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Welcome to Episode #178 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

There may not have been indoor plumbing in Shakespeare’s lifetime, but going to the bathroom still involved cleaning up. One aspect you may be surprised to learn you share with William Shakespeare is that he, too, used various kinds of paper to go to the restroom. Shakespeare’s plays provide references to the jacques, jordan, and chamber pot, all options for using the restroom in Tudor England, and it turns out, we can also find references to what Shakespeare may have used in those restrooms for handling the necessary business in the lavatory, as well. Our guest this week, Tiffany Stern, is here to share with us her research into the alternatives to paper that were often used as toilet tissue for early modern London. 

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Tiffany Stern is a professor at the Shakespeare Institute, at the University of Birmingham. She is an author, speaker, and historian. Her current work takes a look at plague history of early modern England to examine whether the phenomenon we witnessed during the Covid-19 outbreak of people scrambling to buy toilet paper was true of plague times for Shakespeare. In her research, she explores what materials might have been used for toilet paper in Shakespeare’s lifetime as well as the commerce and industry around the distribution of that product. Her recent projects include a book on early modern theatre and popular entertainment, Playing Fair, exploring the cultural exchanges between playhouses and fairgrounds, a book on Shakespeare Beyond Performance, looking at the theatrical documents produced in the light of a play’s performance – ballads, chapbooks, commonplace books, ‘noted’ texts – and an edition of Shakespeare’s Tempest.

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In this episode, I’ll be asking Tiffany Stern about :

  • Anthony Wood, in 1675, writes in a parliamentary petition that he found a particular piece of paper (that he is presumably now displaying as evidence for his petition) inside a “privy house.” Tiffany, explain what a privy house is for the uninitiated. We recognize “privy” as a bathroom, but is this just a hole in the ground or a formal structure for bathroom going?

  • With Mr. Wood’s petition and subsequent display of the paper he found in the Privy House, are we to assume that his example demonstrates that official papers were used as toilet paper, or that the Privy House was a great place to toss papers you didn’t want discovered due to the gross nature of the location, no one would want to fish it back out?

  • Tiffany cites Alexander Brome from 1660 publishing a word titled “Bumm-Fodder or Wastepaper: Proper to wipe the nation’s bum with or your own.” Tiffany, I’m going to assume there’s a broader satirical message in that work based on the title, but can we infer from the title that the nation in 17th century England did, indeed, wipe their bums with paper as a matter of course?
  • … and more!

I will tread this unbolted villain into
mortar and daub the walls of a jakes with him.

Earl of Kent

King Lear (II.2)

London’s only public lavatory, called Wittington’s Longhouse, contained (as Tiffany’s work details) 64 toilet stalls for ladies (just holes over a pit), and 64 similar for men. The Longhouse was located in Vinty Ward section of London, shown here in this close of the Agas Map of London from 1572. Source Public Domain.

Non-Paper Options for Visiting the Privy

Anthony Wood, in 1675, writes in a parliamentary petition that he found a particular piece of paper (that he is presumably now displaying as evidence for his petition) inside a “privy house.” Tiffany explains that a privy house is: 

Privy is well away from the house. It was called a privy house, house of easement, or ….

It is kind of a hole in the ground, there’s a seat, and it drops into a hole in the ground.

In 1653, Sir Thomas Urquhart wrote a French satire piece that goes into length about the details of cleansing oneself after going to the restroom. In that publication ,he writes ““Who his foul tail with paper wipes, Shall at his [behind] leave some chips.” Paper fragments being left on your behind was an issue not just for the Charmin toilet paper commercials on tv today, but for Shakespeare’s lifetime as well. Urquhart goes on to suggest the neck of a goose as a better alternative. While this example is satire and not to be taken too seriously, it does beg the question of whether paper was the only option for wiping one’s behind. Tiffany shares that not only were non paper options available, but they were far more likely  to be what one used in the lavatory during Shakespeare’s lifetime:  

Non paper options were used more frequently, because they tended to be free, whereas paper you had to pay for. Most often they used items that grew around the Privy. Cabbage, leaves, and pottery pieces or scrapy things, but the disadvantage of these are that they are sometimes seasonal. It’s bad news if your lavatory paper goes out of season. Paper was the gold standar,d but because it costs money it wasn’t the normal thing to use.

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if you chance to be
pinched with the colic, you make faces like
mummers; set up the bloody flag against all
patience; and, in roaring for a chamberpot,
dismiss the controversy bleeding the more entangled
by your hearing

Menenius Agrippa

Coriolanus (II.1)

While Shakespeare’s privy and that of his contemporaries were rarely designed to be communal spaces (indeed, examples like Henry VIII’s close stool suggest they were designed for single person use only), this picture inside the early 18th century privy from Townsend House, Leominster, gives you an idea of just how basic the room designed for excrement really was for the 16th century. It was a box, with a hole, over a pit. This image shoes the 3-seat earth closet. Preserved in the Avoncroft Museum of Historic Buildings, Worcestershire. Photo taken 2011 by DeFacto, CCASA4.0. Source

Paper for the Privy was not made of wood (like today)

With Mr. Wood’s petition and subsequent display of the paper he found in the Privy House, the natural assumption might be that official papers were used as toilet paper. Tiffany explains, 

If you’ve read something and you’re not going to read it again, it might as well be used for lavatory paper. Parliamentary petition is exactly the kind of thing you would only read once, and that’s what you would toss down the lavatory paper. Anything could go down there that wasn’t the Bible or sermons…

Tiffany cites Alexander Brome from 1660 publishing a word titled “Bumm-Fodder or Wastepaper: Proper to wipe the nation’s bum with or your own.” We can assume there’s a broader satirical message in that work based on the title, but as Tiffany points out this week, the nation in 17th century England did, indeed, wipe their bums with paper.

One of the jokes it is making is that it itself expects to end up down the lavatory. We still have the word “bumpf” it is a shortened form of “bum-fodder” use it for junk mail, pizza advertisements, etc, “Any real post? No, just alot of bumpf” The text that relished the fact they would end up down the lavatory, the “Rump parliament” 

Tiffany’s research shows a woodcut by William Hogarth, titled Masquerades and Operas from (1723-1724) where a woman is pushing a cart calling out “Waste paper for shops!” and inside the wheelbarrow of goods she’s peddling are several books, but one that is notably titled “Shakespeare.” The humor in this artwork is apparent, and Tiffany explains that there is history in this engraving as well, namely that of the peddler:

There were people who sold used and old paper for your general household needs. Cooking needs, lighting fire needs, as well as lavatorial needs. The old and used papers they would sell would be any slow selling books, ephemeral publications, and so forth. HEre the joke is that great works of literature are now being used as trash. So Hogarth is making a point about how little valued culture is. But the reality is that yes, they did end up down the loo, but your lavatory paper was less good than paper you wrote upon, brown paper made from hemp and old bags (rather than paper you printed on which was made form linen) you might buy from a peddler brown paper for this purpose. It was rag based, not wood based as modern paper is, so when you wetted it, it was what we value for our privy paper today. 

…prithee, stand away: a paper from fortune’s
closestool to give to a nobleman!


Alls Well That Ends Well (V.2)

A 1792 French Revolutionary caricature, depicting the French population using the Monarchist Brunswick Manifesto as toilet paper. Official Library of Congress Description: “Print shows four figures representing foreign nations responding unfavorably to the manifesto issued by the Duke of Brunswick and Lüneburg on July 25 1792. A fifth figure representing Fame (an angel with trumpet) flies overhead holding a sign labeled ‘République Française'” Public Domain. Source


Famous Writers Work Sold as Toilet Tissue

Tiffany’s research identifies another interesting piece of evidence about the commerce of privy paper when she shares that Mathurin Cordier, wrote in Corderius dialogues translated grammatically from 1614, that clean paper was not carried into the privy, but only paper that had already been written upon. Tiffany explains why clean paper (certainly my preference) would have actually been considered a poor choice for toilet paper for Shakespeare:

It’s not a matter of value, but a matter of price. Clean paper was more expensive. Good white clean paper was linen based, but not only was it made from fine linen, but it had very often had a treatment on the surface of it–a thin layer of gelatin that allowed the ink to sit on top of it, and that’s expensive and fine paper. YOu don’t want it to go into the loo first, but once it had been used with manuscript all ov er it, now it’s worthless since it can’tbe written on again, so good paper that was written on was destined for the lavatory.

Shakespeare’s plays do not leave us much in direct references to toilet paper, but there are a few inferences to be made and as Tiffany shares, one reference specifically:

Yes, [there are references to toilet paper in Shakespeare’s plays] though not many. There are many references to forms of lavatory (privy, the outdoor lavatory, but there were two indoor kinds: The chamber pot, or the jordan/piss pot, which you could take to any room for peeing in rather than pooing in, and the other form was a close stool, which was made to situp comfortably.) Jakes are the privy house. He only once refers actually to the paper in Alls Well That Ends Well where Parolles has been brought down by Fortune, makes a big fuss at having been demeaned, and he says “pray you sir…deliver me this letter” “From fortunes close stool.” RThus saying he takes that letter to be a bit of letter from a close stool. That’s the only time Shakespeare refers to the paper.

In cypress chests my arras counterpoints,
Costly apparel, tents, and canopies,
Fine linen, Turkey cushions boss’d with pearl,


Taming of the Shrew (II.1)

This is an 18th century print of London done by William Hogarth. The original drawing is called “Masquerades and Operas” or “The Bad Taste of the Town”. Dated 1723, it represents a satire on the questionable tastes of London society. The public are shown thronging to the entertainments of Heidegger, Rich and Fawkes while the great works of literature are carted of for scrap in a wheelbarrow. In the original print, the wheelbarrow featured the name “Pasquin” and in a later edition, Pasquin is replaced by “Ben Jonson” but in both you can see the woman is crying out “waste paper for shops” and that Shakespeare is listed as waste paper alongside others. Source. Public Domain (See the second edition with Ben Johnson listed here)

Shakespeare’s plays as loo paper

When I learned that Shakespeare used toilet paper, (after my surprise), my next question was about whether he would have put the paper on the roll facing up or facing down. As it happens, he did neither, since toilet paper would not have been put onto rolls in a commerical way until many many years after Shakespeare’s life. However, that does not mean Shakespeare didn’t store his toilet paper somewhere. As it turns out, if you needed toilet paper, you had to pick some up from the local market, or carrying it with you. 

Public lavatories were Largely yet to be invented unless you were near the extraordinary construction that Dick Whittington had setup in London, there weren’t others. Otherwise, you had to go into a shop, buy something, adn ask to use their jakes. If one goes tohistoric lavatories these days, you will find a crevice or hole in the wall and sometimes that’s suggested the paper may have gone there, but it could also be where you kept your candle. It’s possible that you may have also had a box. Which would allow you to vary what paper you chose to take with you. Even if there’s grass in there, you may want to examine what you use. 

Tiffany explains that there is a long history to exploring paper and its’ origins, but when it comes to the origins of toilet paper and specifically who it was in England that produced paper destined for the privy, we have to look to the printers, and you may be surprised to learn, Tiffany found evidence in the history of printing paper to suggest loo paper is precisely why we don’t have hand written manuscript copies of Shakespeare’s plays: 

There’s s huge history of paper itself, but what interests her about printers and paper is that in most trades the thing you deal in becomes a freebie for you. IF you’re a grocer, you will ave free vegetables, if you’re a butcher you will have free meat, and if you’re a printer one the perks is clearly in a job that works with paper is that they get free loo paper and aren’t reliant on seasonal vegetation. Speculatively, in regards to the way printers printed, when they were given a manuscript, they marked it off to decide how much would they print. One of the leftover bit of used unclean paper that’s definitely lavatory bound is going tobe manuscriupts that you ave already printed up. You’ve made the print text, so the torn up manuscript would be of no use to anyone. We often wonder what happened to Shakespeare’s manuscripts (the ones he wrote himself). Any manuscript that found it’s way into the print house would have ended up [loo paper].

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