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Run Out of Toilet Paper? Use a Stick

toilet paper hoarding

Hoarding toilet paper. Photo: DigitalMammoth/Shutterstock.com

Chances are, you’ve run out of toilet paper, unless you are the type who bought eight boxes of it. Since the coronavirus outbreak, toilet paper has become a commodity more precious than gold, with shelves that hold them emptying faster than those that stock milk. While researchers, psychologists and even economists are collectively scratching their heads over this bizarre behavior, we, on the other hand, have a practical solution for you—use a stick, just like the ancient Chinese and the Japanese have.

The practice of using a wooden spatula or a bamboo stick for anal hygiene dates back to Buddhist times. In the absence of toilet paper, monks cleaned themselves with flattened sticks of bamboo or wood that they used to scrap themselves clean after defecating. People traditionally used rags, leaves, grass, hay, or simply washed themselves off with water. In China and along the Silk Road, archeologists have discovered sticks with pieces of cloth wrapped around the business end. One advantage of using a stick over toilet paper is that the stick can be reused after adequate cleaning. Ancient Romans used a sponge on a stick, and after use, the stick was placed in a pail of vinegar or salt water. The Jews used small pebbles which they carried about themselves in a small bag.

shit stick

Ancient toilet sticks from the Nara period. Photo: Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons

Paper was invented in the 2nd century BCE, and the first documented use of toilet paper dates back to the 6th century CE. In 589 AD, the scholar Yan Zhitui wrote about the use of toilet paper:

Paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from the Five Classics or the names of sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes.

During the 9th century, an Arab traveler to China remarked, somewhat incredulously:

...they [the Chinese] do not wash themselves with water when they have done their necessities; but they only wipe themselves with paper.

In the early 14th century, it was recorded that in what is now Zhejiang province alone, ten million packages of 1,000 to 10,000 sheets of toilet paper were manufactured annually. During the Ming dynasty (1368–1644 AD), it was recorded in 1393 that an annual supply of 720,000 sheets of toilet paper (approximately 2 by 3 feet) were produced for the general use of the imperial court at the capital of Nanjing. The same year, for the Hongwu Emperor's imperial family, 15,000 sheets of special soft-fabric toilet paper was made, and each sheet of toilet paper was perfumed.

A 1792 French Revolutionary caricature, depicting the French population using the “Monarchist Brunswick Manifesto “as toilet paper.

But many people found toilet paper not quite hygienic. In the 16th century, the French satirical writer François Rabelais wrote, through a character in his novel Gargantua and Pantagruel, dismissing the use of paper as ineffective—”Who his foul tail with paper wipes, Shall at his ballocks leave some chips.”

By the 18th century, wiping with paper became the norm, thanks to the rise of publishing which made newspapers and cheap books easily available. Lord Chesterfield, in a letter to his son in 1747, told of a man who purchased

a common edition of Horace, of which he tore off gradually a couple of pages, carried them with him to that necessary place, read them first, and then sent them down as a sacrifice to Cloacina; thus was so much time fairly gained

In many parts of the world, water has started to replace toilet paper, such as in Europe and Japan. Indians have used water since the ancient times. Using water is not only more sanitary than toilet paper, it is also less stressful on the environment. According to a Scientific American article, Americans use 36.5 billion rolls of toilet paper every year, representing some 15 million trees. Manufacture of the paper involves 1.8 trillion liters of water and 253 million tons of chlorine for bleaching. This requires about 17.3 terawatts of electricity annually, and significant amounts of energy and materials in packaging and in transportation to retail outlets. In addition, toilet paper is a public nuisance as it clogs pipes and adds a significant load onto city sewer systems and water treatment plants.

An average person, on the other hand, uses only half a liter of water for cleansing by using a bidet. If everybody stared using water, an entire industry could be eliminated, removing thousands of tons of carbon footprint from the planet.

So in this difficult and trying times, forget the toilet paper. Forget the stick. You might injure yourself. Adopt the bidet.

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