Last year my family celebrated Easter by coming down with gastro. On Easter Sunday. All four of us. With one toilet (fortunately one of us is still in nappies).
It got me thinking… what on earth did they do when gastro struck before the advent of the indoor flushing toilet? I asked my Mum (who is the original Dr Google and a ‘must-have’ for any trivia night table) who pointed out that they didn’t cope at all. Whole families used to be wiped out from bad bouts of gastro (and still are in areas of the world without modern sanitation).
So I did a little research and here’s what I found out about the history of toilets which made me even MORE grateful for our single humble indoor commode.
Before flushing toilets
They just threw it out the window. No, really. They did. Until the mid-19th century London had no underground sewage system. People did their business in dinky little chamber pots, yelled “gardez-l’eau!” (‘mind the water!’) and tossed it out the open window onto the street.
In 12th century London they had public toilets called ‘garderobes’ – basically a long line of holes that dropped the waste directly into the Thames River. Noice.
Flushing toilets – what a crazy idea!
In 1596 Sir John Harrington invented the first flushing toilet in England. People thought he was mad and stuck to their chamber pots. Oh well…
A predecessor of the flushing toilet, the outhouse was still a feature in the backyards of some Australian households in the mid-20th century. My Mum tells stories from her early childhood about the nightman coming around to manually empty human waste from each house in her neighbourhood.
Picture this: a tiny shed a few metres from your back door. Go inside in the middle of the cold, dark night for the fourth or fifth time because you’ve had a gastro attack. There’s a seat with a hole in it and a pan underneath. No flush. At some point during the wee hours of the morning some poor sod will come around with his horse and cart to empty your pan. Lordy-loo.
When I was little the shed which housed the outdoor loo still stood at my Nan and Pop’s house. It was a source of horror and fascination to us kids who loved to terrify each other with made-up stories of having to go in the middle of the night and getting bitten on the bum by spiders.
My Gran’s house still had a functional outdoor toilet. They’d just run plumbing to it so it could be used as a second toilet (there was also one inside the house by that point). Again, scary stuff for kids. Spiders. Toilets. Never the twain should meet.
The modern indoor flushing toilet
Back to Ye Olde Englande: by 1855 a cholera epidemic in London had claimed around 20,000 lives – an almost direct result of poor sanitation. The English were finally convinced that building an underground sewage system was probably a good idea. Once London had the underground sewage system in place they had to think up a system that flushed the water down to the sewers instead. Enter flushing toilets.
And so I would like to give my thanks to Alexander Cummings who, in 1775, patented the invention of the first flushing toilet. I’d also like to thank Thomas Crapper who came along in 1861 and tested and developed the idea into something that really caught on in the modern world.
Toilets are now recognised as such important pieces of modern technology that there is a World Toilet Day, hosted by the World Toilet Organisation (it’s November 19th if you’d like to pause to diarise it now).
P.S. If this post has made you feel particularly strongly about the value of toilets, you can donate to CARE Australia’s Toilet Appeal. On a more serious note, over 2.5 billion people live without access to a safe toilet. Almost 3,000 children will die from diarrhoeal diseases today – but these deaths can be easily prevented. $84.00 can provide three households with toilets.