The Bathroom: An Epic

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Cost of installation was certainly a factor; a water closet was beyond the means of most of the population. Water supply was also a factor, although by mid-century awareness of public health—spurred by the recent discovery that cholera, that particularly ghastly epidemic disease, was spread by contaminated drinking water—was beginning to take on concrete form in municipal sewerage and water supply systems. Boston, for instance, by 1850 was supplying nearly twelve thousand households with piped-in water, at an average cost of eight dollars a year. New York’s new Croton Aqueduct system, completed in 1842, by 1856 was serving nearly fifty-four thousand customers.

Equally as important as water supply was sanitary disposal of waste, which lagged somewhat. The first comprehensive underground sewer system in America was that constructed in ore-fire Chicago from 1856 to 1860.

But there was another powerful factor inhibiting the acceptance of water closets. From time immemorial, human waste had been associated with the outside; one went outdoors to relieve oneself. If one used a chamber pot inside, because of the weather or the hour, one took it outside to dump at the earliest opportunity. Now with the water closet, one was being asked to defy tradition and complete the process inside the house. Besides the matter of habit, there was concern about odors that traditionally belonged outside. A chamber pot could be removed; the water closet was fixed in place. Furthermore, there was a gnawing suspicion that it wouldn’t always work and one’s very private offerings would remain unaccepted instead of flushing discreetly away. Some sense of this resistance to change is evident in an 1854 treatise called Rural Architecture : “A fashion prevails of thrusting these noisome things into the midst of sleeping chambers and living rooms—pandering to effeminacy, and, at times, surcharging the house—for they cannot, at all times, and under all circumstances, be kept perfectly close—with their offensive odor. Out of the house they belong, and if they, by any means, find their way within its walls proper, the fault will not be laid at our door.”

On the other hand, a few years (and not many water closets) later, an engineer named James C. Bayles gave this down-to-earth explanation of why water closets were needed inside the home: “In dry summer weather, they [privies] answer the purpose well enough, perhaps; but in wet weather, and especially in winter, their use involves an exposure which few constitutions are strong enough to bear with impunity. Women are especial sufferers from this cause; hence we find that in wet or cold weather they defer their visits to the privy until compelled by unbearable physical discomfort to brave the dangers and annoyances of a dash out of doors—for which, I may add, they very rarely wear sufficient clothing. The results of the irregularity of habit thus induced are, if possible, even worse than those attending the frequent exposures incident to greater regularity. It is not an uncommon thing for women in the country to allow themselves to become so constipated that days and sometimes weeks will pass between stools. . . . A visit to an outdoor privy in a cold storm or when the ground is covered with snow and the air frosty is attended with a physical shock which even strong men dread.”

Apparatus for disposing of human waste in fact goes back to antiquity—even including the use of water for flushing. A slab with “a groove for a seat” coupled with signs of “some vessel used for flushing,” as described by the British archeologist Sir Arthur Evans, suggests that a primitive water closet was in use at the Bronze Age palace of Knossos in Crete. Rome at its grandest had its famous baths supplied with water from its equally famous aqueducts. These facilities also made use of a plentiful supply of water for communal water closets, where ten to twenty could go at a time (men and woman separately). Waste was conveyed away in sewers. Rome’s very wealthy had private facilities at home; lesser Romans trekked to the public latrinae .

The first water closet reflecting modern principles was probably that built sometime around 1596 by Sir John Harington for the residence he used as high sheriff of Somerset, which by royal request he duplicated shortly thereafter for his godmother, Elizabeth I, at Richmond Palace. Both closets, apparently too imperfect to depend on, disappeared in time, and the queen when at Richmond returned to using a closestool, as she did at her other royal domiciles. The closestool, common among better-off colonial American families, could be as simple as a ladder-back chair with a cloth hanging around the bottom to hide the pot that set it apart from other furniture, or it could be fit for a king, as was a favorite closestool of Henry VIII, a magnificent piece of furniture decorated with black velvet and ribbons and fringes and studded with two thousand gilt nails.

NOTWITHSTANDING THE DISAPPEARANCE OF HAR- ington’s innovation, water closets (perhaps adapted from a description he published in 1596) were in use in England by the late seven-teenth century. The antiquarian John Aubrey told of a visit to the estate of Sir James Carew in Bedington in 1673 where he saw “a pretty Machine to cleanse an House of Office [privy], viz., by a small Stream, no bigger than one’s Finger . . . so that when it was full, a considerable Quantity of Water fell down with some Force, and washed away the Filth.”