HISTORY OF TOILETS
From the earliest civilizations to the present day, personal hygiene, sanitation and the way in which certain “bodily functions” were performed, have changed substantially.
With regard to such important but inconvenient “physiologic activities”, from the Renaissance onwards the reserve becomes so great that people had to invent some “vulgar” terms to call them, as shit, piss, etc., while generally they remain vague, simply and generically stated as “corporal acts”. Instead, in writing or officially are used a few scientific terms like urinating and defecating.
The same applies to the “place” used to dump them, commonly and improperly called “toilet” or “bathroom”, as to hide their primary function, with some foreign term that became very common, as “toilet” (or toilette, French term dating back to 1681 to indicate, more generally, body care and laundry), or the English term “WC” (water-closet, to indicate the siphon system, from which then, the term Italianized of ‘vater’ ). In Italian, some vulgar terms outlast, as “cesso” (from the Latin word “cedere” which means to go off or to seclude), or the old “latrine” (from the Latin lavatrina, laundry or bathroom). Our civilization has always thought to the toilet as a private place, a secluded one where not all are able to pursue their own physiological needs in the presence of other people.
Yet, from Neanderthal man to the Middle Ages, things were just different!
Due to lack of data it is difficult and sometimes impossible to determine which basic knowledge of hygiene existed on that time.
Certainly, it is easy to imagine that for primitive men some word like shame and discretion did not make sense and, in the absence of any inhibitions the incontinence had to even be the norm, while they squatted on the ground at any time for the few minutes it takes to rid the gut.
About Egyptians, by hieroglyphics and objects found in the tombs, we knows that there was a legislation about hygiene, along with a rudimentary medical science. There were exact precepts for burial, prescriptions on how to keep homes clean, rules for food, sexual relations, etc…. Alike Babylonian medicine, it was a combination of empirical rationalism, mysticism and religious requirements.
Although the first evidence of the existence of soap dates back to 2800 BC. and comes from the excavations of ancient Babylon, the papyrus of Hebe in 1500 BC. already describes the method of producing a soap used by the Egyptians, combining animal fat or vegetable oil with a salt called “trona” which was collected in the Nile valley. At the time of the Greeks, the physician Galen recommended the use of soap to clean and as a preventive method of certain diseases. Even in Europe there was a production of soap made by Gauls and Teutons, perhaps similar to the one used by Celtic peoples, while Romans had to import it from Gaul. At the time of the Egyptians, people made their physiologic needs outdoor in small holes (free spaces weren’t lacking), then covering them. Obviously to pharaohs, priests and upper castes were reserved specific private rooms and tools, while we know that Cleopatra was already using the gold pots covered with velvet.
Greeks are famous for their fragrant bathing but had no toilets or public latrines, and all had to deposit their own excrements wherever they could, and so it was common to piss next to a column or a wall. For this, a suitable decree forbade to urinate and defecate in temples and in important public places, at least. I suppose that for those people, every way was appropriate to clean themselves, perhaps waiting to go back at home or to have water on hand.
Romans gave great importance to the “bodily acts” and were masters in this too. Famous their huge aqueducts and the sewer (cloaca maxima) that developed in the subsoil of Rome. Fountains, pools, thermae and latrines, equipped with running water, were in common use in the Roman Empire. Each noble had its own personal latrine inside or outside, even if made only of a simple hole in the soil but with a drain connected to a small black pit in the ground.
In those days there were no undergarments and it only needed to raise the robe, while in public toilets everyone could be naked and there were special containers of water with sponges tied to one handle, used to wipe the butt without getting the hands dirty. Hygienically, this was not the best, but for those who had a private sponge this system was better than leaves, grass, corn, soil or even stones used by various civilizations, over the centuries, to clean their buttox outdoor. In Rome, public latrines were large rectangular or semi-circular rooms with marble seats along the walls, with holes on the top and the drains for water below.
Although the room had to be shared and seats next to one another, for Romans was normal getting together to defecate, as well as bathing or massage all together at the thermae (under the auspices of the goddess Hygeia, which the term hygiene comes). Latrine often was a place to meet, to talk, to do business or for having quick sexual encounters. We find drains and sewers only for public latrines, while dwellings, houses or villas had wells blacks, or failing that, the excrements were placed in special containers and thrown away in the street. People or plebs was perhaps less accustomed to frequent washing and it is assumed that they do not always went to the public toilets to pee. Things got worse for the slaves who had the duty to clean the latrines and empty the wells blacks. Even to the borders of the empire, near the fortifications around Hadrian’s Wall in northern England, were found huge latrines with running water which carried away the droppings, while at every stop of marching armies, flying latrines were prepared for the troops.
Emperor Vespasian (69-79 AD) puts a tax on urine collected from individuals. In fact, the urine was used by laundry shops to obtain and sell ammonia with which the woolen cloth were dealt, and that together the vinegar were also useful to prepare firefighting solutions. For this reason, the shopkeepers placed outside their shops one container in which every passerby could freely urinate at open air, which is why, centuries later, the public urinal was called “vespasian”. But the first examples of sewers date back even to 3000 BC and have been found in the Indus Valley (Mohenjo-Daro), between the present India and Pakistan, while the first real historical evidence of a toilet with clean water dates back to the time of King Minos on the island of Crete, around to 1700-2000 BC. It was made of ceramic and wood, with a culvert that carried the dregs to the river.
In the Middle Ages, the chamber pot, that had already made its appearance in Roman times, was still being used and shamelessly people did their needs in front of the others. At least until the early Middle Ages, the sense of personal hygiene was very much alive and the custom of bathing was widespread. There were public baths and spa rooms that allowed men to meet and relax in a pleasant environment. The fashion of the bathroom and latrine construction, a sign of the roman cultural heritage, on that time were more or less common throughout Europe.
Oddly enough, in later years, not only there were no improvements, but the situation deteriorated and even the hygiene!
Enlightened people of the moment and the Church were not blameless.
For this, the Middle Ages in general, is considered a dark century where hygienic conditions are decaying, and leading to the spread of many diseases, including some serious one such as typhus and the plague of the 14th century. The use of the “chamber pot” (copper or terracotta) takes over, while the public toilets will slowly disappear. The water, which for the previous civilizations was an important element of cleanliness and hygiene, in this century becomes a dangerous enemy, instead.
The fact that there is no life without water and that it’s the water bringing things to rot and putrefy, brought scientists of the time to think that the bathing or prolonged washing, opening the pores, weakened the human body and predisposing to diseases and infections. Leonardo wrote, “the water penetrates all the porous bodies.”
Bathing made people sluggish and weak, and because of this, after having had a bath most people dressed with clean clothes and tried to stay at home or in bed. Even fresh water was a worry and someone preferred to drink water added with wine or sweetened by aromatic substance, if not the wine itself, instead. A St. Paul’s Epistle admonishes Timothy to stop drinking water and use the wine, and this mistrust is taken from the medical concepts of that time and from a whole series of fragments of folk wisdom that enhance the wine as the blood of man, as stimulant and antidote to various diseases, giving to the water the power to shorten life and cause sadness and melancholy. The wine is even recommended for children, more of the milk itself. The wine eliminates bad moods in adults, worms in children and more (from Pasteur on, then it also will kill microbes). Proverbs and Sayings bloomed in abundance:
“Good wine does good blood,”
“Two fingers of wine are a kick to the doctor,”
“Wine is the milk of the old”
“Wine is the blood of man,”
“The wine lengthens the life, water shortens the years,”
“The water is bad, wine makes you sing.”
At that time there were two philosophies about diseases, there were those who believed that they were transmitted through contact with objects or people who are sick, and those who believed it was enough to breathe unhealthy, fetid, or stinking air to get sick. The water, in any case, facilitated the spread of the infections. For this reason, only the most visible and exposed part of the body, like hands, feet and face were washed more often, sometimes only with a damp cloth, while clothes had the task to protect and keep the body clean, absorbing the dirt. Over time it came to have only two “official” bathes during the existence, one before marriage and another after the death, and both representing the beginning of a new phase. Usually marriage took place in June while the annual bathe in May. Since each spouse began to stink, the bride got into the habit of carrying with her a bouquet to cover the smell during the marriage. Hence the custom for brides to carry a bouquet.
When it happened to take a bath at home, the first to jump in the container was the man followed by older children, then women, lastly children and babies. All this, of course, without water changes and that is why in the end the water was so dirty and black that it was not uncommon to hear the phrase, “Be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater!”
Another issue was not so much the amount or the transport of the water from the wells to the house, but its heating. During travels, gentlemen carried everything necessary for the bath and there was usually a servant who took care. During summertime, the wood hot tub was placed outside in the garden, while near a fireplace in winter. In wintertime only the rich could afford enough wood to heat the water, and so the majority of the population resorted to the bath only during the warm season. The gentlemen had special bowls, bigger with more seats, covered with cloth or velvet and made use of flowers and herbs. Common people had to make do with a simple cask, cut on the top.
Water, beyond be disliked by science, became a moral danger also for the Church. It was something sinful, so much so that St. Catherine of Siena did not walk where there was water for fear of sinning. St. Jerome discouraged any persons, especially young girls, to bathe as not to expose the naked body; San Benedetto often said that those who were in good health, and especially young people, had not to bath. Saint Agnes died at thirteen without ever having washed herself. In particular, washing private parts could lead to temptation, and even centuries to come, among country women survived the conviction that “washing below, or “touching” some part of the body were sinful.
Christianity and filth marched hand in hand because prevailed the principle that the baptized person did not need any other purificatory and, as many asserted, the Christian religion took care for the health of the soul and not of the body. For the Church, even public latrines were considered ambiguous and places of perdition, and, in this regard, St. Boniface called them “hotbeds of vice,” while St. Benedict “dens of the devil.”
In the lack of respect for public latrines and in the absence of sewerage systems or small pits blacks, the easiest way to eliminate the scum was “set et simplicter” throwing everything out of the house. And, in fact, at least in the cities, streets and alleys became the receptacle of shit and urine. Every morning there was no house from which from the door or window the chamber pots were emptied by the scream: <Look out! >
In the morning, even if it was not raining, it was not unusual to see people walking around with an open umbrella. In the summer especially, the air in the streets might not be very pleasant and only in the countryside the excrements were used as manure. It was even customary to feed the farm animals with excrement. In urban areas crossed by rivers, while they boasted streets cleaner and less smelly, on the other hand the water was infected and polluted because everything was thrown in the rivers. For years, this situation led to an increase in infectious diseases, especially in the big and populated cities. In urban areas of England one in two children died before their fifth birthday because of tuberculosis, typhoid, dysentery, cholera and other infectious diseases. In 1348, the first wave of the Black Death that hit England in the county of Dorset, led to the death of one third of the population, while rats and fleas thrived between dirt and trash.
In the Middle Ages it was normal to drink 3 to 4 liters of wine a day, because alcohol disinfected, while the water at disposal wasn’t sure. The Commissioner for Health in London, Edwin Chadwick, showed that most poor people died because of the terrible conditions in which they lived, improving their living conditions would have lived longer. Nobles and rulers reacted negatively. Then, when they too began to die of cholera, (with the London epidemic of 1849) began to realize that their health was correlated with the environment, and therefore to be agree with what Chadwick advocated, namely: “Air, Water and Electricity” for all, irrespective of caste.
In the end of the Middle Ages, there was hardly any house or person without a chamber pot. They ranged from a simple metal carafe to keep under the bed, to the most comfortable and suitable wooden seats (commodes), with classic keyhole-shaped (useful for men to urinate while sitting), with in a removable container below. In nobles and kings homes the luxury even brought to artistic seat-throne on which be sat also while receiving guests. We read that Louis XIV (1638-1715) announced his marriage, while he was sitting in his luxurious and comfortable “toilet-throne” in the royal hall. It is said that the Duke of Beaufort, Monsieur de Vendome (1616-1669), even wiped his butt while the bishop of Parma was in his presence during a negotiations, and that’s why he went away angry. In 800, Richard Ginori had in catalog many types of pots, which were normally part of the trousseau. In the courtyards or in small countries the WC still were narrow wooden cabins with a small hole in the bench and with a channel or ditch below. In the castles was not unusual to find small latrines made of stone protruding from the external walls, so that the excrements fell directly on the ground below.
About personal hygiene, shaving was difficult and painful and so infrequent as razors were simple knives for carving or chopping meat, often old and not sharp. The haircut was not easy because the scissors were small pincers which tore up instead of cutting. Only a few aristocrats in the thirteenth century had toothbrushes and usually they rubbed green wood of hazel onto the teeth and then a woolen cloth. The combs were quite common and the mirrors had a functional and decorative use. We also find descriptions of the use of decorated fingernails and about the cleaning of the ears, also if we can assume that not many people could afford these objects. A fifteenth century etiquette advised the nobles to accept the parasites as a natural fact, but “not scratching their heads or remove lice, fleas or other parasites and kill them in the presence of other people.” Better pieces of soap were available only after the twelfth century, and generally consisted of mutton fat, wood ash or potash and soda natural. Sometimes it also were added herbs. The soaps prepared in the south of France and Italy contained olive oil, soda and small quantities of cedar. To wash and whiten clothes, women often used a solution of lye (a liquid solution, obtained by boiling sifted ashes of good quality) together soil white clay. Only in the seventeenth century the hygiene and the habit to bathe came back into vogue in Europe, while the trade of soap became so profitable to push in 1622, King James I of England to grant a monopoly of its production for the equivalent of 100,000 euro per year. In the following centuries, the use of soap became quite common in all strata of the population. To meet these new requirements, manufacturers worked to find methods that would allow a large-scale production. Almost until the end of the nineteenth century, soap was the only detergent with surfactant properties. The history of synthetic detergents began only in the twentieth century, when the shortage of some basic materials for the production of soap (fats during the First War, and of oils during World War II) stimulated the search for synthetic alternatives.
Paradoxically, to defeat certain diseases, the action of water and soap were most decisive than the intervention of doctors and medicines. Hygiene, in fact, played a decisive action towards intestinal diseases (gastroenteritis, typhoid fever, dysentery), and in diseases transmitted from person to person (as in the case of typhus due to lice).
While waiting for the water-closed, the chamber pot was necessary until a few years ago, and the first true prototype of what would later become the future toilet was only invented in 1596 by the godson of Queen Elizabeth I, John Harrington. It was placed in the rooms of the Queen and consisted of a seat with a water tank over, openable by a tap and a trapdoor valve, which let then drain away the sewage in a cesspool below. Sir Harington called it Ajax (from the Greek name of Ajax that in English sounds like “a jakes” or “latrine”) and the cost was only 6 shillings and 8 pence. But he was so proud of his invention who mentioned it in a book and the Queen indignantly got rid of it, thus the invention did not have the success it deserved. For large-scale production will need to wait another 200 years or so.
In 1738, JF Brondel resumed Harington’s invention and put forward some changes. The English watchmaker Alexander Cummings, in 1775, improved the invention with the addition of a siphon at the level of the valve, which, thanks to the continuous presence of water, eliminated definitively the problem of smells, enjoying a great success. Other technological improvements have been made in 1777 by Joseph Preiser and others followed until 1883, when in France made its appearance the “WC” as we know it today. Meanwhile, in many countries, the toilet called “turkish” had a great widespread, because in this way people got rid of health problems. It consists in a simple hole in the ground where people had to squat simply. In 1739, in Paris, separated toilets for men and women appeared, while in 1824 the first public toilet.
Only in 1886 the Englishman Thomas Crapper (hence the term “crap” derives) invented the water tank above the seat, which thanks to a number of levers and a tie with one iron chain, it was possible to flush the toilet.
For security reasons, these toilets were banned in the prisons.
But the success of the WC came with the creation of a large underground sewer system that, starting from the big cities, involved slowly every town. Some sewers, such as those in London, became known because so large as to be used as an escape and refuge for thieves, prostitutes and gamblers.
In 1710 also the bidet made his first appearance (French term for pony, by analogy with the position to take sitting on it), installed in the apartments of the king of France after its inventor Monsieur Christophe Des Rosiers. Only in the twentieth century then became an object of common use in many countries (paradoxically, it is not widespread in France where he was born, but also in England, Africa, United States, Asia and the Middle East). In 1890, in America, thanks to Scott Paper Company, makes its appearance the toilet paper roll.
If someone asked us “what invention has deeply changed the modern civilization”, our response will probably be different from person to person, but only a few would mention the essential toilet, for sure!