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The History of Toilet Paper: From Ancient Times to Modern Day

Toilet paper is a staple in modern households, but its journey from rudimentary hygiene solutions to the soft, convenient rolls we use today is fascinating. This article delves into the history of toilet paper, exploring its evolution from ancient practices to modern innovations, and the future trends that could reshape its use.

Early Sanitation Practices

Before toilet paper, various materials were used for personal hygiene, reflecting the resources and cultures of different regions.

Ancient Civilizations

  • Ancient Rome: Romans used a sponge on a stick, known as a tersorium, which was shared in communal latrines and sanitized in saltwater or vinegar. 
  • Ancient Greece: Greeks used stones or pieces of pottery, known as pessoi, for cleaning.

  • Ancient China: The Chinese used paper made from rice straw for hygiene as early as the second century BC. However, water and cloth pieces were more commonly used.

  • Middle Eastern and Indian cultures: These regions traditionally used water for cleansing, a practice that remains widespread today.

Medieval and Renaissance Hygiene

In medieval Europe, hygiene was rudimentary. People relied on natural materials for cleaning.

  • Europe: Materials like hay, moss, and rags were commonly used. Discarded cloth remnants were washed and reused. 
  • Asia: In Japan, wooden sticks called chūgi were used for cleaning. These sticks, about 12-18 inches long, were sometimes intricately carved.

The Birth of Paper for Hygiene

The idea of using paper for hygiene purposes began to take shape in the late medieval and early Renaissance periods.


By the 14th century, during the Ming Dynasty, China was producing toilet paper for the imperial family. Records from 1393 indicate that 720,000 sheets of toilet paper were produced annually for the emperor’s household. Each sheet measured about 2 feet by 3 feet. 


In Europe, the use of paper for hygiene was rare until much later. Initially, paper was a luxury item primarily used for writing.

The Advent of Modern Toilet Paper

The 19th century marked significant advancements in the production and accessibility of toilet paper, particularly in Western countries.

Joseph Gayetty and the First Commercial Toilet Paper

In 1857, Joseph Gayetty, an American inventor, introduced the first commercially packaged toilet paper in the United States. Gayetty’s Medicated Paper, sold in flat sheets, was advertised as an anti-hemorrhoid treatment. 

The Scott Paper Company

In 1890, the Scott Paper Company began selling toilet paper on a roll, revolutionizing its use and convenience. This change set the standard for toilet paper packaging that persists today.

Early 20th Century

By the early 1900s, toilet paper became softer and more absorbent. Manufacturers like Scott, Charmin, and Northern Tissue started to dominate the market. The 1920s saw the introduction of splinter-free toilet paper, addressing a major issue with earlier products.

Post-World War II Innovations

After World War II, significant improvements in toilet paper production and quality were driven by technological advancements and consumer demand for comfort and hygiene.

The 1950s and 1960s

This period saw the introduction of two-ply toilet paper, offering greater softness and strength. Brands like Charmin began marketing toilet paper as a comfort item rather than just a necessity. 

The 1970s and 1980s

The environmental movement led to innovations in recycled toilet paper. Manufacturers started producing toilet paper from recycled fibers, appealing to eco-conscious consumers.

The Modern Toilet Paper Industry

Today, the toilet paper industry is a multibillion-dollar global market, with continual innovations in softness, strength, and sustainability.

Global Production

The global toilet paper market is dominated by a few key players, including Procter & Gamble (Charmin), Kimberly-Clark (Cottonelle), and Georgia-Pacific (Angel Soft). These companies invest heavily in research and development to improve product quality and environmental impact. 

Environmental Concerns

Modern consumers are increasingly concerned about the environmental impact of toilet paper production. Deforestation and chemical use in paper bleaching are significant issues. As a result, there is a growing market for eco-friendly options, such as bamboo toilet paper and recycled toilet paper.

Technological Innovations

Advances in technology have led to ultra-soft, ultra-strong toilet paper that caters to consumer preferences for luxury and comfort. Some brands now offer hypoallergenic and fragrance-free options for sensitive skin.

The Future of Toilet Paper

Several trends are shaping the future of toilet paper, driven by sustainability, technology, and changing consumer preferences.


The push for sustainable products will continue to grow. Innovations in biodegradable materials, such as bamboo and hemp, are likely to become more mainstream. Companies are also investing in reducing the carbon footprint of their production processes. 

Bidets and Alternatives

Bidets, common in many parts of the world, are gaining popularity in the West. The bidet market is expected to grow as more people seek alternatives to traditional toilet paper for environmental and hygiene reasons. Additionally, wet wipes and reusable cloths are becoming popular alternatives.

Technological Integration

Smart toilets with built-in bidets, air dryers, and other hygiene features are becoming more common. These toilets, equipped with sensors and automatic functions, aim to enhance hygiene and comfort. 


The history of toilet paper is a testament to human ingenuity and our continuous pursuit of comfort and cleanliness. From the primitive methods of ancient times to the sophisticated products of today, toilet paper has evolved dramatically. As environmental concerns and technological advancements shape its future, we can expect even more innovations in this seemingly simple, yet essential product.

Toilet paper may seem mundane, but its history reflects broader changes in human society. It’s a story of adaptation, innovation, and the constant quest for a better standard of living. As we continue to innovate, the humble toilet paper will undoubtedly remain an integral part of our daily lives, evolving to meet the needs of future generations.

Additional Information

  • Sources:

    • "The Encyclopedia of Toilet Paper"
    • "The Story of Sanitation: A History of Cleanliness and Hygiene"
    • "Toilet Paper: The Biography" by Richard Smyth