CLOSE
ThinkStock
ThinkStock

What Did People Use Before Toilet Paper?

ThinkStock
ThinkStock

Using the bathroom has come a long way from when ancient Greeks used stones and pieces of clay for personal hygiene. Toilet paper is one of those things that often gets taken for granted in modern times, except for places Charmin has yet to infiltrate. This is definitely one of those unavoidable things in life, so through many centuries and in many cultures, everyone had their own method of staying clean. Be warned: We’re going to get specific.

Ancient Romans were a bit more sophisticated than the Greeks when it came to cleansing: They opted for a sponge on the end of a long stick that was shared by everyone in the community. When not in use, that stick stayed in a bucket of heavily salted seawater in the communal bathroom. The public facilities were also equipped with a long marble bench with holes carved out for—well, you know what they were carved out for—and holes at the front for your sponge on a stick to slide through. Romans didn’t have dividing walls, either, so you sat right next to that cute girl from the insulae down the road.

Around 1391, during the Song Dynasty, a Chinese emperor decreed that large 2-foot-by-3-foot paper sheets must be made for his toilet time. Until then, people in China just used random paper products.

By the era of Colonial America, things weren’t much more advanced. After the rebels had left Great Britain for the colonies, the best things they could find were corncobs. Ouch. It wasn’t until later that they realized they could use old newspapers and catalogues. The whole reason there was a hole through the corner of the Old Farmer’s Almanac was so people would be able to hang it on a hook in their outhouses. (It makes you look at your current bathroom reading material a little differently, doesn't it?)

Even though Queen Elizabeth I’s godson invented one of the first flush toilets in 1596, commercially produced toilet paper didn’t begin circulating until 1857.

Quilted Northern, formerly Northern Tissue, advertised as late as 1935 that their toilet paper was “Splinter-Free!” Since the company is still big in the multiple-ply, multi-billion dollar industry today, the marketing plan must have been a success – splinter-free was obviously in very high demand. Now, Americans actually use more than seven billion rolls of toilet paper a year.

One culture today still doesn’t want anything to do with toilet paper; it’s widely known that many in India (except for Westerners who visit) use the left-hand-and-bucket-of-water method. Most actually argue that using water is cleaner than using tissue paper, and consider using anything but water to be filthy.

Today we can buy luxury bathroom bonuses like paperless toilets and heated toilet seats—so there’s no going back to the brush-on-a-stick days.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
What Is the Meaning Behind "420"?
iStock
iStock

Whether or not you’re a marijuana enthusiast, you’re probably aware that today is an unofficial holiday for those who are. April 20—4/20—is a day when pot smokers around the world come together to, well, smoke pot. Others use the day to push for legalization, holding marches and rallies.

But why the code 420? There are a lot of theories as to why that particular number was chosen, but most of them are wrong. You may have heard that 420 is police code for possession, or maybe it’s the penal code for marijuana use. Both are false. There is a California Senate Bill 420 that refers to the use of medical marijuana, but the bill was named for the code, not the other way around.

As far as anyone can tell, the phrase started with a bunch of high school students. Back in 1971, a group of kids at San Rafael High School in San Rafael, California, got in the habit of meeting at 4:20 to smoke after school. When they’d see each other in the hallways during the day, their shorthand was “420 Louis,” meaning, “Let’s meet at the Louis Pasteur statue at 4:20 to smoke.”

Somehow, the phrase caught on—and when the Grateful Dead eventually picked it up, "420" spread through the greater community like wildfire. What began as a silly code passed between classes is now a worldwide event for smokers and legalization activists everywhere—not a bad accomplishment for a bunch of high school stoners.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
Why Is a Pineapple Called a Pineapple?
iStock
iStock

by James Hunt

Ask an English-speaking person whether they've heard of a pineapple, and you'll probably receive little more than a puzzled look. Surely, every schoolchild has heard of this distinctive tropical fruit—if not in its capacity as produce, then as a dessert ring, or smoothie ingredient, or essential component of a Hawaiian pizza.

But ask an English-speaking person if they've ever heard of the ananas fruit and you'll probably get similarly puzzled looks, but for the opposite reason. The average English speaker has no clue what an ananas is—even though it's the name given to the pineapple in almost every other major global language.

In Arabic, German, French, Dutch, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Swedish, Turkish—even in Latin and Esperanto—the pineapple is known as an ananas, give or take local variations in the alphabet and accents. In the languages where it isn't, it's often because the word has been imported from English, such as in the case of the Japanese パイナップル (painappuru) and the Welsh pinafel.

So how is it that English managed to pick the wrong side in this fight so spectacularly? Would not a pineapple, by any other name, taste as weird and tingly?

To figure out where things went wrong for English as a language, we have to go back and look at how Europeans first encountered the fruit in question, which is native to South America. It was first catalogued by Columbus's expedition to Guadeloupe in 1493, and they called it piña de Indes, meaning "pine of the Indians"—not because the plant resembled a pine tree (it doesn't) but because they thought the fruit looked like a pine cone (umm, ... it still doesn't. But you can sort of see it.)

Columbus was on a Spanish mission and, dutifully, the Spanish still use the shortened form piñas to describe the fruit. But almost every other European language (including Portuguese, Columbus's native tongue) decided to stick with the name given to the fruit by the indigenous Tupí people of South America: ananas, which means "excellent fruit."

According to etymological sources, the English word pineapple was first applied to the fruit in 1664, but that didn't end the great pineapple versus ananas debate. Even as late as the 19th century, there are examples of both forms in concurrent use within the English language; for example, in the title of Thomas Baldwin's Short Practical Directions For The Culture Of The Ananas; Or Pine Apple Plant, which was published in 1813.

So given that we knew what both words meant, why didn't English speakers just let go of this illogical and unhelpful linguistic distinction? The ultimate reason may be: We just think our own language is better than everyone else's.

You see, pineapple was already an English word before it was applied to the fruit. First used in 1398, it was originally used to describe what we now call pine cones. Hilariously, the term pine cones wasn't recorded until 1694, suggesting that the application of pineapple to the ananas fruit probably meant that people had to find an alternative to avoid confusion. And while ananas hung around on the periphery of the language for a time, when given a choice between using a local word and a foreign, imported one, the English went with the former so often that the latter essentially died out.

Of course, it's not too late to change our minds. If you want to ask for ananas the next time you order a pizza, give it a try (though we can't say what you'd up with as a result).

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios