As we learned in “The Other Little House: The Poo Papers, Part 1”, the great outdoors was—and for many in the world, still is—the place for poop and pee. There, it can gradually return to its natural place in the chemical hierarchy of the planet, getting rained on, windswept, and baked to desiccation by the sun.
As humans crowded together in cities, as early as in ancient Rome, there was a visual and olfactory impetus to privatize P&P, so aqueducts, the precursors of modern sewage systems, were invented (and promptly forgotten about when the Roman Empire fell with a crash). Sitting on a stone throne, with a hole whose use has never been in doubt, probably in a long row or cheerful room with others, was the order of the day in pre-flush times.
Our forefathers and foremothers in the early colonies often lived in isolation, the homestead cabin being a potent symbol of American independence. But even the cabin dweller got tired of stepping in P&P, so the privy, or outhouse, was developed.
However, those Americans in rapidly burgeoning cities could tolerate the privy system only so long. Overcrowding has always been a powerful incentive to figure out a better way to deal with human waste.
What were the driving factors that made us do something that seems, on the face of it, counter-productive: to bring an essentially unsanitary process (P&P) inside the home where it could possibly get into a head-on collision with essentially sanitary processes, such as cooking and cleaning? It took centuries of, what seems like, very slow thinking for us to figure out that, A) P&P is intolerably filthy, and, yet B) there are ways to separate it from food and drink under the same roof.
First, we had to find germs. That search was deductive and took place at a centuries-long pace, delaying the development of the loo a lot longer than one might have wished, considering how easy it apparently was to invent and use gunpowder (for example).
Actually, Aristotle noticed that if insects carried something from decaying stuff, it would corrupt live stuff, but no one did anything about it. So the housefly was free from the swatter for about 2,000 more years, and germs were left to flourish.
Hungarian Jewish physician Ignaz Phillipp Semmelwiez was one the first scientists to see a correlation between decaying body fluids and disease. He puzzled over the fact that medical students who delivered babies were causing mothers to die of childbed fever, while in the clinics run only by simple midwives, the rate of childbed fever was less than half that in the hospital. Semmelweis decided that the incidence of puerperal sepsis (a type of septicaemia), or childbed fever, could be reduced remarkably if medical personnel did one thing: wash their hands after they dissected cadavers. Going from the autopsy theater to the birthing room was, he recognized, the cause of the problem; in 1847, he instituted the practice of hand washing for those who were going to help deliver babies. Problem solved, but no correlation drawn to other situations or sources of possible infection—such as P&P.
So… by the mid-1800s, through the research of Semmelweiz and others, we suspected there was an element of danger in putting decaying biological matter near healthy living beings. (Florence Nightingale is sometimes credited with “discovering germs” but that is a stretch; in fact, it’s not certain that Florence actually believed in germs, but she did note, like Semmelweiz, that rigorous cleaning of hands and equipment reduced the incidence of such scourges of warfare as gangrene. Probably she got more credit than Semmelweiz because her name is more sonorous than his.)
Still, the toilet, like hygiene in general, waited in the wings.
Certainly, an indoor water supply had always been considered a great boon, and even humble cabin dwellers by the nineteenth century were rigging up all sorts of clever ways to run pipes from the spring into the kitchen or just outside the cabin door for easier dish- and clothes-washing. It was cold water but it could be heated for baths and laundry. By contrast, the indoor toilet was a novelty that some people well into the twentieth century giggled and guffawed at, the butt of jokes about the excesses of the rich and lazy. It took a long time for smart, nominally civilized Americans to come up with an indoor system for dealing with P&P efficiently that would work for the masses, not just for a wealthy few.
Surely, even those who poo-pooed the rare appearance of an indoor poo-place could see some merit in the idea. Any thoughtful farmer might stand at his cabin door on a snowy day and think long and hard about the relative merits of not having to walk 100 feet through a blizzard to deposit a pint of P.
In my research, I learned that Thomas Jefferson’s unique pulley system (allowing slaves to empty the chamber pots of their masters and mistresses) was a mere curiosity, but chamber pots were commonplace. These allowed for some relief from the weather and the dangers of stumbling outdoors at night to empty one’s bladder. The pot, often highly decorative perhaps to disguise their true purpose, could be, ahem, filled at night and emptied under safer conditions during the day. It’s a well-known fact that the practice of having the gentleman escort the lady by walking on the out- or street-side of the pavement came from the practice of dumping (sorry, but one has to give way to a pun now and then when writing on this subject) the contents of the aforesaid pots from second story windows. Gentlemen were expected to take the dousing.
Plumbersupply.com offers this description of a very early example of institutional indoor plumbing: “Outside of a few private homes, hotels were the bastions of luxury and comfort—and indoor plumbing. In 1829, the brilliant young architect, 26-year-old Isaiah Rogers, sent ripples of awe throughout the country with his innovative Tremont Hotel in Boston. It was the first hotel to have indoor plumbing and became the prototype of a modern, first-class American hotel. The four-story structure boasted eight water closets on the ground floor, located at the rear of the central court… In the Tremont, water was drawn from a metal storage tank set on top of the roof, the recently invented steam pump raising the water on high. A simple water carriage system removed the excretal water to the sewerage system.”
But still, indoor facilities were few and far between. And not really considered an option for ordinary people. By the early 1900s, Americans could plough with mechanized machines, tootle around in a horseless carriage, buy ready-made clothes and musical instruments—up to and including pianos—from a Sears and Roebuck catalog, and even contemplate having their own airplane… but they still used smelly, germ-ridden, primitive, earth-pit privies for the most basic, several-times-daily, biological function common to us all.
Many people believe that the model for the modern flush toilet was a pull chain, cistern type device invented by one Thomas Crapper. Crapper really existed, but he didn’t invent the toilet; he did refine it and market it, and he held a patent for an essential toilet technology: the floating ballcock (there’s almost nothing about toilets that isn’t funny!). And we don’t get the words “crap” or “crapper” from Thomas; those words were a lot older than the unfairly lauded Mr. Crapper who lived in Edwardian England; “crappa” means “chaff” in Latin, so the association between plant crap and people crap wasn’t a stretch.
So who did invent the prototype for the most familiar piece of furniture in the modern house: the porcelain throne? It was John Harrington, also English, and his invention goes all the way back to the Elizabethan era. But Harrington had the only one of these exciting innovations, in his own home. Like its many successors, this model was water driven, with a flush valve that opened from a water tank, and a wash-out action to take the contents to… somewhere….and there’s part of the problem. Indoor johns had comfy seats and effective flushing mechanisms, but cities had no sewers, so anyone who had an indoor, sit-down “throne” had to get rid of his/her own waste. If you’ve ever lived in the country and had a septic tank, you know that after some time, that tank will need to be emptied. It’s likely that Harrington’s flushing device fed into a rather small filtering system, not likely to have rendered its environs odor-free, given the limitations of having waste ooze slowly out into his back yard.
That’s why no single invention was enough to bring the outhouse inside. It wasn’t just the crapper, it was the systems required. As was discussed previously, zoning, sanitation, government—all these had to interact to make indoor plumbing a reality. By 1900, people living in town had water haulers, neighborhood fire hydrants, and public water supply. All those advances were quietly making mass-scale indoor plumbing a likelihood, and eventually, a necessity rather than a luxury.
Along with systems was science: the (slowly) evolving understanding of germs and their relation to disease. Around the turn of the twentieth century, Aristotle’s observations and those of Semmelweiz, Nightingale, and others finally started to have an impact. Replacing an earlier conviction that disease was caused by “bad air” (“Mal-aria”) was the germ theory: the understanding that tiny invisible stuff (in the air, in the water, in and on other stuff) causes illness and could be contagious. It took science, but not rocket science, to postulate that anything that smells as bad and looks as unpleasant as P&P is probably laden with these dangerous invisible critters.
Others attribute the advance of the privy into the house to what we now lazily, and often scornfully, call “the grid,” not remembering that there was a time when most of us had no access to the grid and would have given a lot to be hooked in. Arguably, the rush to the indoor toilet really began to happen in the U.S. during the electrification initiatives of the New Deal. People in Appalachia, in the homesteaded lands of the Midwest, in the Deep South, suddenly got a new view of their lives once the lights were turned on. The yen to continue improving by adding more modern conveniences grew apace, as progressive notions generally do. Electricity and water kind of went together. Older people in rural areas may still recall using an outdoor pump and bucket for hauling water into the house. As soon as electricity spread to the boonies, wells could be powered by electric pumps, water came into the house, and toilets followed.
But the advance of the convenience most of us take entirely for granted was a lot slower than we Twenty-firsters might imagine: in 1950, 25% of Americans didn’t have a flush toilet. And at the time of this writing, there are 630,000 occupied households that lack some indoor plumbing (according to the American Community Service). These include folks from Arizona to Iowa, many in Alaska, and plenty still isolated to some extent in Appalachia. It’s worth noting that some of these folks may be using privies by choice, or lacking choice, may yet prefer them.
In response to a question posed on the web, many people from farm and homestead families don’t recall having complete indoor plumbing until well into the second half of the twentieth century. And many more recall using the privy when visiting grandma and grandpa.
Now you had people who wanted indoor plumbing, and you had smart city fellers who could guarantee that with the right appliances and some properly sealed-off chambers euphemistically known as “bath”rooms, you could achieve the dream: dirty stuff in the same place with clean stuff, but sufficiently under control so that germs would be magically whisked away with the tap of a metal handle, no longer harmful. Gone. In the place of the offending material would be the cleanest imaginable fixture, a graceful, white ceramic bowl.
At some point, the toilet just caught up with the rest of progressive ideas. We live in Mayberry in a millhouse neighborhood—almost every house including ours is a neat box with a little slope-roofed addition stuck on, its purpose identifiable by the exhaust pipe poking out of its roof.
So how does the flush toilet do what it does with what we do? Most toilets in America have two parts: the tank and the bowl. When you press down on the flush bar, the tank opens and water fills the bowl, forcing the dirty water out and replacing it with clean water. A refill mechanism draws more water into the tank, and the beautifully named ballcock keeps the water level from rising too high. Of all the appliances in our homes, the toilet is one of simplest to operate. And despite occasional mishaps and near constant work, it is one of the most reliable. It’s no wonder that even the fanatical nature-lovers among us will consider long and hard before rejecting such a marvelous invention.
But there is an area we have not covered in our adoration of the porcelain throne: the paper. Modern toilet paper in a roll on a hanger is so convenient that even those who eschew the water flush toilet will generally opt for The Roll.
I’m proud to note that the design of the current paper roll was developed by brothers bearing the name of Scott. But paper for wiping had long been in use by the time the Scott brothers rolled out their product in the late 1800s. The Chinese used toilet paper in sheets. That was but one material, as the wealthy preferred wool or other cloths, and the poor resorted to rags, grass, or the simple human hand. Water has always been in vogue, and is still offered in places where toileting consists of squatting over a hole in the floor in a very tiny room (India and southern Europe come to mind). Oddly, some ancients used stones for the wiping chore, and someone once proclaimed, perhaps in jest, that the best wiper was “the neck of a goose, well downed” (one hopes it was a joke, at least for the sake of the goose). Before the roll there were moistened, scented papers for the fastidious. And the aforementioned Sears catalog and other paper products available for wasting.
In case you wondered, Americans collectively spend about $2.4 billion on toilet paper each year, and each of us uses 57 squares per day—but I’m wondering, who’s counting?
I can only say, thank goodness for those clever Scott brothers!
Lest we think that the current toilet, handsome and practical as it is, and in recent years far more conservative in its water use, is the end of the sanitation story, let’s look at some future toilet innovations now on the drawing boards and some actually in use.
For the high-tech thinkers, there is the Gates toilet, a grant-funded invention whose purpose is to remove waste for a cost of five cents per person per day. Powered by solar panels, the Gates model would divide the waste into fertilizer and hydrogen, the latter utilized for powering the electrochemical reactor on cloudy days. This toilet is not sewer connected. It is one of those wonderful devices that is not dependent on the grid. The price of this device, still in the refining stages, is not known, and it hasn’t yet reached its five cents per person per day goal. But there’s no doubt this will be in contention for the Flush of the Future.
There’s the folding toilet, developed at University of Huddersfield, that reduces water consumption by 50% over conventional johns, and quietly folds itself up after use, for a sleeker looking bathroom, one assumes. There are toilets operated by a touch screen; toilets that warm your feet and your seat. There are toilets with a table for your iPad; toilets built purely for the comfort of your nether parts; and possibly my favorite, a cute little trainer potty with a built in touch screen for your toddler’s entertainment. For outdoor living and remote homesteading, composting toilets are constantly being upgraded with portable models being quite a realistic option.
Though I like to think I enjoy rustic living, and would not mind a day or even a week or two without modern toys and luxuries, the one thing about late-20th-early-21st century living I do not believe I could do without for very long would be a clean, white bowl with an efficient flush handle, set in a sparkling, commodious chamber with a plump, full roll of soft paper, curiously just the right size for most human hands, within easy reach.