The Bathroom: An Epic

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“CAN YOU THINK,” HOUSE & GAR - den inquired in September 1926, “of any room in the house which reflects the progress . . . of comfort and of convenience . . . more than the bathroom?”

Indeed. What room of the house incorporates modern notions of convenience quite so well as the bathroom? What one room so delineates the house of today from the house of old?

Yet in 1926 the bathroom was still far from universal. No one knows exactly how many there were, but even when the U.S. Census Bureau began tabulating such things in 1940, only a bit more than half of American homes (55 percent) had at least one complete private bathroom. By the mid-1990s bathrooms were very nearly universal, and long forgotten was the slow process by which the bathroom became an essential element of modern civilization.

Take its fundamental feature. Of all the standard conveniences of modern life, perhaps none that is so simple took so long coming into use as the toilet (or water closet, as it was long called in America). After all, it is a relatively straight-forward device made up of uncomplicated parts requiring nothing in the way of computerization and a power source not even as sophisticated as electricity. Basically all it takes to make it work is a few gallons of the most common stuff on earth—water. Yet its general use is only a few generations old.

Long after this straightforward technology became feasible, America, a land famous for embracing innovation, took to it only slowly. Indeed, throughout much of the nineteenth century, disposal of human waste remained as primitive as it had been in the seventeenth: either an outdoor privy (commonly known in colonial times as a necessary or necessary house ) or a chamber pot kept in one’s bedroom or some other suitable place inside the house. In either case the waste went (or was supposed to go) into privy pits—“magazines of putrefaction,” Benjamin Franklin called them. The privy was simply built over the pit.

1854: “A fashion prevails of thrusting these noisome things into the midst of sleeping chambers and living rooms. . .”

It was a matter of common understanding that the pits should be emptied from time to time (in between, a heap of lime was useful). But poorer people could not afford to have this done, and even the wealthier rarely took the trouble. The relatively well-to-do Drinker family of Philadelphia, for example, went from 1735 to 1779 without bothering, and when the time came, it was an occasion worth recording in Elizabeth Drinker’s diary. The work was done after dark, and the family purposely scheduled it for March in hopes the cold weather would cut down on the smell, though Drinker’s children took the precaution of burning incense anyway. Wrote Elizabeth on March 7: “The jobb in our Yard is fmish’d except what the Carpenters are to do—It has been nothing to what we expected—I dreaded it before commencement, and am pleased ‘tis over—[they] were at work two night. . . .” When the carpenters finished up, probably rebuilding the seat, the pit was sixteen feet deep measuring from the seat—”a dreadfull gulph it look[ed] like” to Elizabeth.

We do know that there was some use of the water closet in America very early in the 1800s. One documented instance is the White House; Jefferson ordered one in 1801, but it was not installed until 1804. There were probably water closets in use in Philadelphia by the late 179Os, and perhaps in New York and elsewhere as well.

The earliest water closet in America—and probably the only one of its time—almost certainly was one incorporated into Whitehall, the house built by Gov. Horatio Sharpe in the mid-1760s at Annapolis, Maryland. It was clearly part of the original plan of the house, and there is no reason to believe it was not actually included. It was typical of water closets in use in England going back at least to the early eighteenth century—an uncomplicated design using a marble trough, with water from a remote cistern admitted by turning a stopcock. It was emptied by pulling up a handle, thus raising a plunger device that sealed a hole in the bottom of the trough. Waste emptied into a twelve-foot-high vault.

YET BY THE MID-NINETEENTH CENTURY, WATER closets were still relatively rare and usually to be found only in the homes of the wealthy. Baltimore, for instance, in 1859 had 698 for a population of 212,418. A. J. Downing’s influential Architecture of Country Houses (1850) had plans for thirty-four model homes, ranging in cost from moderate to expensive; only eight of them included water closets. Why not all? These were, after all, model homes, presumably indicative of what was modern.