Wipe: A Brief History of Toilet Hygiene – Chapter Three: Classical Era (~3200 BCE – ~300 CE)

NOTE: Sometime in mid- to late-April I’ll be publishing Wipe: A Brief History of Toilet Hygiene in the Hillsborough River Press 1-Hour Read series. It is currently in the editing stage. But, since it’s mostly complete, I thought I’d post it here as a series. This blog version has all the bibliographic citations stripped out. The ebook will include references to all the resources I drew from to write this long essay/short book. I’ll publish a chapter every other day.

Another reason to publish it serially on this blog is that seeing it in a different format often allows me to see errors of grammar, spelling, and thought. If you have any feedback, I’d love to hear it! Thanks, all. Hope you enjoy.

###

CHAPTER THREE: CLASSICAL ERA (~3200 BCE – ~300 CE)

Currently, the oldest known urban bathroom is believed to be the one found in an excavated religious complex in the city of Uruk. This toilet is about 5200 years old. It’s not much to look at right now being only a deep cylindrical pit in a small room.

There is not a long history of toilet analysis in archeology. It is only within the last few decades that archeologists have raised the question of why more hasn’t been written or discovered about ancient toilets. Alex Scobie, writing in the 1980s surmises that this is due to lingering Victorian embarrassment about toilet hygiene. Perhaps because of Victorian embarrassment, research on toilets and their accoutrements was largely neglected during the 19th and most of the 20th century.

ANCIENT GREEKS

The ruins of Pompeii have given us some insight to understanding ancient Greek toilet habits. Almost every house had a small room for toilet necessities in or near the kitchen. These rooms were small, doorless, and unventilated. Much like the toilet discovered at Uruk, they consisted mostly of pits dug directly beneath the latrine itself.

The bench above the hole most likely was keyhole shaped rather than a simple circle.

While some scholars assert no water was used to “flush” these toilets, others suggest that some distinctive pots found in some archeological digs might indicate that water was used during the toilet process. Some assert that these juglets were used exclusively to ‘flush’.

However, these juglets of water were kept in private bathrooms, and might have been kept there very possibly for the same reason lota pots are kept in contemporary bathrooms.

“The use of water juglets to clean oneself was a much more hygienic alternative. These juglets were found in drains of a private toilet in Ephesus and in a public toilet in Ordona. The juglets were probably used in the way they operate in present day Turkey and in modern Arab countries. One hand is used to pour out water at the back and the other hand is used from the front to wash off the faeces. In this way the juglets themselves remains clean, only one hand would need to be washed off afterwards in the gutter at the feet of the toilet.”

The purpose of the juglet may have been neglected by western scholars because of their proclivity for wiping instead of washing placed the use of the juglet out of personal context.

Greeks might have occasionally used stones as well. Some have speculated shards of pottery might have been used. Some might have been a form of placing a curse on a person by writing their name on the shard and then wiping your ass the shard (or ostraca) and tossing it into the latrine pit.

Aristophanes seems to refer to the use of a sponge as a method of butt wipe in his play The Frogs (written about 400 BCE). Dionysis, after experiencing a fright, asks for a sponge to wipe the sweat from his heart, and promptly wipes his ass, saying his heart dropped. The scatological emphasis differs depending on who translates. And, it is suggestive of sponges used for ass cleaning, as sponges were used for many functions in Greek (and current) society.

The Greeks may or may not have attached the sponge to a stick, but we’re pretty sure the Romans did.

ANCIENT ROMANS

Perhaps the most invoked piece of evidence for ass-cleaning methods in the Roman era is a brief mention by Seneca in one of his letters.

Here is your warning.

The following is by far the most disgusting story in this book. I will mark the beginning and the end of this anecdote with three asterisks in case you want to skip. OK. You have been warned.

***

It’s seventeen hundred years ago. Germania is still mostly tribes and they are fighting peak civilization Rome. A captive German, now a Roman slave, is being trained to fight wild beasts as a gladiator. He has decided he’s had enough. We don’t know why. Maybe he didn’t want to face wild animals in the ring. Maybe he was proud and wanted to deny the invading Romans any satisfaction or pleasure they might gain from his efforts. Maybe he suffered from life-long depression. Regardless, he saw an opportunity and he took action.

He asked to be excused to the bathroom before the morning exhibition, or perhaps it was a training. While public restrooms were relatively common in Roman cities, relieving oneself in the privy was still a mostly private experience, and the Roman soldiers build privies (outhouses/latrines) for themselves at their outposts, with an eye toward privacy.

The guard allowed the slave to enter the latrine without supervision.

Once inside, the enslaved German picked up a stick; the kind of stick found in public toilets across the Roman empire; a stick with a sponge attached to the end. This sponge, dipped in a standing bowl of water, or water and vinegar, was used by the soldiers to wipe the shit from their assholes after taking a dump. The slave lifted this sponge-tipped stick to his lips and forced it into his throat. And then pushed.

After he did not return the guards investigated and found the German slave dead, suffocated to death by the toilet xylospongium (sponge-on-a-stick).

***

The above story is told by Seneca about sixty-three years into the common era, and is the single most cited piece of evidence of how the Romans, in urban toilets, cleaned themselves of feces. And, if you decide to look into the history of Roman toiletry, you’ll discover many accept the sponge-on-a-stick as a means of ass-wipe. Many, but not all. Historian Mary Beard, for example, is dismissive of the idea in her The Fires of Vesuvius. She thinks the speculation is rooted in too little information. As I’ll show over the next few pages, I’m inclined to agree with Beard.

Another textual indication that Romans used a stick-sponge combination to wipe away feces is a piece of graffiti that reads roughly (translated) – “Nobody talks to you much, Priscianus, until you are using the sponge-stick,” suggesting that poor Priscianus unpopularity is due to poor toilet hygiene. And in a letter from the early second century CE Claudius Terentianus writes about a conflict with one Saturninus – “He did not care for me more than for a sponge-stick, but only about his business and his things.”

Our understanding of Roman toilet habits stem from a handful of written sources:

  • Catullus refers to a rival poet’s poetry as cacata carta – beshitted sheets,
  • Aristophanes has his character Dionysos wipe his ass with a sponge,
  • Seneca’s letter about the suicidal German,
  • Martial’s passing reference to a ‘luckless sponge on a damned stick,’
  • some graffiti implying Priscianus smells because he doesn’t use the sponge on a stick, and
  • Claudius Terentianus mentions that ‘he did not care for me more than for a sponge-stick.’

Scant evidence. As far as secondary sources go, many simply refer to a different secondary source and take it as a given. As I was reading about the Roman sponge-on-a-stick it occurred to me that I also keep a sponge-on-a-stick next to my toilet, but I don’t use it for personal hygiene. It’s there to clean the bowl. Perhaps the Romans used their sponges for something similar. Or, maybe not. The point is we don’t have much evidence one way or another.

But if the Romans didn’t use a sponge on a stick, what did they use?

There is one possibility notably absent in the scholarship. I found only Beard mentioning in passing about Greek archeology.

Rags.

While scholars suggest sponges, or perhaps smooth stones, or even fig leaves plucked outside the public bathroom, none that I read speculated that attendants (which are likely to have existed at the public bathhouses) handed out strips/pieces of cloth for personal use. Those cloth pieces could then be dumped into a basket and washed until they deteriorated. There is also no suggestion of juglets of water similar to what the Greeks may have used.

Roman public toilets are perhaps the most written about of the ancient toilets, though the actual practice is still debated. And most writing is about the toilets and sewage system, and not about perianal cleansing.

To relieve yourself in a public toilet in Rome, you would visit a public bath, enter a room with long benches against the wall and keyhole shapes cut into the bench (hole at the top, and a narrower U-shape carved away from the front, connecting to the hole). In the center would stand a hand-washing basin. Overflow water from the central basin ran in gutters along the front of the benches. Perhaps people scooped water from this gutter to wash themselves. Or, they may have used a sponge on a stick and cleaned it off in the water running in the gutter. Or, maybe they used one of the speculative methods I mentioned earlier.

THE ANCIENT EAST

Wikipedia tells me the Asian/Eastern populations used a spatula-like stick of bamboo, but archeological remains indicate these sticks were probably wrapped with cloth. Not that different than a sponge on a stick. And Joseph Needham (historian of Chinese science) speculates the ancient Chinese used silk rags that could no longer be used for anything else. So, if the east used something similar to a sponge on a stick by using a stick wrapped in cloth, perhaps the Romans, and others in the west, might have occasionally used old cloth or rags for their needs.

Let’s take a step back and piece this all together.  A quick glance gives us sponges on sticks, or sticks wrapped in fabric appearing in the east and the west. Dig a little deeper and we start to see a variety of methods, including juglets of water in bathrooms, paper and paper analogues like papyrus, leaves, and old cloth (like silk). It is likely there was no universal use of sponge on a stick, or stick wrapped in fabric, in the classical era. Nor did people universally use leaves, juglets or water, or stones. Instead, depending on circumstance, people used a broad variety of methods.

Regardless of what method, there was likely widespread (but not universal) attention to perianal cleanliness and toilet hygiene. And just like our mid-20th-century Londoners, there was probably quite a bit of variance among the population, depending on background, personal experience, and cultural norms.

INTRODUCTION
CHAPTER ONE: PREHISTORY
CHAPTER TWO: DISGUST
CHAPTER THREE: CLASSICAL ERA (~3200 BCE – ~300 CE)
CHAPTER FOUR: CLEANLINESS AND FAITH
CHAPTER FIVE: THE BIDET
CHAPTER SIX: THE INVENTION OF TOILET PAPER
CHAPTER SEVEN: TOILET PAPER TODAY
CHAPTER EIGHT: OTHER INVENTIONS
CHAPTER NINE: THE FUTURE
CONCLUSION

Wipe: A Brief History of Toilet Hygiene – Chapter Two: Disgust

NOTE: Sometime in mid- to late-April I’ll be publishing Wipe: A Brief History of Toilet Hygiene in the Hillsborough River Press 1-Hour Read series. It is currently in the editing stage. But, since it’s mostly complete, I thought I’d post it here as a series. This blog version has all the bibliographic citations stripped out. The ebook will include references to all the resources I drew from to write this long essay/short book. I’ll publish a chapter every other day.

Another reason to publish it serially on this blog is that seeing it in a different format often allows me to see errors of grammar, spelling, and thought. If you have any feedback, I’d love to hear it! Thanks, all. Hope you enjoy.

###

CHAPTER TWO: DISGUST

Some possible answers to the question — Is poop disgusting?

“Yes, of course, why are you even asking that question? Shit is gross.”

“Well, it depends.”

Looking pointedly at your toddling child, “Not everyone thinks so.”

Before continuing on the ‘how’ of toilet hygiene, I want to address the ‘why’? Really, why do we care? Is caring about the state of our assholes a human condition or a cultural condition? I touched on it briefly in the previous chapter, but I want to take a closer look at the question “is poop disgusting?” in this chapter.

As we saw in the last chapter, there is probably a physical reason many people want to be clean. A non-trivial portion of humanity finds leftovers on their bunghole irritating. That said, and working under the assumption that 350,000 years of Homo sapiens has seen just about every variation possible when it comes to cultural norms of cleanliness, are there other possible reasons people might be inclined to be clean rather than unclean?

Yes. Poop, i.e. human excrement, is disgusting.

Charles Darwin is the first modern researcher to address disgust as a universal human emotion. In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals he wrote:

“It is curious how readily this feeling [disgust] is excited by anything unusual in the appearance, odour, or nature of our food. In Tierra del Fuego a native touched with his finger some cold preserved meat which I was eating at our bivouac, and plainly showed utter disgust at its softness…. I presume that this follows from the strong association in our minds between the sight of food, however circumstanced, and the idea of eating it.”

This is a good time to make the distinction between distaste and disgust. Infants will make sour faces at something that doesn’t taste good. They are born with distaste. Disgust is rooted in distaste but is a distinct emotional reaction, and manifests itself later in childhood development.

In 1941, seventy years after Darwin wrote about disgust, Andras Angyal published a scholarly essay on the role of disgust in the science of psychology. Angyal’s essay set some of the parameters followed by later psychologists looking to understand and measure the human emotion of disgust. 

The last forty years have seen some enlightening research which supports Darwin’s and Angyal’s thinking on disgust. 

Paul Rozin, one of the foremost contemporary scholars of disgust, concludes that disgust is rooted in a naturally selected aversion to what we might put in our mouths. 

“Our definition is as follows: Revulsion at the prospect of (oral) incorporation of an offensive object. … [if the contaminants] even briefly contact an acceptable food, they tend to render that food unacceptable.”

About a decade after Rozin and April Fallon started publishing their research on disgust, sanitation expert Valerie Curtis sought to answer some questions about disgust for her analysis of urban sanitation. To determine what people found disgusting Valerie Curtis visited an international airport and asked them. Curtis and her team also collected data from Africa, India, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. Some answers were region or class specific, some answers reflected moral disgust, but one universal was human feces.

Curtis suggests that the universal disgust of human excrement might be naturally selected, which seems reasonable when you understand how dangerous human feces can be. Curtis, one of the world’s foremost scholars on sanitation writes:

“Feces are not just revolting, they are the source of over twenty gastroenteric infections, including cholera, typhoid, cryptosporidiosis, rotavirus, and the other stomach bugs that are responsible for three-quarters of a million child deaths a year. …the main source of diarrheal diseases is the product of other people’s guts. Human feces contain billions of microbes per gram. Hardly surprising, then, that poo comes near to the top of most people’s disgust lists. These bugs have evolved to be past masters at getting out of one person and into another…”

It is not too much of a stretch to speculate that those without an innate disgust mechanism toward human waste might have died with more regularity than those with an innate disgust reflex. While early humans may not have had science, humans are gifted with remarkable pattern recognition. It’s easy to see how over time it became obvious that there was a connection between poo and pain.

At the top of the list of things people find disgusting is human excrement. Across time and across cultures human shit is shunned and elicits strong negative reactions. Human shit is a universal disgust substance.

Except babies.

Babies’ joy in playing with their waste (and, to be clear, not necessarily all babies, for those of you insisting that your child would never do such a thing) is so commonplace that Freud felt compelled to address this behavior in his innovative and insightful theory of the psychosexual development of the child.

Rozin concluded that disgust is not present at birth, but is detectable before the age of five. The emotion of disgust is innate. Innate doesn’t mean ‘at birth’. Humans have an innate capacity for speech, but it takes some time before they start speaking. Same with the human sex drive. It doesn’t kick in until years after birth, but it is an innate attribute. Our best guess is that because babies have someone to take care of them, the disgust reflex for shit is not a biological priority.

While disgust is generally accepted as one of the core human emotions, built into the human condition, not everything is equally disgusting to all people. Additionally, as William Miller notes in The Anatomy of Disgust, culture can “override the tendencies that come with the disgust affect, but it has to work harder to do so.”

Perianal cleansing has probably been prevalent through human existence. It can cause physical discomfort, is psychologically repellant, and the consumption of human feces (including trace amount accidently ingested) can cause extreme illness or death. Now that we’ve determined that people most likely gravitated toward perianal cleanliness throughout human existence, the next question is – how did they clean?

INTRODUCTION
CHAPTER ONE: PREHISTORY
CHAPTER TWO: DISGUST
CHAPTER THREE: CLASSICAL ERA (~3200 BCE – ~300 CE)
CHAPTER FOUR: CLEANLINESS AND FAITH
CHAPTER FIVE: THE BIDET
CHAPTER SIX: THE INVENTION OF TOILET PAPER
CHAPTER SEVEN: TOILET PAPER TODAY
CHAPTER EIGHT: OTHER INVENTIONS
CHAPTER NINE: THE FUTURE
CONCLUSION

Mindfulness Chicken

In the spring and summer of 2019 I was burned out. During the summer I scheduled some appointments with a therapist, and she helped! I recommend it.

One of the issues that fed my emotional distress was constant rumination. Something would upset me at work and my mind would review and argue and cogitate ceaselessly.

She recommended several mindfulness techniques, but none really connected with me, so I made up my own. The mindfulness animal.

I scraped a lot of animal names from Wikipedia and now I have a daily animal. When I find myself ruminating about something upsetting, and I catch myself (which I’ve gotten pretty good at), I say “Stop. Think about…,” and then I think about the animal.

For example, today’s animal is the porcupine. If at some point today I find myself fruitlessly ruminating about something that’s bothering me, I’ll say “Stop. Think about the porcupine.” And then I’ll ask myself a bunch of questions about porcupines. Where are they from? Where are they indigenous? How big do porcupines get? Does anybody every harvest quills? Could I harvest quills? What could you make out of porcupine quills? Do the babies have quills? etc. until I break the rumination.

Some days this is easy enough, and I’m able to quiet my mind. Other days It’s nearly impossible and I spend a lot of time working to break the rumination.

A few weeks ago there was something my mind just wouldn’t let go of. The animal for that day was chicken. I ended up singing a repetitive chant-song to myself of “Mindfulness chicken mindfulness chicken, mindfulness chicken, mindfulness chickennnnn, and then repeat.

Perhaps not perfect, because I was still obsessively thinking about something, but thinking about mindfulness chicken was much, much less upsetting that whatever else it was that was agitating me.

Anyway, this year I’ve been learning how to draw/cartoon, and last night I drew the Mindfulness Chicken. Below is yesterday’s effort. I think I’ll probably do another this weekend and work on the text (letters shouldn’t be in a box!) and font (needs to be sharper). But, I sure do love that chicken!

I got my chicken drawing from this series Lynda Barry has been doing for the last week or so. You can check out some of her short cartooning videos at her YouTube page.

Wipe: A Brief History of Toilet Hygiene – Chapter One: Prehistory

NOTE: Sometime in mid- to late-April I’ll be publishing Wipe: A Brief History of Toilet Hygiene in the Hillsborough River Press 1-Hour Read series. It is currently in the editing stage. But, since it’s mostly complete, I thought I’d post it here as a series. This blog version has all the bibliographic citations stripped out. The ebook will include references to all the resources I drew from to write this long essay/short book. I’ll publish a chapter every other day.

Another reason to publish it serially on this blog is that seeing it in a different format often allows me to see errors of grammar, spelling, and thought. If you have any feedback, I’d love to hear it! Thanks, all. Hope you enjoy.

###

CHAPTER ONE: PREHISTORY

Most of human existence isn’t recorded. The time before written records we call prehistory. Homo Sapiens showed up (probably) between 300,000 to 500,000 years ago. Writing showed up about 5,000 years ago. That means prehistory stretches over hundreds of thousands of years and covers too many people and leaves too little evidence for us to do more than take an educated guess on perianal cleaning methods. Nonetheless, here’s my best attempt at making that guess.

But, to do so, I want to start with some research done a half century ago.

In the mid-1960s, in the name of science, Dr. Richard Caplan asked people to allow him to spread their own feces back onto their perianal region. He wanted to measure their discomfort, or lack of discomfort. Medical science is awesome.

Forty-four percent experienced definite discomfort which they described as irritating, itchy, or burning, and they wanted to scratch or wash. The most rapid onset of irritation occurred with one subject immediately upon application. Another didn’t report any irritation until after twenty-four hours, and the rest fell somewhere in-between.

However, because he was a dedicated scientist in the pursuit of knowledge, he also applied the ‘material’ (as Caplan euphemistically referred to shit) to the subject’s arm and wrapped the arm with plastic wrap. Only one person exhibited irritation on their arm, and described it as minor. Shit didn’t irritate regular skin, but did irritate the sensitive skin at the end of the rectum. For some.

In another study a few years prior in swinging London, a public health services doctor, J. A. Cameron, noticed a non-trivial number of men indifferent to “frank mass faeces” in their underwear. Cameron’s job was to give health check-ups to a wide range of British men, and after noticing the condition of the underpants of so many men, decided to tabulate what he found in a survey. After the men disrobed for their exam he visually inspected their underpants in addition to evaluating their health and well-being. Over a two-year period he analyzed 940 undergarments, forty-three percent of which showed “faecal contamination in their underpants.” This was not a surprise inspection. These men knew they would be seeing a doctor and would disrobe.

Which suggests that many people do not find the residue of shit on their rectum irritating.

From these two bits of research we can gingerly speculate that shit bugs some people, but not everyone.

There’s not much beyond Caplan to confirm or deny the irritant qualities of poor anal hygiene. Some portion of humanity experiences itchy discomfort when fecal matter remains on their anus, and some do not. The irritation may fade with time, or be resolved with a quick scratch, which for some (at some places and times throughout history) is not a problem.

From this meager research I propose that sometimes throughout humanity’s existence people have cleaned and sometimes they have not. Those who cleaned probably used whatever was most convenient. But, let’s carry this thought experiment a little further.

First – the toilet hygiene habits of nomadic people and the toilet hygiene habits of city people will most likely differ. If you’re moving around with your nomad crew it’s easy to identify suitable areas for waste, use them, cover them up, and move on. In cities you have to start worrying about the accretion of excretion. 

Second – if you’re moving around you might use different methods at different locations. One place has good, smooth stones; another has broad thick leaves, etc. Sometimes you use dirt or sand and the river water. If you’re in a settled area with built structures, your variety of resources becomes limited.

Third – much of human existence, before writing and built structures, played out along rivers and near large bodies of water. Fresh water is necessary to live, and it attracts a variety of animals which can either be nourishment, or lead to nourishment. There’s also an abundance of food just under the water. Close association with water also probably meant close association with using it, perhaps even for cleanliness. Maybe even for butt cleanliness.

Fourth – we can presume that there were cultural norms about toilet hygiene passed down from generation to generation. (Though there seems to be little research in intergenerational transmission of toilet habits.) And if that’s the case, we can speculate that some of the earliest written directions were probably rooted in an oral history that stretched back for generations.

Now let’s combine the above speculative anthropology with some tales of non-European cultures recorded by Europeans encountering indigenous people in the western hemisphere. Many of these explorers noted the exceptional cleanliness of the people they met. Amerigo Vespucci, for example, describing a visit to New World at the end of the fifteenth century wrote about the indigenous he met that ‘theyr bodies are verye smothe and clene by reason of theyr often washinge.” In a different translation he notes that “when they empty the stomach they do everything so as not to be seen, and in this they are clean and decent.”

When the conquering conquistadors first saw Tenochtitlan in 1519 they marveled at the extraordinary architecture. Like the Romans, the Mexica were enamored with water technology, and the citizens bathed once or twice a day. There were even public baths, just as there were in Rome. Bernal Diaz del Castillo writes about communal steam baths, and, with some embarrassment, calls attention the Mexica method of dealing with human waste.

“boat loads of human ordure were on the borders of the adjoining canals for the purpose of tanning leather, which they said could not be done without it. Some may laugh at this, but I assert the fact is as I here state it, and moreover, upon all the public roads, places for passengers to resort to, were built of canes and thatched with straw or grass in order to collect this material [human excrement].”

He doesn’t address their toilet hygiene, but they were bathing daily (at a minimum).

A few centuries later Olaudah Equiano recalls in his autobiography that the Ibo people, his people before being kidnapped into slavery, were fastidious about cleanliness.

“Ritual hand washing, including a purification before mealtime, was both a ‘necessary habit of decency,’ and ‘a part of religion’ among the Ibo, Equiano explained. ‘Before we taste food we always wash our hands,’ he noted, adding that ‘our cleanliness on all occasions is extreme; but on this it is an indispensable ceremony.’”

Again, not specifically about toilet hygiene, but we might presume what he means by “on all occasions.”

This attitude toward cleanliness isn’t universal. Modern reports on feral children like Lucien Malson’s book on “wolf children” found no disgust at human excrement.

Western Europe itself has flippantly been accused of not taking a bath for a thousand years (“mille ans sans bain” as French historian Jules Michelet wrote). Though some scholars, like Dr. Eleanor Janega, are not happy with this characterization. Soap and bathing were well known in medieval western Europe according to Professor Janega.

So, we are able to surmise that some, but not all, human cultures have felt it important to clean themselves after defecation.

From this I conjecture that nearly every natural element has been used to clean. The most likely candidates for cleaning away the filth are water, leaves, suitably shaped sticks, smooth stones, snow, handfuls of grass, hay, or moss, and a variety of fabrics. 

So, when we piece together —

  • a) the irritation of itchy discomfort,
  • b) the core human element of disgust,
  • c) the pattern recognition of seeing the connection between cleanliness and health, and
  • d) the availability of plentiful water supplies,

we can conjecture with some confidence that there are times and cultures where people avoided human excrement and cleaned themselves to avoid having shit on their bodies or hands. Perianal cleansing is not a modern development. While perhaps not universal, it is part of the human condition. To accomplish this, humans have used a broad variety of tools and methods.

However. And this is a big however, there is also a substantial part of the human experience which is indifferent to human waste and personal cleanliness.

We are left with the, perhaps not particularly satisfying, conclusion that at some places and times ass cleaning has been an important part of human culture, and other places and times it has not.

Future archeological research on human coprolites (fossilized human shit), and areas in which they are found, may shed light on some early methods, but there is little physical evidence so far.  With that in mind, there is one particular human characteristic that tilts the norm in favor of cleaning rather than indifference – the human emotion of disgust.

INTRODUCTION
CHAPTER ONE: PREHISTORY
CHAPTER TWO: DISGUST
CHAPTER THREE: CLASSICAL ERA (~3200 BCE – ~300 CE)
CHAPTER FOUR: CLEANLINESS AND FAITH
CHAPTER FIVE: THE BIDET
CHAPTER SIX: THE INVENTION OF TOILET PAPER
CHAPTER SEVEN: TOILET PAPER TODAY
CHAPTER EIGHT: OTHER INVENTIONS
CHAPTER NINE: THE FUTURE
CONCLUSION

Wipe: A Brief History of Toilet Hygiene – Introduction

NOTE: Sometime in mid- to late-April I’ll be publishing Wipe: A Brief History of Toilet Hygiene in the Hillsborough River Press 1-Hour Read series. It is currently in the editing stage. But, since it’s mostly complete, I thought I’d post it here as a series. This blog version has all the bibliographic citations stripped out. The ebook will include references to all the resources I drew from to write this long essay/short book. I’ll publish a chapter every other day.

Another reason to publish it serially on this blog is that seeing it in a different format often allows me to see errors of grammar, spelling, and thought. If you have any feedback, I’d love to hear it! Thanks, all. Hope you enjoy.

###

The idea for this project was sparked, like so many good ideas, at happy hour. The start of the conversation is lost, but the conclusion was that someone needs to write a history of toilet hygiene. It is likely that people have been cleaning their posteriors since Homo sapiens branched off the tree of humanity. But toilet paper and bidets are recent inventions (compared to how long humans have pooped on this earth), so what did people do before that?

When I got home that night, I made a note “write Wipe, a history of ass cleaning,” in my notebook, then promptly forgot about it.

Last summer I was fishing around for a new writing project and came across my Wipe note. The time had come.

Doing the research for this short book has been a blast. It also continues to resonate with people. Just as it sparked our curiosity that happy hour night, it strikes a chord with everyone I discuss it with. Most are also ready to offer their own tales of wiping woes. Or, sometimes washing woes. Rachel Lea’s excellent dissertation “The Performance of Control and the Control of Performance: Towards a Social Anthropology of Defecation,” really deserves to be published and stocked in libraries around the world. She stumbled across one of the peculiar dilemmas of researching the defecation experience in that “excretion is both talked about and not talked about.”  

Compare the amount of literature and research on eating to the amount of literature and research on the other end of the alimentary canal. We do them both, but only one is suitable to discuss in public.

However, among friends and acquaintances, scatological discussions are prevalent. Lea pointed out a rhetorical quirk I hadn’t noticed until reading her dissertation. She saw that people tend to ‘bracket’ their conversations about shit and shit-related matters. 

“During the course of my research I noticed that whenever themes of defecation arose at dinner parties or meal times (a surprisingly not infrequent occurrence) someone at the table made a censoring statement or apology, in reference to the juxtaposition of talking about excrement while eating (e. g. ‘this is a nice thing to be talking about while we’re eating!’, or ‘not while we’re eating!’), which did not stop the conversation but allowed it to continue.”

Illuminated by this passage I noticed the same behavior among my friends. My social circle doesn’t hesitate to discuss matters related to poop, anal cleansing, or anything scatological, but inevitably, once started, they or one of their listeners feel compelled to note the impropriety of the discussion.

I was born in the United States in the latter half of the twentieth century, and was trained to be a wiper. The world, I’ve learned, is divided into wipers and washers, each deeply disturbed by what they perceive as the other’s lack of personal hygiene. I’ve learned while writing this book that the happiest of the lot are those who have managed to incorporate a balance of both methods into their lives. 

Researching this book showed that the more scholarly the work the more anxious the authors were about language. W. I. Miller’s introduction to The Anatomy of Disgust is a particularly good example of this anxiety. “I have tried to maintain decorum without also becoming boring or silly, erring I think on the prissy side.”

Shit is so tightly bound up in human shame and disgust, and also so profoundly ubiquitous, that it plays a role unlike any other in the human experience. It’s a frequent synonym for elements of life, both good and bad. That shit is great, but that other shit ain’t. I want the good shit, don’t give me the bad shit. Given its prevalence, both as a term and as an experience, it’s nearly impossible to write a straight-forward account of human excreta without resorting to clinical and distancing language like excretion, defecation, and hygiene, or constantly looking over one’s shoulder in case some inadvertent pun has slipped through.

However, if you embrace the puns and the scatological humor then you’re not going to be taken seriously. This book, I hope, falls somewhere in-between. It’s not totally scholarly shit, but it’s also not all bathroom humor.

Let me clarify that this is not a work about sewers, sewage systems, toilets, the psychological and cultural meaning of poop, or whether squatting or sitting is superior. To keep the book short, I’ve focused on the history of anal cleansing, which I euphemistically refer to as toilet hygiene. Think of it as a brief romp through the history of wiping away the poop. That said, some excursions beyond the material history are unavoidable. Once learning about them how could I neglect writing about toilet demons? Exactly. I could not.

If you have any suggestions to make this work better; stuff I missed, mischaracterizations, errors of fact, or poorly considered opinions, please let me know. I’m looking forward to a much-improved second edition once I get feedback from you.

INTRODUCTION
CHAPTER ONE: PREHISTORY
CHAPTER TWO: DISGUST
CHAPTER THREE: CLASSICAL ERA (~3200 BCE – ~300 CE)
CHAPTER FOUR: CLEANLINESS AND FAITH
CHAPTER FIVE: THE BIDET
CHAPTER SIX: THE INVENTION OF TOILET PAPER
CHAPTER SEVEN: TOILET PAPER TODAY
CHAPTER EIGHT: OTHER INVENTIONS
CHAPTER NINE: THE FUTURE
CONCLUSION

heroes

If every grocery store clerk were told – I’ll give you your exact same wage for staying home OR you can continue to work. How many would continue to work?

They aren’t heroes, they are workers working under threat. They are compelled to go to work. If they lose their job, they lose their paycheck. If they lose their paycheck, they can’t pay rent, or buy food, or look after the health of their family, or pay for school.

I mean, I’m glad they’re there, but let’s be realistic about what compels them to be on the ‘front line’.

About Those UTampa Students…

Let’s dial back the vitriol against those University of Tampa students to, like, maybe zero.

University of Tampa spring break was March 9 to March 13. On March 12 the CDC was still reporting no community-transmitted cases of COVID-19 in Florida.

If a responsible student wanted to make a responsible decision, she would probably be directed to the CDC, which said travel was safe, just be reasonably precautious. If they asked the University president, or the Governor, or the Mayor, they probably would have been told the same thing.

If they asked their professors they might have heard, “Well, I’m going to New Orleans,” or “I’m going to Barcelona,” or “I’m going on a cruise.” All things I heard professors say before UT’s spring break.

We also don’t know what those students were doing during ‘spring break’. Not everyone gets wasted at the beach. They might have been working together on their marine biology project. They might have been traveling back to the same home town. They might have gone camping in North Carolina. And, sure, they might have been swapping spit in a dance club.

What’s more upsetting is that a non-trivial number of UT’s outsourced labor force was laid off yesterday. Many those people who clean the buildings, take out the trash, and cook the food are now without a job; many of whom live paycheck to paycheck. That’s not on the students. And that’s getting no viral status or snarky comments. And what’s being done to those workers is far worse than anything any of those students did.