The History of the Bathroom Part 1: Before the Flush

A close up of a sewers man hole cover on pavement.

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Victor Hugo wrote in Les Miserables that "the history of men is reflected in the history of sewers."... The sewer is the conscience of the city. Everything there converges and confronts everything else."

It has not changed much since Victor Hugo's day. In fact, one could say that the North American development industry is built on poopoo. Basically, you either have ultra-low density development based on individual septic systems or you have development driven by the sewer system- the municipal responsibility of collecting poop and processing it and getting rid of it. But we have only had toilets in our houses for a hundred years or so, and have had cities in North America for longer than that. How did our extravagantly wasteful system develop, how does it tie us down, and how can we solve this problem?

This series will look at how we got the bathrooms we have, what's wrong with them, and what we have to do to fix them.

The History of Human Waste

Human waste used to be a considered a valuable commodity. Urine was used for tanning leather and in the making of saltpetre, an important component of gunpowder. "Pole men" would collect it in vats, carried on a pole. It was a surprisingly competitive industry ; Diarist John Evelyn wrote:

"They digge in dove cotes when the doves be nesting, cast up malting floors when the malt be green, in bedchambers, in sickrooms, not even sparing women in childbed, yea, even in God's house, the Church."

The Value of Night Soil

Night soil was another story; there was more of it than they needed on English farms, which had a nearby supply from livestock and horses. You couldn't give the stuff away. Contrary to some sources that say that it was used on farms, Alan McFarlane writes about the Non-use of night soil in England:

The most detailed account we have of farming in the seventeenth century, that of Robert Loder, mentions various experiments with different kinds of manuring. He used cattle and sheep dung, horse and cow dung, mud from the pound, black ashes (probably wood, peat ash or soot), malt waste, dung from the pigeon-cote But in all of the accounts there is no reference to night soil.

Solid waste was picked up by Gong farmers, who were well paid to dig it out of cesspits; in the 15th century they charged two shillings per ton. They often dumped in the Thames (from the appropriately named Dung Pier) or barged it away, where some of it was used for farming, and more was just piled up in mounds. (One mound known as Mount Pleasant covered 7.5 acres) In continental Europe, things were a bit better managed; Kris De Decker writes about the generally messy European poop management systems:

There were exceptions, notably in Flanders, where an organized nightsoil collecting system that reminds of the Chinese method was set up as early as the Middle Ages. Around the town of Antwerp, the management of organic wastes (human excrements, dung of city horses, pigeon dung, canal mud and food scraps) had become a significant industry by the 16th century. By the 18th century there were great stores along the river the Schelde where the excrements from Dutch towns were transported by barge.

In other countries, the business was sophisticated and competitive. In Japan, the value of your nightsoil varied according to wealth; rich people had better diets and made better quality fertilizer. With their more intensive farming techniques and fewer farm animals, they needed a lot of poop. Susan Haney writes in Urban Sanitation in Preindustrial Japan:

The value of human wastes was so high that the rights of ownership to its components were assigned to different parties. In Osaka the rights to fecal matter from the occupants of a dwelling belonged to the owner of the building whereas the urine belonged to the tenants. ...Fights broke out over collection rights and prices. In the summer of 1724, two groups of villages from the Yamazaki and Takatsuki areas fought over the rights to collect night soil from various parts of the city.

In fact people would even steal it.

The price was so high that poorer farmers had difficulty in obtaining sufficient fertilizer, and incidents of theft began to appear in the records, despite the fact that going to prison if discovered was a real risk.

The Benefits of Separating Waste From Water Supply

chinafarming nightsoil image

In China, they said "Treasure Nightsoil As If It Were Gold." Kris De Decker writes:

The Chinese were as numerous as the Americans and Europeans at the time, and they had large, densely populated cities, too. The difference was that they maintained an agricultural system that was based on human "waste" as a fertilizer. Stools and urine were collected with care and discipline, and transported over sometimes considerable distances. They were mixed with other organic waste, composted and then spread across the fields.

The system worked; in Japan in particular, the water supply and waste management system were kept far apart, and the Japanese rarely had epidemics of typhoid or cholera. Not so in England, where the poop kept piling up in cesspits (and leaking out) and cholera epidemics were killing thousands. The system wasn't working at all.

Next: How a pump handle changed everything.