It’s difficult for Americans to imagine doing without toilet paper. However, toilet paper is a fairly recent invention. We had steamboats and telegraphs long before we had toilet paper. We had railroads and a blue water navy before we had toilet paper. So what did people use? Whatever was available: moss, leaves, paper ripped from newspapers and old books, and apparently the proverbial corn cobs.
Since there was virtually no indoor plumbing in most American homes until the early 1900s, and almost all people used outhouses, using materials such as leaves and corncobs would not clog pipes because there were no pipes to clog. The first real toilet paper was invented in the 1850s by Joseph Gayetty, and sold in dispensing boxes like today’s tissue boxes. The sheets were pulled out one at a time. They were medicated and intended for the prevention of hemorrhoids.
In 1890 two brothers, Clarence and Irvin Scott developed the idea of toilet paper on a roll, but the invention was not particularly successful. Americans then were largely prudish Victorians and the subject of toilet paper was considered rather indecent.
It took until the 1920s for toilet paper on rolls to catch on nationally, and it was because indoor toilets were quickly becoming popular. Paper would flush, corn cobs would not. Our present universal habit of using toilet paper happened not because of sanitation, but plumbing.