The Water Closet

Excuse Me, I Have to Powder My Nose – Cheryl St. John

I’d wager that an author uses about one to five percent of the research she gathers during the plotting and planning of a story. It’s a skill to learn how to store and document gathered information and how to integrate it seamlessly into a story. Writers are fascinated by research, often to the degree that we have to draw a line so we can actually write the book. During the planning of a book, I researched indoor plumbing for the date.

Plumbing is by no means a modern invention. Ancient plumbing is found in the ruins of rudimentary drains, grandiose palaces and bathhouses, and was used in vast aqueducts and lesser water systems of empires long buried. Close to 4,000 years ago, the Minoan Palace of Knossos on the isle of Crete featured four separate drainage systems that emptied into great sewers constructed of stone. Terra cotta pipe was laid beneath the palace floor, hidden from view and providing water for fountains and faucets of marble, gold and silver that jetted hot and cold running water. Fubar_Obfusco-Wikimedia Commons Harbored in the palace latrine was the world’s first flushing “water closet” or toilet, with a wooden seat and a small reservoir of water. The device, however, was lost for thousands of years amid the rubble of flood and decay.

There was a noble origin to the water closet in its earliest days. Sir John Harrington, godson to Queen Elizabeth, set about making a “necessary” for his godmother and himself in 1596. An accomplished inventor, Harrington ended his career with this invention, for he was ridiculed by his peers for this absurd device. He never built another one, though he and his godmother both used theirs.

Two hundred years passed before another tinker, Alexander Cummings, reinvented Harrington’s water closet. Cummings invented the Strap, a sliding valve between the bowl and the trap. It was the first of its kind. However, it didn’t take long for others to follow Cummings lead. Two years later in 1777, Samuel Prosser applied for and received a patent for a plunger closet. One year later, Joseph Bramah’s closet had a valve at the bottom of the bowl that worked on a hinge, a predecessor to the modern ballcock. A sailor himself, Bramah’s closet was used extensively on ships and boats of the era.

Not until the 16th Century would Sir John Harington invent a “washout” closet anew, similar in principle. And it would take still another 200 years before another Englishman, Alexander Cumming, would patent the forerunner of the toilet used today. The luminous names of Doulton, Wedgwood, Shanks, and Twyford would follow. But it’s to the plumbing engineers of the Old Roman Empire that the Western world owes its allegiance. The glory of the Roman legions lay not only in the roads they built and the system of law and order they provided. It was their engineering genius and the skill of their craftsmen that enabled them to erect great baths and recreation centers. Amazingly, aqueducts from sources miles away supplied water.

Waste management took a turn for the worse following the fall of the Roman Empire. In the 15th and 16th centuries, English castles had small rooms featuring a wooden or stone seat placed over a vertical shaft that leading to a moat, a barrel, or a pit. Poorer people simply threw their wastes into the gutter. Indeed, people have not always treated their bodily wastes with the ritualistic sophistication of saying, “Excuse me, I must go powder my nose.” Quite the contrary, in England and much of Europe during the industrial revolution, when so many people moved to the cities and into crowded and unsanitary living conditions, politeness dictated that people tossing waste out of their windows onto the street below were to shout, “Gardez L’eau” (literally “watch out for the water”). This saying remains a part of British vocabulary today in the use of the word “loo”, slang for toilet.

Things got so bad in England that in 1848 a Public Health Act was passed mandating some kind of arrangement for every house whether it be a flush toilet, a privy or an ash pit. The Act did little to solve the problem for soon after the streets were cleaned up, the rivers started to reek. The Thames quickly gained a reputation as a “cesspool” and in the hot summer of 1859, the smell from the river was so pungent that Parliament had to be suspended. Disease, and cholera in particular, was a problem.

Things weren’t any better in the colonies. Cholera spread through the immigrants from infected European countries. Irishmen, fleeing the poverty of the potato famine and able to scrape together three pounds for passage, carried chamber pots on their journey to North America. The crowded conditions created by greedy ship owners who forced as many as 500 passengers in space intended for 150 resulted in dangerous conditions. Passengers shared slop buckets and rancid water.

At Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate, visitors can still see his indoor privy with a system of pulleys for servants to empty the pots from his earth closet. In another display of American ingenuity, William Campbell and James T. Henry received the first American patent for a toilet called a plunger closet, granted in 1857. Largely unsuccessful improvements continued to be made in the 1870s to 1890s in the search for sanitary water closet. American designs were generally inferior to English ones and most water closets of this period were imported. A wide variety of products was offered including those with decorative bowls, glazed underneath with artistic designs, some even stamped with the names of well known pottery manufacturers.

Engineer Julius W. Adams provided the framework upon which modem sewerage is based. In 1857, Adams was commissioned to sewer the city of Brooklyn, which then covered 20 square miles. There was no data available in proportioning sewers for the needs of the people. Yet, working from scratch, Adams developed guidelines and designs that made modern sanitary engineering possible. More importantly, he published the results. By the end of the century, his how to textbooks would be available for towns and cities across the country.

The pieces to the puzzle of good plumbing had finally come together: Proper venting, waterworks and sewers brought the closet indoors to stay. American potters duplicated the successes of their English predecessors, and then some. Finally, the mass production line brought down the cost of production of fixtures, fittings and valves, making them affordable and available from the rich on down. With the final correlation between disease and water borne bacteria the impetus to plumbing was complete.

Chicago is credited with having the first comprehensive sewerage project in the country, designed by E. S. Chesbrough in 1885, but it was the city of New York that provided the model for the development of water supply and sewage disposal systems across the country.

Rare Decorated Toilet Bowl c  1900-wikipediacommonsThomas Twyford revolutionized the water closet when he built the first trapless toilet in a one-piece, all china design. A preeminent potter, Twyford competed against other notable business including Wedgwood and Moulton. Twyford’s design was unique in that it was of china, rather than the more common metal and wood contraptions. The internal workings of his water closet were the work of one the first pioneers of the sanitary science. It was a design the Twyford would refine and promote for the rest of the decade.

Archaeological evidence shows most 19th century dwellings did not have indoor plumbing, though occasionally a property for which no outdoor privy can be located is discovered. Beginning around the mid-1850s, a few finer homes had built in bathrooms. Around the turn of the century brought flushers, outdoor toilets with clay or iron drain pipes leading into an underground vault, an underground brick structure plastered on the inside and having a exit drain tile near the top. Sometimes flushers were built right on top of older holes, the older hole serving as the septic tank.

Our language is full of euphemisms to describe waste management. Look at the silly things we teach our kids. Potty? We have the restroom, the washroom and the bathroom as though we were going for a rest or a bath when we excuse ourselves. Everyone knows what we’re doing. The word toilet, which is less acceptable than any of the above, is derived from a French word meaning shaving cloth.

Classic Closets - Thomas Crapper and Co-wikipediacommons

Our ancestors had euphemisms for the “necessaries” as they called them: The outhouse, or the privy. When no plumbing was available, they used containers which they labeled chamber pots, thunder pots or, less often, thunder mug. No Victorian bedroom would have been complete without the necessaries either tucked under the bed or beside it in the commode. A commode was a low cabinet sometimes fitted with top with a hole in it.

For hundreds of years the privy provided not only a place for elimination of wastes, but also a convenient place to deposit trash. Across the nation the pattern is ubiquitous. In the early privies, those dating before 1840, very little in the way of artifacts have been found; usually only kitchen scraps, bones and seeds, window glass, and shards of pottery or porcelain are discovered. Containers were valuable. Glass was reused or sent back to factory for cullet, broken glass used by the glass factories to start a new batch.

Wholesale dumping of household trash, based on archaeological evidence, began increasing around the 1840s – 1850s, matching the rise in industry. As people began to accumulate greater and greater quantities of refuse, greater quantities of outhouse artifacts are available. With the rise in the incidence of indoor plumbing, other places had to be found for dumping; hence the increase in the number of town and city dumps.

There are websites devoted to the artifacts found in old privies. No wonder it’s so easy to get caught up in a subject when the Internet has put all this information at our fingertips. Have I used any of that information in a book? Only one. In one of my Harvey Girls stories I have a character break a stack of plates and toss them down the privy. The hero catches her, but keeps her secret.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who gets caught up in research, but this is probably one of the strangest subjects that has interested me. Do you think you’ll take your “powder room” for granted the rest of the day?




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Charlotte Russell

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