The History of Toilets
no need to turn your nose up!
We all do it. We all have to. It’s common to all, rich or poor, whatever race, we all need to excrete what we eat and drink. It’s a normal bodily function and, in some societies, a topic that is not discussed publicly.
Why am I writing about this here at Roland’s Travels?
I love to delve into history, mainly how people went about their daily lives. This always raises the question: What was everyday life like for people living during a particular era? What if you were wealthy? What if you were amongst the lower-income groups? You will see that I try to find the answers to these questions when I research and share with you stories of life in the past. Please become a subscriber.
Questions about toilets
How did people deal with their human waste? When were toilets made? Who invented the first flushing toilet?
We could say that there have always been toilets in various forms. Archaeologists have made many discoveries as they have dug into the foundations of ancient dwellings. We can also learn that sometimes, there is a backward step in development instead of making progress. Even today, not everyone has access to good sanitation.
What has been discovered about toilets in homes in the ancient past? For many, the toilet (bathroom in the USA) would have been outside the home and little more than a hole in the ground with possibly a raised platform (seat) over it. The wealthy were likelier to have toilets that needed to be emptied or overhand the building, and the waste dropped below where servants could collect and dispose of it. During the ages, people would use buckets, chamber pots, and commodes, and it was often down to financial well-being as to which type was used.
Toilets in ancient Egypt
In ancient Egypt, around 3100 BC, there is evidence that the wealthy had indoor toilets and the pleasure of sitting on limestone. It’s probably as well that it is a warm country. Below each seat was a pit filled with sand to collect the waste.
As the centuries ticked by, progress was made with drainage systems. It may surprise you that 4000 years ago, on the island of Crete, the Minoans devised toilets that were flushed with water to move the waste. Later on, around 800 BC, the Romans, who were clever at managing water, built sewers.
Many cultures, including the Romans, had public toilets and bathhouses. It was the order of the day to have a communal poo. I wonder how many used this as an opportunity to network and do business. When taking their pet for a walk, dog owners often say that “it has to do its business”. Is that where the saying comes from? I doubt it, but it’s a thought. Many of us are probably aware of the Romans' use of public toilets, but they were not the first. The earliest known can be traced back to 2600 BC in Mohenjo-Daro, Pakistan, southwest of Sukkur. Here in the UK, public toilets are fast disappearing in our towns, and I suspect there were more available in towns in Roman Britain than today per head of population.
What is a garderobe?
The owners of castles would have a garderobe, a room projected over the moat. There was generally a wooden seat with a hole, and the human waste would plop into the moat below. Other toilets would drop directly into rivers, and even when sewers were developed carried human waste to the sea. Of course, we all know today the danger of disease when water is polluted with human waste. Further down the river, the same water would be used for drinking and bathing. Sadly this is still often the case, even here in the UK, where water companies have been dumping waste using loopholes in the law.
In cities, removing human waste is more problematic where the population is more densely packed. Often we hear stories from medieval history and onwards that people would throw their human waste from windows into the street, potentially landing on passersby. The truth is that some individuals must have done this. We know because there were laws and heavy fines imposed on anyone throwing their human waste or garbage into the street. The streets were generally not full of human waste, as our forebears would not tolerate such behaviour.
This is where the night soil men entered the scene. Human waste was generally collected, hence the term night soil. The waste would then be carted to farms and used as fertiliser. A point to note. Untreated human waste can pose health risks when used on edible crops. Also, the collectors had to face the danger of catching a loathsome disease, which could then be spread to others. It was a terrible job. It would be one thing emptying buckets and separating urine from faeces but imagine (or don’t) standing in a cesspit and shovelling the waste into containers to transport it. Without proper protection and clothing, they must have been the sort of people not to stand next to in a queue.
Sir John Harington and the flushing toilet fit for a Queen
Did you know?
Sir John Harington was an interesting character, to say the least. Born August 8th, 1560, he was a godson to Queen Elizabeth the First. He was a poet and known for his risqué stories. Harington lived at Kelston Manor, four miles northwest of Bath and eight miles east of Bristol. Sir John showed Queen Elizabeth his invention when she visited him at Kelston. It seems she was impressed and ordered one for herself.
Harington’s toilet had a pan with an opening at the bottom, sealed with a leather valve. Using a system of handles, levers and weights allowed water to pour in from the cistern. He called his toilet the Ajax, based on the slang word at the time ‘a jakes’ for a toilet. One thing that this toilet lacked was a u-bend, so smells were allowed back into the room. In 1775, Alexander Cummings, a Scottish watchmaker and instrument inventor, patented the first flushing toilet some two hundred and fifty years later. He had the foresight to design the u-bend.
The composting toilet
There was an indoor toilet invented for those poorer in society. Reverend Henry Moule, in the year 1860, invented the ‘earth closet’. Those who live off the grid nowadays are aware of modern toilets based on the principle of Moule’s invention. They are composting toilets; these keep the urine separate from the faeces, so gentlemen, no standing to pee. After using the toilet, the user of Moule’s invention would apply granulated clay, releasing it from a box that formed the upright back of the toilet. In modern composting toilets, sawdust, coconut fibre or other material is added after each use.
The basic principle of the flushing toilet is still found in our modern ones sat in our homes, serving all who use them. The stories behind how toilets have been developed are fascinating, and much could be written about each time period. I hope you have enjoyed this little foray into history on such an essential need we all have. If you are a subscriber, thank you, if not, please click the subscribe button. Only your email address is required. If you are inclined, you are welcome to leave a comment; it’s always nice to hear from my readers.
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