Mussel-shells, corncobs and the Sears catalogue
Before toilet paper wiping your bottom could be a hazardous business, and religious advice hardly helped matters. Richard Smyth sifts through the evidence
In these days of high-end quilted, three-ply, aloe-infused super-wipes, it’s clear we’ve come a long way from the arsewipe Dark Age that preceded the widespread use of paper. In those unenlightened times, mussel-shells and dried corncobs were routinely pressed into service below decks. Once pamphlets, newspapers and (especially in the US) catalogues became widely available, toilet-goers at last had a cushier option, but even here, peril lurked: in 1857, New York entrepreneur Joseph Gayetty issued a fearful warning: “Printer’s ink is a rank poison!” Wiping one’s hindparts with printed matter, he claimed, was a major cause of haemorrhoids, and there was only one thing to be done if you wanted to avert the prospect of debilitating piles: buy Gayetty’s Medicated Paper!
Never mind that this was nothing but salesmanship and cheap quackery. “Toilet paper” was now a thing. The future had arrived. (Not that this meant that a visit to the outhouse was necessarily without its dangers: even as late as the 1930s, Northern Tissue’s claim that their product was “splinter-free!” could be seen as a key selling-point rather than a minimum requirement.)
Today, happily, the risk to the Andrex-user of unexpected perineal spikage is negligible. But your toilet paper can still get you into serious trouble.
For one thing, you might find yourself on the wrong side of the law. The smearing of faecal residue on an object is widely seen by the sensitive-minded to be a sign of disrespect. There you are, minding your own business, nothing more than a mild-mannered bigot with an axe to grind, and all of a sudden you’re up in court, being sentenced – as a German man was in 2006 – for the offence of printing rolls of toilet paper with the word “Koran” written on them.
Conversely, you might become a pawn in a global inter-faith propaganda war when, in the course of occupying the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, you are accused of applying pages from the Bible to your soiled anus, even though you deny it: “I am not ready to hear these dirty accusations” was the response of Jihad Jaara, former Bethlehem chief of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, to the 2002 charge. “It is completely untrue. We believe in the Bible and cannot do such a thing.”
It’s easier to get away with that sort of thing if you’re a puckish knight of the realm – like Sir Ian McKellen, who told a magazine interviewer that he keeps torn-out pages from Leviticus (you know the ones: Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination) hung up on a string in his toilet. “But it’s too much of a curiosity to actually put to use,” he added, disappointingly.
Breaking the laws of man is one thing. But get your bum-wiping really wrong, and you might end up pissing off God. In the Islam tradition, the hadith – a collection of stories and sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad – are second only to the Qur’an in religious authority. Certain hadith can be seen to represent a typical attempt by religious authority to codify a custom that already exists: in this case, the custom is bottom-wiping, and the key hadith can be found in Kitab Al-Taharah (The Book of Purification) by the 9th-century scholar Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj.
Al-Hajjaj travelled widely in the Islamic world to collect more than 300,000 hadith from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Egypt; of these, around 4,000 were authenticated and included in his great work the Sahih, one of the six canonical collections of hadith.
In hadith #458, the Prophet states that, where a person wipes his bottom with pebbles, he must make use of an odd number of pebbles. Hadith #460 elaborates: where pebble-wiping occurs, the number of wipes must also be odd. In #504, it is established that the pebbles must not number fewer than three – and that they must not be wielded in the right hand.
Anyone thinking to bypass the pebble regulations and thoughtfully eyeing alternative materials finds himself stymied by other hadith that forbid the use of charcoal, bone or camel dung for wiping (though it might be thought that anyone seeking to clean his bottom with camel dung would be beyond guidance). A story is told of the Prophet calling for cleansing matter after answering a call of nature; when he is brought some pebbles and a piece of dung, he – not unreasonably – throws away the dung, saying; “This is a filthy thing.”
Before Islam became widely known in the west, its principles were often the subject of great debate among western scholars. One such was Adrianus Reeland (1676-1718), who in his 1712 Four treatises concerning the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Mahometans addressed “most nasty” claims made about Muslim cleaning habits by the Syrian Christian apologist Bartholomew of Edessa: “[Bartholomew] claims that, Mahomet commanded to make clean the Breech five times a day, throwing on the Water with the left Hand; and that the Mouth and Face shou’d be wash’d with the very same Finger, by which the Breech was made clean... ’Tis true, Mahomet commanded that every one, that was ready to go out of the House of Office [i.e. the toilet], should make clean the defil’d parts, which cannot be done without the help of Fingers: But it is false that this must be done five times before the five daily Prayers, unless one goes five times to stool, and that at the same time that Prayers are to be made... Is it nasty to put your Finger to your Mouth, if ’tis well wash’d after touching any unclean thing? What Man in his Senses therefore would blame Mahomet for this?”
Use of the left hand for wiping, and the right for eating and drinking, is endorsed in numerous hadith (Kitab Al-Taharah, for instance, informs us that “the Prophet... used his right hand for getting water for ablution and taking food, and his left hand for his evacuation and for anything repugnant). Marco Polo, while sojourning among the peoples of the east, noted: “They touch not their meat with the left hand, but use only that hand to wipe and other unclean offices.”
Among the Jews of ancient times, meanwhile, the most notable sub-sect in terms of bathroom conduct were the Essens, or Essenes, who flourished in Palestine between around 200 BCE and 100 CE. The Jewish chronicler Flavius Josephus made a study of their strange practices. According to Josephus, they lived in communes, eschewed private property and wedlock, and even raised their children communally. They were devout, restrained in all things, learned and just.
Taking a closer – if not downright intrusive – look, Josephus noted that the Essens “think to be sweaty is a good thing”. He went on to observe that they went to “lonely places” and dug pits in which to relieve themselves. Josephus added wonderingly: “Although this easement of the body be natural, yet it is a rule with them to wash themselves after it, as if it were a defilement to them.” Evidently, the Essens’ “lonely places” were not lonely enough to prevent peeping Josephus from getting an illuminating eyeful.
Neither Christian nor Jewish scripture, sadly, has any specific ordinances on the issue of bottom-wiping. Presumably, the tacit assumption is that the state of a man’s undercarriage is a matter for his own conscience (although the Jewish halakhah or traditional law does cover such key topics as talking in the toilet, washing the hands after using the toilet, and eating food in the toilet; in the modern day, considerable debate exists regarding the use of wet-wipes for babies’ bottoms on the Sabbath).
But Christian tradition may have a closer link with the history of the bunghole-cleanser than many realise. To understand this properly, we need to delve deeper into the pre-Gayetty era, and consider the xylospongion.
This – what the poet Martial called “the luckless sponge on the doomed mop-stick” – was the arsewipe of choice in the classical world, ideal for negotiating the modesty-protecting access holes in a Roman latrine. It was usually kept in a jar of vinegar or brine, ready for use. But it could also be pressed into service in a far darker context.
The statesman Seneca (d. 65CE) tells the tale of a German man, pressed into servitude as a wild-beast gladiator in a Roman amphitheatre. At his training academy one day, the man, during preparations for the next day’s “performance”, took leave of his guards to visit the latrine; there, Seneca reports, he “seized the stick of wood, tipped with a sponge, which was devoted to the vilest uses”, and stuffed it down his throat – “thus he blocked up his windpipe, and choked the breath from his body.” “The foulest death,” Seneca remarks by way of commentary, “is preferable to the fairest slavery.”
A more well-known – but more disputed – case in the Roman province of Judaea may present a further instance of the xylospongion as a symbol of degradation en route to a supposed greater glory.
The Biblical book of Luke (chapter 23, verse 36) reports that, as Jesus hung dying on the cross at Golgotha, “the soldiers... mocked him, coming to him, and offering him vinegar”. The book of John (chapter 19, verses 29-30) goes into more detail: “Now there was set a vessel full of vinegar: and they filled a spunge with vinegar, and put it upon hyssop, and put it to his mouth. When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost.” Chapter 15 of the book of Mark tells the same strange story: “One ran and filled a spunge full of vinegar, and put it on a reed, and gave him to drink.”
It could, of course, be that the Romans simply sought to mock Jesus by offering him vinegar to drink when he craved water. But the symbolism of the “vessel full of vinegar” and the sponge on a reed would surely not have been lost on an audience familiar with the ways of the Roman latrine. In this interpretation, the soldiers’ act was not only cruel mockery but a disgusting insult: the suggestion was that the face of the dying Christ was no more than a backside in need of a wipe.
Technology moves on, in the toilet as everywhere else. Linen and paper displace the brine-soused xylospongion. Mr Gayetty’s quackery renders the dry corncob and the Sears catalogue obsolete. But the symbolism remains a constant: the insult-by-arsewipe still stings as sharply as an unexpected splinter in a fistful of bumfodder.
Richard Smyth‘s book Bum Fodder: An Absorbing History Of Toilet Paper is published by Souvenir Press.