These days it is more or less standard to have 2 or maybe 1.75 bathrooms per average home in the Western world. If you ever watch a house moving TV show, such as Escape To The Country or similar, top of most home-buyers’ wish-list is an en-suite bathroom to the main bedroom. I’d say probably the majority of families have a main bathroom with a toilet, shower/bath and a wash basin, and many have a spare ‘loo’ (toilet) in addition to the one in the main bathroom. Not everyone, but many people do. It’s quite easy these days too to stick a new loo in any unused walk-in cupboard, or utility room, or to section off a piece of a large bedroom. A lot of people think of a luxury home as one that includes more bathrooms. The bathroom has become our special little private world for relaxation as well as taking care of our bodies. Though we don’t really give the same attention to our toilets as we do the rest of the bathroom.
Can you imagine sharing your toilet with a dozen other families? What about if those families all have four or six kids? That’s a lot of trips to the loo!
Yet that used to be normal. In fact, it was once common for even larger numbers of people to all use the same toilet all the time. It’s easy to see how contagious diseases and infections could sweep through a whole community very quickly. Add to that open sewers running (literally) down the middle of the street and the potential for an epidemic is huge. There were several major outbreaks of cholera in London in the nineteenth century, and there can be little doubt that contaminated drinking water from the sewer-filled Thames was the cause.
In Judith Flanders’s book The Victorian House, the author quotes a report from 1858 (the same year as ‘The Great Stink’ when London was sunk beneath a terrible sewer stench resulting from a long hot summer) that the army wanted to combat the high number of deaths amongst servicemen that could be attributed to disease and poor hygiene. Flanders says, ‘When the Army improved the ventilation ‘and nuisances arising from latrines and defective sewerage’ in its barracks, the death rate dropped dramatically’. (Nuisances here means spillage, overflowing, and the smell, not to mention infestation of pests.)
So it seemed the time was finally ripe for an advancement in the provision of hygienic solutions. It was time for a loo.
Just let me clarify for overseas readers. In Britain, you are more likely to be invited to make use of a loo or a w.c. or a lav. Any of these means toilet. If you are in a public place, most people will announce (but why?) that they are going to the ladies’ or to the gents’, or (cringe) to the little boys’ room/little girls’ room. Brits usually ‘pop’ to the loo. No idea why. Brits rarely say they are going to the bathroom. American visitors, in Britain if you ask for a bathroom, people will look at you oddly, wondering why you need to take a bath right now.
When I studied Spanish years and years ago, we laughed like mad when our teacher told us a very old-fashioned word for the loo in Spanish was el retrete. I loved it though, and thought it was a very useful descriptive name. Maybe they should bring that back? I think a lot of people like the idea of ‘retreating’ to use the loo in peace. Or beating a hasty retreat.
In Britain too we talk about ‘spending a penny’, a coy euphemism dating back to the days when you had to put a penny in the slot of the lock mechanism to open the door of a public loo. Though when we were kids we used to hold the door open for one another as we came out, and save our mums a fortune. These days it will probably set you back 20p or 50p in places where they still charge money to use the toilet. Who knows, it could be more by now.
Flushing toilets, in the modern sense of pulling a chain, pressing a lever, or a button or just waving your hand in front of a detector on the wall, to flush the toilet, is a relatively new concept. But the idea of using a flow of water to sluice out a latrine has been around for hundreds, even thousands, of years, since the Roman times, and probably earlier. Technology seems to rise and fall, doesn’t it, as humans learn a new idea then immediately unlearn it again, only for that same idea to be rediscovered later.
However the notion of a flushing toilet didn’t really fully catch on in the domestic sphere until the recent past. Maybe it was just easier to use a chamber pot then let someone else have the problem of disposal? Or maybe, with plenty of people around to do the more revolting tasks, those with the money to advance technology had no need to do so?
In the first half or even two-thirds of the nineteenth century, toilets for the use of the wealthy or moderately wealthy were still mainly chamber pots under a bed or in a commode, with waste needing to be carried out of the house and ‘disposed of’, sometimes into earth pits or closets, sometimes into a furnace. There were even people, ‘Night-men’, who came to the house to empty all your waste and take it away and sell it–yes, sell it! Urine was valuable for its nitrogen content, so useful in making gunpowder, in dyes, bleaches, and tanning leather, and as an ingredient in cleaning products, whilst poo was a great fertiliser and compost material (still is actually…)
Many households still relied on the outhouse, or outdoor earth-closet. These were not just the arrangements for the working classes, or servants, but were sometimes used by the middle and upper classes too.
In Kate Summerscale’s wonderful true-crime book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, the dead body of a child is found in the earth-closet outside the family residence. This was a fairly well to do family in a large country house, and in 1860, when the murder took place, it was still unremarkable to have an earth-closet in the garden for the use of the servants. (With newspaper as toilet tissue!) The child’s body was found two feet below the seat of the closet, caught or placed on the splashboard (eww!) suspended above the pit for the waste.
In rural areas, even up to the middle of the twentieth century there would be households whose main w.c. was an earth-closet outside and a short walk away from the house. But the flushing toilet first went on ‘display’ to the British public at the Great Exhibition of 1851, and a record number of almost 850,000 people queued over the course of the event to make use of the convenience of one of these new flushing toilets in one of the waiting rooms. It caused such a stir that it was reported in Parliamentary Papers, noting that although urinals had been provided for gentlemen to use in addition to cubicles, there was a much longer waiting time for ladies–nothing changes, does it?
But once flushing toilets were exposed to the British public, everyone wanted one. In middle and upper class households almost everyone had a flushing toilet by the end of the century. Obviously in working class homes, it took a lot longer to catch up with modern hygiene trends. Hence the shared toilets on blocks of slum dwellings, and the composting toilets in the countryside. As I said a couple of weeks ago, that’s almost come back around now, with eco-friendly, low water use toilets being installed in rural and out of the way or arid areas.
The Victorian House by Judith Flanders
Lost Voices of the Edwardians by Max Arthur
If Walls Could Talk by Lucy Worsley
The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale