the idea that bidets were somehow associated with immorality.”
Perhaps this is one reason the bidet has not yet taken off. Another would likely be the ick factor for many at the thought of washing their dirty bum with water. Despite this, the bidet is still one of the cleanest methods for washing this. Many of those who get used to bidets say they will never go back to using toilet paper. And, considering how many bidet attachments are currently on sale, now is probably the perfect time to upgrade.
This cloth is more accurately referred to as “family cloth” and is used by people who are trying to be as frugal and/or eco-friendly as possible. The idea is to use cloth rags to wipe yourself, then wash them afterward so you can continually reuse the fabric.
Soft fabric sourced from old flannel diapers or nightgowns alson works well for this, but you can also use towels, washcloths, or even old T-shirts. Whatever you chose, simply rip the fabric into suitable sizes and trim them with pinking shears to prevent fraying.
For many, using a bidet seat becomes a more eco-friendly bathroom option because it means you can potentially give up toilet paper altogether, opting for reusable rags that can be stored in a sleek bucket with sanitizing water (even a splash of vinegar does the trick) until you add them to your laundry later. Used in connection with the bidet, this could be an effective way to get by without toilet paper indefinitely. Just make sure the fabric doesn’t accidentally get flushed down the toilet, and don’t mix them with your regular laundry when washing.
As well as the bidet and cloths, there are some other alternatives that may be appropriate for some.
Compressed Toilet Paper Coins
This is a neat invention! These paper coins are lightweight and can be reconstituted with 1 tablespoon of any liquid (preferably water). They will instantly grow into a wipe which you can bury afterward since they are biodegradable. If you buy them in bulk, you can get a great deal. Store some of these in your Bug Out and Bug In Kits, keep some in your car and your hiking backpack.
Cotton Wet wipes, although not always made from cotton, and not to be flushed down the toilet, are one of my favourite alternatives to toilet paper. In the same way that they thoroughly clean a baby’s bottom, they can be used to sanitize yours. They have multiple uses that make it a worthy item to keep in your emergency kit for disaster scenarios, as well as great to use while camping. If they’re stored for too long and end up drying out, you can reconstitute their moisture by adding a little bit of boiling water.
Paper If you don’t have any toilet paper, just use another kind of paper. Paper towels, newspapers, phone books, notebook paper, printer paper, envelopes, etc. Look around the house and see what you can find. Some people have suggested using books, but I have too much respect for books to recommend that. Maybe as a last resort, but first look for other options. Obviously again, paper should not be flushed down the toilet as it could compromise your plumbing system, causing drain clogs and the need for a plumber.
Water Spray As with the bidet, water is a great way to get the bum cleaned. You just need to wipe the area clean with a rag/cloth afterwards. Water sprays are handy if you don’t have a bidet attachment. A lot of care facilities use no-rinse, deodorizing full-body shampoo and perineal cleansing foam - available from most medical supply stores and online. This is a good alternative, but can be expensive. To save money, you can make your own at home. Some people have found a spray containing water mixed with 1 part baby shampoo, parts water very effective. There is also a recommended recipe for bum spray :
Nature There are also things that work for camping that could work at home, with a bit of careful planning, and depending on where you live.
Plant leaves Before you pick a random leaf from the wild, make sure you properly identify it to make sure it’s not poisonous. If the plant isn’t poisonous but is growing near a poisonous one, steer clear. If you can’t properly identify the plant, it’s better to find something else. Note that the plants with fuzzy leaves can cause irritation to those who have sensitive skin. Some of the best plants to use are: banana leaves (they’re big, soft and smooth), banana peels, sage leaves (they’re fragrant and soft), maple leaves, cottonwood leaves, large-leaved aster, lamb’s ear (this plant is also used for medicinal purposes), and mullein leaves (this plant is soft, large, and water absorbent. It has health benefits too).
Moss If you have access to moss, that is a great substitute for toilet paper. You can generally pick the moss up in a chunk and wipe with it. You just need to be careful that the moss doesn't fall apart while you are using it.
Snow An outdoor enthusiast’s favorite natural toilet paper, snow is easy to find in season and refreshing to use. The best is the kind you'd use to make a snowman: Roll a snowball and go to town. Just remember to wash your hands afterwards. Perhaps in the future, some bright spark will make a toilet appliance that makes snow to use as an alternative to toilet paper.
Stones Rocks are available almost anywhere - you just have to look for the right ones. You're looking for a good-size, smooth specimen, about the size of a lacrosse ball. Beware of sandstone, which can provide an, ahem, exfoliating experience.
Seashells In the 1993 movie, Demolition Man, there is a classic scene where Sylvester Stallone’s character uses the toilet of the future. He was surprised to find that there was no toilet paper and that the future civilization had a system that involved three seashells. The actual procedure of how to use the shells was never disclosed but it made for a hilarious scene.
As you can see, there are other options to explore for alternatives to toilet paper. People have survived without this for centuries and we are already surviving without this today in many parts of the world. If we all took a step towards embracing the alternatives, the empty toilet paper aisle certainly wouldn’t seem half as bad after all.