Sunday, January 02, 2005

Pre-1600 Waste Management Pape

(Note: I have removed the footnotes and pictures from this article. Please email me if you have questions.)

Because You Are Wondering Why

I blame family tradition on my interest in this topic. When I was a young girl, my father would pile us up in the van and go for Sunday drives with us in the country. It was our job to stare out the window and yell if we spotted a privy. When we spotted a little house out in back of the barn or old farmhouse, we’d pull over, and Da would get the camera to go take pictures. Sometimes the owner would come out and talk to us, and sometimes one of us would pose shyly holding the door open. Of course if the thing was actually still used, we wouldn’t go anywhere near it because of the smell. Most were falling apart, and a few were converted to tool sheds. My father took all of the pictures and used them to update a humorous slide show that he inherited from his father. Da is still occasionally offering this slideshow to various civic organizations for the entertainment value. Researching this topic was moderately easy- all I had to do was raid the family library. Unfortunately, my father’s books were primarily focused on the Americana aspects that do not fall within the pervue of our period, and my grandfather’s texts were focused more upon the humor inspired by the necessary. Therefore I did get to research more than my predecessors, and I’ve been sharing all of these gems with my father. It also makes me wish I’d known my grandfather better, as he surely would have appreciated this effort. “To the historian,” says Siegried Giedion, “there are no banal things.”

In the beginning

The earliest written sanitation laws of which I am aware appear in the Bible, in Deuteronomy 23:12-14: “Also you shall have a place outside the camp, where you may go out; and you shall have an implement among your equipment, and when you sit down outside, you shall dig with it and turn and cover your refuse. For the Lord your God walks in the midst of your camp, to deliver you and give your enemies over to you; therefore your camp shall be holy, that He may see no unclean thing among you and turn away from you.” The city of Jerusalem had a Dung Gate, and outside of that was an area called gehenna or no man’s land where the dung was left. Gehenna was also interpreted as Hell in Hebrew, and there is some speculation that this is what was meant when Jesus went to Hell to speak with Satan.

The palace of Knossos, Crete

Much has been said of the marvelous flushing toilets at the palace, mostly by folks enthusiastic about the idea of flushing toilets being period. Frankly, if we were confronted with these innovative toilets that we would recognize them as flushies, and probably be surprised by the smell- albeit these are probably sweeter smelling than other arrangements of the time. The palace at Knossos in Minos around 2000 BC had a drainage system made from terra cotta pipes that drained into sewers. The pipes had handles not for ease of handling, but so they could be lashed together and not move out of place (See fig. 1).

Each quarter of the palace had its own drainage system, which were flushed by torrential rainwater collected from the roof. The Minoans evidently delighted in hydraulic devices, and used such refinements of the science as parabolic curves in the water channels to control to water pressures and flow, and planned for the precipitation of sediment in intermediary catch pits.

Fig 1. Terra cotta pipes in the palace at Knossos and how they fit together.

Figure 2 is a layout of one of the latrines on the ground floor of Knossos. It is fairly obvious that there should be a wooden seat, and there is a drain that is flushed by the rainwater. There is some thought that there should be an earthenware pan, with a way of flushing it from above.

Even without the pan and flushing from above, these were kept clean enough to minimize smell and remarkably hygienic.

Fig. 2 Layout of latrine in Knossos.

Closed sewers in the Indus Valley

In the ancient cities of the Indus valley, flourishing from about 2500 to 1500 BC, many houses had drains that led to closed sewers. These led to pits that needed to be periodically emptied. Each house’s wastewater went into the street drains by way of brick lined pits with outlets about ¾ of the way up, rather like modern septic tanks and grit chambers. Some earthenware pipes, latrines, and masonry sewers of some Mesopotamian cities from 1500 BC are still in use today.

Fig. 3 An early closed sewer at Mohenjo-Daro with stone slab covers.

The Egyptians found the easiest way to get rid of unwanted articles was to carry them to the edge of the desert and abandon things there. The dry heat desiccated anything fairly rapidly. While there were bathrooms in most households, the focus was mainly as a place to bathe. The bather sat in a shallow stone basin, oils were poured on, and then rinsed with water. These would drain into vases that would be manually emptied later. A limestone seat was braced over another vase for taking one’s ease, and this vase also was emptied later. In one example, there were a couple of hollows beside the seat that may have held clean sand for wiping.

Egyptians did use piping from cisterns and from the river, either made with copper (which could not take the pressure to go far), or earthenware. Trenches were stone-carved or brick-lined in the middle of the street to help with drainage, but were not clogged with personal filth. Herodotus thought the Egyptians strange for performing the offices of nature at home, while eating publicly in the streets, but perhaps that tells us more about what the Greeks did in their own lives. While the great philosophers did ponder Utopias, none of them considered alternatives to the filth in their streets.

Fig. 4 Egyptian limestone seat, 1370 BC, in Tel el Armana

All Roads Lead to Rome, All Sewers in Rome Lead to the Cloaca Maxima

The great sewer, the Cloaca Maxima was built in Rome around 500 BC, by the king Tarquinius Sperbus (and later expanded by the king Commodius around 180 AD). This brick-lined covered sewer disgorged into the Tiber and was large enough to take a rowboat along its length to inspect it thoroughly, as Agrippa did when he was aedile in 33 BC. There were seven branches- one for each hill- and rich customers had to pay to be connected to the sewer. At least one connection would be near the kitchen for refuse and convenience, but as these sewers were not vented, the gas could easily come up the pipe whenever the lid was opened. These sewers were also used to drain the streets during rainstorms, and rainwater was the main source of cleansing both streets and sewers. Parts of the Cloaca Maxima are still in use today.

Pliny reports that these sewers were mainly constructed through slave and convict labor, and the shame was so great at being forced to work on the construction was so great, the order was given that all suicides were to be crucified and left on display with no burial permitted. This was deterrent enough to get the job finished. Convicts were also used to keep the sewers clean and unclogged. Enterprising merchants outside their shops left vases called “gastra” on sidewalks. Everyone used these as public urinals. The collected urine was sold to dyers and tanners and other merchants, as human urine is effective at removing grease and as a mordant and cheap dye, with the main active ingredient of ammonia. The emperor Vespasian was inspired by these merchants to build several public latrines. A trench around the middle collected urine, which was sold to merchants who could use it, and the rest was connected to the sewer. These latrines offered no privacy at all, and often men could gather in them and socialize, as they socialized in the public baths. Buckets of seawater would hold sticks with pieces of sponge tied to them, which were used for wiping.

Fig. 5 Examples of Roman latrines.

The poorer folks who could not afford to be connected to the sewer system used jars in their rooms, which were then emptied into public cesspits. Every night, city-paid workers would empty the cesspits, and cart the contents out of town in wagons to be used as fertilizer. Those who could not afford a pot or to pay a fee for entry to the public latrines would use the street or a staircase landing.

The Roman goddess of the sewer was Cloacina. She received prayers for the smooth running of one’s personal drainage systems as well as the preservation and hygiene of the public drainage systems. Stercutius was the god of dung itself and of its myriad uses. Crepitus was the god of convenience and flatulence- he received special prayers when afflicted with the runs.

Sir John Harrington recommended the emperor Vespasion to be deified with the name “Urinatius or Urina, as god of the uses of urine and means to make money from it, as Stercutius is of soyle.”

At Home, in the Middle Ages

The Roman tradition of public latrines continued, just as the public baths did for quite a while after the empire fell. The Church denounced bathing as sinful, and embraced filth as an outward display of penance. One saint was canonized for not bathing in her lifetime, as she did not wish to wash off the holy water received at her baptism. These public latrines were connected to public sewers, had a cesspit that must be emptied, or were conveniently located near running water so they could empty directly into the stream or river. London Bridge, for example, had a public latrine that serviced the 138 houses on the bridge, and was large enough to have two doors as one person managed to escape his creditors by slipping out another door. The private homes on the bridge also sometimes had their own direct chute to the river, making it a hazardous enterprise to “shoot the bridge.” Indeed, it was often said of London Bridge, “Wise folk go over it, and only fools go under it.” Several homes would have private cesspits, and some would share facilities. Sometimes, a narrow bridge would have a wooden seat with a hole in it would connect two houses over a yard, over an open cesspit, over a stream, or even over an alleyway. The cesspits would need be emptied on a regular basis, and this job was held by the gangfermours. This was possibly the best-paid menial job available. They would empty the cesspits into large jars that would be carted out of town, where the nightsoil was sold to farmers as fertilizer. Gangfermours would also maintain the sewers and cleaned the streets. Unfortunately, using a stream to cart off the sewage didn’t always work- occasionally the stream became overwhelmed. In the 14th century, Fleet River, so named because it was originally a fast moving stream, became so clogged with three sewers and twelve public latrines emptying into it that the stream was eventually paved and became Fleet Street. (of course, that may explain the nature of some of the journalism yonder... just kidding. Fortunately no one drank from the Thames or other streams so used- water was piped in from outlying areas.

Fig. 6. An example of a bridge privy connecting two houses over an open cesspit.

Private jugs were still used within the home, and dumped out of the window with the cry of “Guardez-l’eau!” which is probably where the word loo came from. Laws did state when these offerings could be lobbed, and heavy fines were imposed on those who emptied their jugs out of hours or landed on those travelers unlucky enough to be walking below. It is possible that the etiquette of men walking on the streetside of their ladies as they walk on the sidewalk comes from the fact that the inside pedestrian would be protected by the building overhang, but equally probably that this would protect the lady from the cart traffic and splashed stuff from the roadway.

Privacy while using the necessary did not begin to be popular until the 16th century, when homes began to be built with small chambers where one could go in solitude. Euphemisms were as popular then as they are now, so these chambers would be referred to as “the house of honor”, “the chapel”, and the “closet.” Wright even suggests that most “priest-holes” are in fact examples of these private rooms, and because they were referred to as the “chapel” or other similar name in record, they were misinterpreted as places where catholics were hidden. Sometimes they would be the traditional seat over a cesspit, but for the rich, a new fashion was the close-stool as furniture in the room.

Close-stools were wooden boxes, sometimes built as cabinets, sometimes disguised as a stack of books, and even as a dresser. Traveling versions had locks and handles, so only the owner could use them. The top was a lid that could be lifted to reveal a comfortable seat with an appropriate hole for the owner to be comfortable. These were often covered in velvet and stuffed with down. Inside was a typical jug that could be removed and emptied by servants. The outside of the close-stool could also be covered in luxurious fabric and trimmed in lace and gilt nails. Sir John Harrington railed against using the velvet and expensive items “which is flat against the statute of aparell.” These close-stools were also draped in black for mourning when the user passed on.

Fig. 7. This close-stool is on display in Hampton Court, and is rumored to have been used both by Elizabeth I and James I. There’s a nice large lock on the front, and the seat is well padded. While not obvious in this print, there are carrying handles on the sides, so the possessor could take this necessary with them on Royal Progresses.

On Garderobes

While privies (or private rooms for the use of the necessary) were also called garderobes because of the euphemistic vernacular- it would be like referring to the cloakroom today – I tend to associate garderobes as those structures built into the stone walls of castles. These were important features, as one could not casually slip out to the house out back if one’s castle was under siege. Occasionally castles were built over a stream, which offered the benefit of clean water coming in, and sewage drainage coming out. However these streams were often a weak point in the castle’s defense and many an invading army crept in by wading the stream. When the stream was diverted to go around the castle either in part or surrounding like a moat, garderobes were usually built with a chute that drained out into the moat. Care had to be taken so that the chutes were high enough so that invaders would not crawl inside. Also, multiple storied garderobes would share the same exterior chute, for the convenience of crafting, and to serve many at once. If the walls were thin, garderobes sometimes were built jutting out of the wall like bay windows, and the hole would be directly over thin air. And occasionally, the garderobe would simply fill up a space between the walls, and then be plugged when full. Obviously, if the wind blew up the chute, the garderobe could be quite drafty, and is sometimes referred to as a “draught.” Garderobes were often built into the sides of chimneys for warmth, and as an aid to draw the smell up the chimney and away from the user.

Fig. 8. Garderobes stacked in multi-stories, with many side by side. Note how the upper layer is recessed further back, so there is plenty of room for the chute, and no chance of spray on the lower denizens.

Fig. 9. A garderobe with a place for a wooden seat in the White Tower in London, off the banquet hall. Henry VIII installed this for privacy.

When I visited Britain in 1990, I was privileged to visit Urquhart Castle on the shores of Loch Ness in Scotland. In the tower still standing, I found a cracked seat that was in an alcove that jutted out over the water. I believe it to be a garderobe used by the patrolling guards. Any waste would fall into the loch below. I also visited Warwick Castle, and I’m not sure where I was in the curtain wall between the armory and the courtyard, but I passed two cubicles that were marked as “privies”. One had its seat plugged entirely, and the other had a fine grate to discourage anyone from putting anything down it. These were both wide enough to comfortably move around in, as wide as the average public stall today. The seats were recessed in about a foot from the hallway, and there was about a foot of stone wall between them. There did not appear to be any mechanism for covering them for privacy, and there were no windows for light, although there was a small window in the hall. The seats were stone with a typical size hole cut inside.

Fig. 10. Typical inside view of a stone garderobe, and a typical outside view of a chute.p>

Life in Monasteries

Because the Rules that described cloistered life were strict in dictating each movement of the monks, they did everything together at the same time, including using the lavatory. Consequentially, we have surviving records of huge latrines established to seat 150 monks at once or more. In many monasteries, the “reredorter” or sanitary wing was linked to the dormitory by a bridge, serving as the equivalent of the ventilated lobby of modern bylaws. At Furness, the seats were ranged back to back in a double row, but usually they were set against the wall in one long single row and divided with partitions. Below would be a natural stream, or perhaps diverted, to carry away the filth produced. These streams were often made to run under the kitchen and infirmary as well, and were often covered for some distance. It is possible that hidden passages leading to monasteries may be in fact dried up streambeds or former sewers. Water flushing from above was incredibly rare, but at St. Albans, the Abbott built a stone cistern to store rainwater for this purpose serving a single necessary for his own use. Of excavations in St. Albans in 1927, they did find a deep pit. At the bottom were found pieces of pottery and fragments of coarse cloth, which is thought to have been old gowns torn up and used as toilet paper by the monks. It is likely that that the monks suffered digestive troubles, as proved by the finding of seeds of buckthorn- a powerful aperient.

Other Wiping Options

Sir John Harrington, in his defense of his book, describes more offensive texts than his. In particular, he describes one text that I would love to find other descriptions of or extant: “a beastlie treatise only to examine what is the fittest thing to wype withal, allegeding that white paper is too smooth, brown paper too rough, woolen cloth too stiffe, linen cloth too hollow, satten too slippery, taffeta too thin, velvet too thick, or perhaps too costlie; but he concludes, that a goose necke to be drawne between the legs against the feathers, is the most delicate and cleaning thing that may be.” Later in his text, he offers up the pages of his text for that same use if the reader still finds the information within to be offensive. That would be “the worst punishment it can have is but to employ it in the house it shall treat off.” Therefore, I assume that many texts printed in the late 16th century were used just like the Sears catalog in the early/mid 20th century. Sir John also comments that being too lazy to wipe should not be condemned, as surely any competent laundress can remove the stains from one’s linen. Therefore what one uses to wipe is largely irrelevant.p>

The Man Before His Time

As early as 1449, one Thomas Brightfield of the parish of St. Martin built some kind of water closet, flushed by piped water from a cistern, but this was much before its time and was never imitated.

The Reason We Call Them Johns

In 1596, Sir John Harrington, one of the Queen’s godsons, wrote a book called “A New Discourse on a Stale Subject, Called the Metamorphosis of Ajax.” He did receive a great deal of criticism for writing about such a topic, and ridicule for his invention, which the treatise describes in full. Eventually, the Queen did have one installed in her palace in Southampton, and there is some debate as to whether or not she actually used the thing.

Harrington tells the story behind the title in a rambling way. One young man, needing more material to wipe himself, requested that a certain sacred field be mowed for his ease. This field was sacred to Ajax, for in the Trojan War, he was insulted and humiliated by Ulysses, which sent him off in a fit of anger to this field. He slew everything in it, and them himself, and from the blood spilled grew luxurious grasses reserved to feed the descendants of Bucephalous. The young man was caused by pains to travel around the world seeking relief, and even went as far as Japan, and back home again. Once home, he built a splendid privy and dedicated it to Ajax, which is why some still call it a jakes today.

Before Harrington gets to the meat of the matter, he explains that he prefers to dwell within a sweet smelling house- meaning that one which lacks overwhelming odor. “For smoking chimnies, many remedies have bene studied, but one excellent and infallible way is found out among some of the great Architects of the age, namely to make no fyre in them, and by the same rule, have some very sweet Jakes too.” Alas, one does not get that luxury, so he comments on other common designs of the time.

The first design involves a making a closed pit and line it with lime and “tarries” – an old mortar and cement mixture – “with no way for wind to stir it, and it should smother the smell as darkness smothers a candle.” This cesspit style only works until it is filled, and “too much wind is generated by too frequent use.”

<>The next design involves building the seats in a chimney, so that the air may be vent out of the house. “But this is not fre of all infection or annoyance while one is there” for if the wind shifts the wrong way and blows down the chimney, the odor is moved throughout the house.

Therefore, the design Harrington favors is of his own devising, to whit: “And not to hold in too long suspense, the device is this: you shall make a false bottom to that privie that you are annoyed with, either of lead or stone, the which bottome shall have a sluice of brass to let out all the filth, which if it be close plaistered all about it and renced with water as oft as occasion serves, but specially at noone and at night, will keep your privie as sweet as your parlour.”

Fig. 11. The parts laid out on display for Harrington’s improved jakes.

The parts as described:

“A. the cesterne stone or bricke

B. D. E. the pype thatcomes from the cesterne with a stopple to the washer

C. a wast pipe

F. G. stem of the great stopple with a key to it

H. the forme of the upper brim of the vessel or stoole pot.

M. the stoole pot of stone or lead

N. the great brass sluice to which is three inches current, to send it down a gallop into the Jax.”

Fig. 12. The assembled Jakes, but I think the fish are merely a stylistic element.

The key for the assembled picture:

“A. the cesterne.

B. the little washer.

C. the wast pipe.

D. the seat boord.

E. the pipe that comes from the Cesterne.

F. the Screw.

G. the scallop shell to cover it when it is shut down.

H. the stoole pot.

I. the stopple.

K. the current.

M. N. the vault into which it falls: always remember that "at noone and night, emptie it and leave it halfe a foote deepe in fayre water. And this being well done, and orderly kept, your worst privie may smell as sweet as your best chamber. But to conclude all this in a few wordes: it is but a standing close stoole easily emptied. And by like reason (other formes and proportions observed) all other places of your house may be kept sweet.”

I realize that modern sensibilities would cringe about flushing twice a day whether it need it or no, but the innovation of leaving water in the pan was a predecessor to the water kept in the U-bend- which is know for keeping the gasses from escaping into the room. This alone would improve the smell. Alas, like the creation of Thomas Brightfield, Harrington’s invention was widely ignored, although his text was preserved.

An Addendum for the Modern Middle Ages

For the ultimate luxury for your period encampment, one could consider the virtues of a close-stool for your camp. For modern hygiene purposes one would need to modify it slightly. One could design the close stool to disguise a chemical toilet, or plastic line the inside (or alternatively, line with wax or pitch), and create handles to hold plastic baggies to catch. Then one could tie off the bags, tightly seal them, and dispose of them each morning. I would not recommend it for daily use, but for those evenings and early hours of the morning when one isn’t sure what one would encounter outside of the safe confines of one’s tent. And certainly, the older I become, the more this concept appeals. My father would recommend a wide PVC pipe tightly sealed on one end with a tightly fitting cap on the other end for used plastic bag storage, and perhaps this could be kept within the cabinet, or another carrying case. Such PVC devices are used by low-impact campers- when everything that goes in must be carried out, and with no spills. Obviously, digging a proper cesspit in any campground or creating compost would not be sanitary or permitted.


Barzilay, Joshua L., Winkler G. Weinberg and J. William Eley. The Water We Drink: Water Quality and its Effects on Health. Rutgers Univeristy Press, NY 1999. ISBN 0-8135-273-6. Secondary.

Colman, Penny. Toilets, Bathtubs, Sinks and Sewers: A History of the Bathroom. Macmillan, NY 1994. Secondary.

Donno, Elizabeth Story (ed. and commentary). Sir John Harrington’s A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, Called the Metamorphosis of Ajax. Columbia University Press, NY 1962. Includes full reprint of the 1596 text. Primary.

“The History of Plumbing, Parts 1-8” Plumbing & Mechanical Magazine 10 (June 1993): 6-124, Also available at . Tertiary, as no sources are given.

Horan, Julie L. The Porcelain God: A Social History of the Toilet. Birch Lane Press, 1996. ISBN 1-55972-346-7. Secondary.

Kilroy, Roger. The Compleat Loo: A Lavatorial Miscellany. Barnes & Noble, NY 1984. ISBN 0-7607-0416-3. Tertiary text, Primary & secondary pictures.

Reynolds, Reginald. Cleanliness and Godliness. Doubleday, NY 1946. Tertiary/secondary. He cites references, but never fully.

Wright, Lawrence. Clean and Decent: The Unruffled History of the Bathroom and the W.C. Viking, NY 1960. Secondary.

Note: Pictures are snipped for copywright reasons.

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