A brief history of toilet hygiene

tags: toliets, hygiene, Scientific American



The last time I visited Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts was in 2004 to see a Rembrandt exhibition. But I might have wandered away from the works of the Dutch master in search of an ancient Greek artifact, had I known at the time that the object in question, a wine vessel, was in the museum’s collection. According to the 2012 Christmas issue of the BMJ (preacronymically known as the British Medical Journal), the 2,500-year-old cup, created by one of the anonymous artisans who helped to shape Western culture, is adorned with the image of a man wiping his butt.

That revelation appears in an article entitled “Toilet Hygiene in the Classical Era,” by French anthropologist and forensic medicine researcher Philippe Charlier and his colleagues. Their report examines tidying techniques used way back—and the resultant medical issues. Such a study is in keeping with the BMJ‘s tradition of offbeat subject matter for its late December issue—as noted in this space five years ago: “Had the Puritans never left Britain for New England, they might later have fled the British Medical Journal to found the New England Journal of Medicine.”

The toilet hygiene piece reminds us that practices considered routine in one place or time may be unknown elsewhere or elsetime. The first known reference to toilet paper in the West does not appear until the 16th century, when satirist François Rabelais mentions that it doesn’t work particularly well at its assigned task. Of course, the ready availability of paper of any kind is a relatively recent development. And so, the study’s authors say, “anal cleaning can be carried out in various ways according to local customs and climate, including with water (using a bidet, for example), leaves, grass, stones, corn cobs, animal furs, sticks, snow, seashells, and, lastly, hands.” Sure, aesthetic sensibility insists on hands being the choice of last resort, but reason marks seashells as the choice to pull up the rear. “Squeezably soft” is the last thing to come to mind about, say, razor clams....




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