The Development of Toilets and Sanitation Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Development of Toilets and Sanitation

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Almost everyone knows how to use a toilet and basically how it works. The modern toilet is in its essence a user-sewer-system interface, interconnected by syphons and pipes, which uses water to flush away certain kinds of detritus. Few people realise that the common water-flush toilet took millennia to be developed and that this implementation had a decisive impact on our culture, environment and intercontinental flight behaviour. Our defecation habits date back to prehistoric times, with the advent of civilisation and cities, getting rid of human waste became, and is still, a big problem. Because of the involved body functions, and the whole subject was always considered being lowly, little is known about the development of sanitary devices. This entry is dedicated to throwing some light one the most stinking chapter of human endeavour, and it will focus on the development of toilets rather than the socio-cultural aspects or defecational behaviour.

The Obscure Beginnings

Animals prefer secluded places to do the gross-out, while urine is used in many ways throughout nature to mark territories or to identify single individuals. Humans living in small societies (small tribes or families) usually emptied their bowels privately somewhere near a stream or somewhere where the smell and the inconvenient presence of insects would not disturb them too much. In the case of Neanderthals this was deep inside the cave, way behind the burial place. This solution was not a 'problem' so long as the population remained small. As certain cultures became sedentary, small cities evolved and some creativity was required to deal with the stinking problem.

Primordial Toilets

Small towns soon faced the problem and came up with the idea of cesspools. The waste was collected (by servants and slaves) and buried in deep holes far away from the city centre. The defecation took place inside of the respective houses, using chamber pots. In some places the first floor of the house would have a protuberance on the backside, and the faeces were collected from there. Wealthy denizens used luxurious toilet chairs, while the poor populace did what they had to do in rivers or on the roadsides. A general description on how common people dealt with defecation can be found in the Bible.

Thou shalt have a place also without the camp, whither thou shalt go forth abroad. And thou shalt have a paddle upon thy weapon; and it shall be, when thou wilt ease thyself abroad, thou shalt dig therewith, and shalt turn back and cover that which cometh from thee.
Moses Book 5 (Deuteronomy) Chapter 23

Toilets in Ancient Societies

The development of sanitation and the level of civilisation go hand in hand. Densely populated urban areas like Rome, Athens or Alexandria could not ignore the problem. They had to deal with a daily quota of approximately one million litres of urine and 160 tons of human faecal substance. Rome was well known for good hygienic conditions. In the year 315 AD there were 144 public toilets installed in Rome. But even less densely populated areas came up with the idea of using sanitation devices. The supposedly oldest working toilet with water flushing can be seen (though not used) in the castle of Knossos, Greece. It is still functioning and is said to be about 4000 years old. In India, sanitary devices and sewage systems dating from 2500 BC were found in Mohenjo, western India. In China, people were considering the problems pertinent to faecal disposal - archaeologists found a toilet with running water, a stone seat and comfortable armrests in the tomb of a Chinese king of the Western Han Dynasty, dating from between 206 BC and 24 AD.

The Grand Regression in Medieval Europe

The collapse of the Roman Empire followed by the emergence of Roman Catholic Christian fundamentalism in Europe in the eighth and ninth centuries led to a grand regression in terms of personal hygiene that in some places lasted until the late 18th Century. In the beginning of the Medieval Ages, Roman Catholic clergy came up with two maxims that undermined the invention of hygienic devices for a long time.

  1. Washing the carnal body would be a denial of the original sin, and therefore punishable. This was taken literally in Spain which culminated in a peculiar self-dynamic. Before the Catholic re-conquering of the Iberian peninsula from the hands of the Moors in the middle of the 15th Century, a rather tolerant though heterogeneous society composed of a Jewish and Muslim minority and a Christian majority lived there quite peacefully. After this conquest, many Jews and Muslims were forcibly (and sometimes willingly) baptized. They were now called the nuevos conversos or 'new-converts'. The Catholic church never stopped being suspicious that those new converts were secretly still performing their heretic rituals. Some Jewish and Muslim rituals involve bathing and cleaning, and for that reason the homes of the 'new converts' had washing facilities. Clean people, or homes with washing basins would draw the attention of the most fanatic Christians. Which in many cases was a dangerous thing.

  2. Penitence is good. Living in a stinking house and being dirty was not regarded as being something healthy, but as it was a form of suffering, and suffering is a form of penitence, it was okay to wander about itching and stinking.

In Medieval times, the faeces were collected in pots and the contents thrown on the street (some cities issued a law which prescribed a cry of warning before emptying the pot in order to prevent unhappy accidents). The first floor protuberance was also a popular solution for the problem by then.

Renaissance and the Rebirth of Hygiene

The massive deaths caused by plagues made some people rethink the issue of hygiene. Eventually they found out that the plagues were not caused by sinning but rather that it was caused the poor hygiene of the cities. By 1210, in isolated places, the first attempts to install public toilets (which were manned by scavengers) led to a considerable improvement of the situation. But it wasn't until the Renaissance in the 15th and 16th centuries that the situation got slightly better. In that period the closet was invented and implemented in many buildings. It was basically a room in which people could do what they had to into small pots. The contents of these pots were manually taken away. An Englishman living in France named JD Harrington solved the problem of having to take away the faeces manually by inventing the water closet (WC), but it took almost two centuries until his invention was taken seriously.

The 18th and 19th Centuries

As with the biro or railtrains, there was a huge gap between the invention of the WC and the mainstream take-up. The main problem of Harrington's WC was the automation of the water disposal. This problem was solved in the late 1730s by the invention of valve-type toilets. The valves, though, were still very rudimentary and often leaked. By the 1770s further improvements on the hydraulics followed, making them safer. In many places these toilets are still in use today.

Another major breakthrough came in around 1820 when the flush-type toilet was invented by Albert Giblin in Britain. The design is basically the syphon toilet with a water reservoir to flush the load away with one swift tug on the rope. This model is still quite common today. There's a frequently told myth about a certain Thomas Crapper having invented the flush-type toilet. It's not true, he worked on certain developments on the piping of toilets, but he did not invent the flush toilet. His name, however, lives on as the slang word crap meaning 'to defecate'. Since the 1820s there have been no fundamental changes. Minor improvements have included a more economic or ecologically sensible water controlling system, ergonomic designs, the implementation of canalisation and the invention of the toilet-rooms in European homes, rather than having an outside toilet. In 1857 personal hygiene was developed further by the invention of toilet paper by the American Joseph Cayetti.

Meanwhile in Asia where there were already bathing and massaging facilities equipped with toilet-like devices for the wealthy, the cheaper European toilets invaded the homes of the less wealthy classes, becoming the standard toilet design all across the world.


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