What's the story about toilet paper?

Dear Matthew:

Is it true that in certain parts of the world, toilet paper is not an option, but rather the left hand is the primary wiping instrument? (With a subsequent rinsing in water-- running, I would hope.) Also, so as to not imply judgment from my Western point of view, when did toilet paper get invented, and how did we get along before that? We were discussing this over doughnuts in the office and would really like to know.

--Manuel Andrade, at work

No need to do the PC tap dance, Manuel. Truth is, the world's bum washers consider us bum wipers to be a horde of unsanitary primitives. What's more, they say, our Western toilets are ridiculous, badly designed devices. In much of the world, most notably the Middle East, India, and east through south Asia, a hole in the floor (with footprints helpfully painted on to help your aim) and a pitcher of water for the final clean-up is considered ergonomically optimal and far more hygienic. In these countries, with or without Western toilets and TP, the left hand is used for all ablutions, so it is a profound insult to eat with your left hand or even use it to hand someone a newspaper or the like. You may as well stick your left hand in your pocket and forget you have one.

The first paper made specifically for the bathroom appeared in the U.S. in 1857 in the form of packets of individual stacked sheets delicately called "therapeutic paper." The British pushed the TP-design envelope with rolls of perforated paper in 1879, but we mostly ignored it, since we already had catalogs, corn cobs, newspapers, etc. stacked in the outhouse. Why spend money for special paper? The next try, by the Scott paper company, came in the 1880s, when the modern ceramic toilet was a necessity in fine hotels and increasingly in the home. Scott's timing was perfect, and toilet paper became a domestic staple. A quick scan of TP history indicates that Chinese emperors used rice paper bum wipe in the 1300s; Vikings used shells and wood; ancient Romans used sponges; and the French court used lace.

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