What did our ancestors use before toilet paper was invented? JOHN HEATHFIELD and PERCY REBOUL look at the forerunners to today's softer than soft tissue

There are few subjects today that cannot be comfortably and openly discussed in the media and elsewhere.

One of them is what we can only described euphemistically as personal hygiene'. And yet who at one time or another has not wondered how previous generations cleaned themselves after using the lavatory?

As we write, there are at least two television advertisements designed to sell toilet paper which, in the lifetime of some of our readers, would have been an unmentionable'. No doubt the time is not too distant when we shall see a much franker sales approach the mind boggles.

According to one source, primitive civilizations used stones for the cleaning operation and it was a practice not uncommon in much later years by shepherds on the Sussex Downs.

The Romans, as ever, were more sophisticated and valued personal cleanliness. They used sticks with sponges on the end, cleaned after use in flowing water troughs. The upper crust used perfumed sponges.

The citizens of Barnet would have shared the common practices of later centuries. Lavatory paper, of course, had not been invented in the Middle Ages. Then, the rich used mosses and shredded rags or cloth; the poor relied upon dried grass, which one assumes had been inspected with care to remove thistles or stinging nettles.

Pages torn from books and pamphlets were also known to be used by the educated classes.

Another clue comes from modern sources where prisoners-of-war working on the railways in Burma, and elsewhere, used broad leaves obtained from trees.

The big change came in Victorian times with the advent of newspapers which, once read, were cut into squares, a hole bored into one corner, and suspended by a string on to the wall. One enterprising firm actually supplied the cut sheets ready strung.

Those who could afford it bought unprinted sheets from a local shopkeeper or chemist and housed them in specially-made mahogany, metal or ceramic boxes.

Here, however, was a problem. No self-respecting Victorian woman would dream of using the words toilet paper'. It happens that previous generations of women had used twists of paper to curl their hair, so the product was referred to as curl paper'.

Who invented the perforated toilet roll is a matter of debate. Some say it was an American. Others support the claims of a Victorian British inventor in 1880. Whoever it was, their idea changed the world. The two nations were to divide, however, on the type of paper used. Americans preferred creped paper which led to today's popular soft tissue. The British, as ever, were more stoic. They preferred hard tissue which is still in demand.

In this they were supported by Government departments who, anxious to prevent pilfering and misuse, were able to print Government Property' on each sheet.

Some would say that nothing is more revealing of modern decadence than the current moist wipes' so readily obtainable from the supermarket and chemists.