It’s one of the first things we learn as kids: everybody poops. You, me, your mom, the President – everyone.
But we don’t all, uh, deal with it in the same way. If you’re reading this in the good ol’ US of A then you likely use toilet paper to wipe your butt after a number two. Elsewhere in the world, the bidet reigns supreme – and over in Japan, things can be so high-tech and complex that the flush and clean-up routine comes with its own instruction manual.
One thing all these methods have in common is that they use technology. Sure, you may not think of paper as technology, but it is – and it’s one that didn’t make it to Europe and America for quite a while.
Even in China, where it was originally invented nearly two millennia ago, and the Islamic world which embraced it pretty soon afterward, people weren’t generally in the habit of using it to clean their butts: it wasn’t until 1857 that the first purpose-made toilet paper appeared in the world.
Which raises the question: what did people use before paper?
While butts and what comes out of them are undeniably a universal phenomenon, historically speaking the methods for cleaning them have varied for a few reasons – including local customs, social hierarchies, and even climate.
In China, for instance, those at the very top of the social ladder were using toilet paper as far back as the sixth century CE; meanwhile the Chinese hoi polloi – which we suppose would actually be the ??? – were left to deal with spatula-like bamboo sticks for their personal hygiene needs.
However, even more squirm-inducing to modern eyes is the preferred Roman method of wiping: the tersorium. Other names for this device include the xylospongium, or, in modern English, the “sponge on a stick.” Which you shared with everybody else.
“The most famous example of ancient ‘toilet paper’ comes from the Roman world,” University of London environmental archaeologist Erica Rowan told History, also recounting "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.”
Find yourself needing to go in an Ancient Roman city, and you’d probably have to rush off to the nearest public toilet – a place that “must have been pretty dirty places – excrement and urine on the seats and floor, poor lighting … Surely, not someplace one would want to spend much time,” Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, a professor of classical studies at Brandeis University and something of a Roman toilet expert, told The Atlantic.
There would have been a bucket of vinegar or saltwater in the center to plop the tersorium into between uses, and there were no stalls or dividers – not even the weird gappy ones the rest of the world thinks Americans are weird for tolerating.
Basically, you’d just be sitting there, doing your business next to a bunch of strangers all similarly indisposed, and waiting until your turn to use the sponge.
If sponges on a stick aren’t your thing, there was an alternative. Pessoi – meaning “pebbles” for reasons which are about to become clear – were another favored option for Ancient Greeks and Romans in need of a quick wipe. These were small stones or bits of ceramic, and they were used precisely how you’re hoping they weren’t.
“Use of a pessos can still be seen on a Greek cylix (wine cup) … dating from 6th century BC,” explains a 2012 BMJ article on the ancient instruments. “[It] shows a man, semi-squatting with his clothing raised. The man is maintaining his balance with a cane in his right hand and is clearly wiping his buttocks using a pessos with his left hand.”
Now, on the plus side, at least nobody else was using your pessoi – and there’s some evidence people might have written the names of their enemies on the ceramic shards before covering them in their feces, which must have imparted a certain pleasant smugness. On the other hand, wiping your ass with something we just described as “ceramic shards” had some unsurprising drawbacks.
“The abrasive characteristics of ceramic suggest that long term use of pessoi could have resulted in local irritation, skin or mucosal damage, or complications of external haemorrhoids,” the BMJ article details. “Maybe this crude and satiric description by Horace in his 8th epode (1st century BC) – ‘an ass at the centre of dry and old buttocks mimicking that of a defecating cow’ – refers to complications arising from such anal irritation.”
Lovely! Here’s to triple-ply, we say.