A Quick Trip To The Loo (bathroom, for you non-Brits)

A flushing toilet, almost the same as the ones that had a removable bowl.

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.

Please note the plunger handle beside the loo, (the little white circle, not the red and black thing at the back) This loo was flushable!

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.

The chamber pots waiting in the dumb waiter to be sent upstairs to bedrooms, and sent back downstairs in the morning to be cleaned. Also, as this is near to the dining room, gentlemen, sitting over their cigars and brandy or port, were able to pop into the corridor to ‘use the facilities’.

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.

More reading:

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

A stateroom at Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire. This beautiful silk wall fabric disguises a glorious and ingenious design – a new bathroom was fitted for a royal visit that sadly never took place.

A curator holds up a photo of the bathroom hidden behind the walls of this stateroom. I would love to go inside, but unfortunately we weren’t allowed!

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The bath that came in from the cold: the rise of the modern domestic bathroom: part 2

A baby bath now used for logs for the fire

I’ve been re-reading a great book about domestic life: ‘If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home’ by Lucy Worsley. I highly recommend this book for a fascinating, very accessible history of the home. Of bathrooms she says, ‘Bathrooms are now…the only rooms…with a lock on their doors, yet the activities that take place within did not always require privacy’.

The full immersion of the body into water was more of a ritual for spiritual purposes or for political allegiance than it was to do with getting clean. Soldiers would cleanse themselves before going off to the crusades – it was a setting aside of the physical and the spiritual self for the express purpose of going into battle for God. Knights bathed before receiving the    conveyed upon them.

The concept of a room set aside (more or less) for the sole purpose of cleansing the body is a relatively new one. Previously, bathing was a communal, social activity. In the medieval times, both sexes enjoyed bathing in public bathhouses. It was not done to cleanse the body but for fun and relaxation. You could even get a meal sent in to you, and a few pints of ale from a nearby inn. Unfortunately the bathhouses where you could bathe, drink and be merry rapidly acquired a reputation for naughty sexual shenanigans, and it wasn’t long before bathhouses became brothels, pure and simple. There were other concerns too: sharing water with a large number of other people meant that bacteria lurked, and bathing became more likely to infect your body, not less. Bathing began to be regarded with suspicion and distrust, and consequently, people stopped doing it.

This gave rise to the private wash in the bedroom. We have probably all seen the large jug sitting in a matching china bowl on a washstand, a vital piece of furniture. Hot water was carried up from the fires of the kitchen or scullery by panting maids who must have had biceps and shoulders like a modern action movie hero. These days we still see these jug sets in homes, guest houses and boutique hotels, no longer for daily use but for decoration, used to convey a sense of homely comfort and traditional values.

But with bathing out, the emphasis was on the wearing of clean clothes. Underwear was invented, and it became the norm to change the clothes more often. Washing was done in the dim recesses of the servants areas of the large country house, with households employing one, two or sometimes a whole team of laundresses for this particular work. Labour was cheap, clothes were not.

And it wasn’t all about the nasty germs that you might pick up from bathing, nor about having enough staff to fill a bath or run up and down with hot water. From the middle of the nineteenth century more than half of Britain’s population were living in cities. The sheer logistical demands of bringing fresh, clean water into the cities was a nightmare. Remember these places still had open sewers until the beginning of the 19th century. Water, when piping began, was often rusty, or tainted, or just not available due to the inefficiency of the system or the lack of proper distribution. Piped water was often only available at set times, so households had to either manage without, or get used to collecting and storing it until needed. This all required management and planning.

But from the Regency period onwards bathing, at home and beyond, again began to be seen as an important part of everyday life across all social strata. If you watched the new adaptation/reimagining of Jane Austen’s unfinished work, Sanditon on TV recently, you would have enjoyed the sight of gorgeous young men emerging from the sea after a swim – naked, of course, but perilously close to where the ladies are bathing from bathing machines in a ridiculous array of clothing to swim in. In Jane Austen’s wonderful work Pride and Prejudice, the precocious Lydia says, ‘I’m sure I should love to go sea-bathing,’ whilst her mother responds with ‘A little sea-bathing would set me up forever.’

There were still concerns about the dangerous effects of the action of the sea having a stimulating effect on women in particular, as ‘everyone’ knew that women were hysterical creatures at the best of times, and any kind of physical enjoyment was to be strictly controlled. I wonder if the birth rate went up nine months after a trip to the seaside? I guess that depends on whether or not ladies spotted someone like Sidney Parker (aka Theo James!) ambling out of the sea with not a stitch on.

Jane Austen’s works are so popular these days.

In Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland travels to Bath with Mrs Allen to take the waters for their health, and in doing so, they are participating in the huge trend that was sweeping the nation: it was once more a good and healthy thing to do, not to mention a vital aspect of the social calendar for the well-to-do. To go to Bath, to see and be seen in the various rooms of the spa was on everyone’s to-do list. Science – or natural philosophy as it was then called – touted the benefits to mind, body and spirit of warm water containing salts and minerals. They didn’t just bathe in it, either. It was drunk by the pint.

But what if you were too poor to be able to be seen at a trendy spa?

The poor, or even middling wealthy, could of course, always swim in the sea, or lakes and rivers, and were arguably less at risk of the rapid rise and fall of fashionable opinion. New coastal resorts sprang up from the Regency era onwards, and from the middle part of Victoria’s reign the railways took even the less well-off to the coast for a day’s relaxation, walking swimming and sandcastle building. But even at home, the tin bath would come out and be filled with hot water for getting off the week’s grime and starting a new week fresh and clean. Ish.

Faith played a part here. Religion determined your bath night. Did you believe that Sunday or Saturday was the sabbath? Was the start of the new week Sunday or Monday for you? Because that dictated which day of the week your family had their weekly bath. For many, the end of the week was Sunday, and that was bath night, but there were large numbers for whom Saturday was the last day of the week and Sunday the first, so they had their bath on a Saturday night. Scandanavian languages still carry this concept in the everyday word for Saturday – in Swedish it’s lördag, in Danish and Norwegian it’s lørdag, and in Icelandic it’s laugardag (which is the closest to the language of origin). But they all mean the same – pool or bath day. There was also a sense that bathing was a social duty – one had to consider the people aroudn one, and the idea of smelling bad to others was abhorrent.

That long ditch in the middle of the street is the communal open sewer

For most people who were brought up C of E (Church of England/Anglican) Sunday remained the day when you had your weekly bath. And there was a strict order to who got to have the bath: starting with either the eldest or the ‘man of the house’ or main bread-winner (usually all three would have been the father of the family), and proceeding down the chain to the youngest. All using the same water. Can you imagine the state of the water by the end? There is a reason we have an old saying ‘Don’t throw out the baby with the bath-water.’ I’m guessing the water was so murky it would be hard to tell if anyone was left in there, though I sincerely hope no mother would accidentally leave her baby int he water and forget about it. (Said the woman who once took a picture of her baby in her new coat, then left the house, and was halfway into town before remembering the baby was still lying on the sofa… sorry, Darling!)

In 1918, a law was passed in Britain to the effect that all new houses had to have hot and cold running water to a bathroom. But of course, this had no impact on the millions of older homes. Only as finances allowed would bathrooms be added to the terraces and villas across the nation. These days if you buy a Victorian home, you will find either a bedroom or two have been sacrificed to provide bathrooms, or a bathroom has been added on as a built extension to the back of the house, often downstairs.

Fast forward to the Second World War, and hot water was rationed – or rather the coal that was usually the means of heating it, and individuals were only supposed to use a depth of four inches of water per day in their baths. I’m not sure how anyone hoped to regulate this, or how much it contributed to the war effort, but like a lot of things at that time, it gave the community as a whole a sense of ‘doing our bit’ and made people think they were helping their nation to win the fight.

So that’s it, from there we went to actual baths in actual designated bathrooms, and the concept of a daily shower quickly became a normal part of our cleansing ritual.

I want to close with this lovely item. I took this picture at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire. It’s a portable or travelling shower bath. The bamboo supporting canes can be removed, and the water tank at the top taken off, so that the traveller is left with conveniently-sized separate sections that can be readily reassembled on arrival at the destination. Always supposing you haven’t left vital screws, nuts or bolts etc on the dining room table at home. I like to think of it as a kind of IKEA device, with a Scandanavian-sounding name. Maybe The Lördag?

next week – the loo!

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