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A Matter of Convenience


Flush toilets have only become common--even in industrialized countries--in the 20th century. Before that, it was more common to dispose of human waste on dry land than in water. The Romans used large public lavatories only in major centers. Elsewhere, they used seats over cesspits or channeled the waste to individual soak-aways. A Romano-British site at Neatham in Hampshire has yielded the remains of a large number of pits and several fragments of a wooden toilet seat (Redknap, 287-88).

This method was continued in and after the medieval period. Castles and manor houses were generally equipped with garderobes with stone or [Castle with garderobes]wooden seats above a shaft within the pit that had to be cleaned out at intervals (Wright, 49). In medieval cities, garderobes sometimes overhung a street with a central open sewer, although the authorities much preferred the use of pits. A pit of about 80 cubic feet emptied every three months could accommodate the sewage, rubbish, and ashes generated by two households (Pudney, 43). However, privy pits were often either too small for their contents or too infrequently cleaned out. People walking down the street often had their clothes stained by the material flowing out of an adjacent privy--particularly at night when the flow could not be seen (History of Plumbing).

Cesspits were also used for the communal privies provided for the majority of the population without indoor facilities. The contents of these pits were cleaned out at intervals and hauled out of the city (Wright, 52). It took 13 men 5 nights in 1281 to clean the privy at the Newgate Gaol. The "nightmen" or "gong fermors" who performed this task received about three times the prevailing wage for unskilled labor (Pudney, 50). Due to negligence or false economy, sometimes considerable amounts of material were allowed to accumulate in communal or private facilities. It was not unusual for someone to fall through rotten boards in a privy and drown in the pit (Harris, 18-19). The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I had to be saved from such a fate at Erfurt in 1184. One of his companions, who perished, had been in the habit of swearing, "If I do it not, may I sink in a privy." (Putney, 92-93)

Sanitation did not improve with the end of the Middle Ages--quite the contrary--and the use of privies continued. Brooklyn, New York, had one of the world's first municipal sewer systems, which came into use only in 1857 (History of Plumbing). In 1871, most houses in the Burford District of Oxfordshire were using privies very close to the houses, with plank vaults that allowed penetration into the surrounding soil. In many cases, four houses shared a single privy, often adjacent to both a pig pen and a well (Harris, 26). About that same time, Birmingham had "huge, wet, fetid middens, uncovered, undrained, unemptied, some of them as deep and big as the foundations of an ordinary cottage. Few of them are covered, the inspector of nuisances thinking they are better left open." (Medical Officer's Report quoted in Pudney, 43) As late as 1914, there were still large English cities that relied in part on privy middens that were emptied less than four times a year (Daunton, 230). Privies were not uncommon in many parts of rural and small-town England in the 1950s. A team researching old outhouses found an entire village in the Cotswolds still using bucket privies in 1984 (Harris, 26).

Actually, the use of privies is not necessarily a bad thing (quite apart from their value to archaeology; due to the wet, anaerobic environment, privy pits often preserve fragile organic materials that would perish elsewhere [Hume, 139]). Human waste can provide valuable fertilizer. [Fish pond at Castle Acre Priory]Concentrating the dung in a common area was actually safer than the competing custom of flushing sewage into a river that served as a water source... without treating either the sewage or the drinking water. [At left is the drainage from the Castle Acre Priory rere-dorter, flowing into a fish-pond that provided Lenten food for the kitchens in the background.] As early as 1388, English law forbade throwing filth into ditches, rivers, or waters, and by the 16th century London ordinances forbade burying dung within the City. Instead, it was to be hauled away for burial or use in agriculture. However, the frequent renewal of these laws suggests they were often broken, as does the high death rate from dysentery and related diseases. Bad sanitation was probably the leading factor in the astronomical infant mortality rate. Failure to sweep rush-covered floors as they accumulated rubbish was a leading offender. The development of multi-story tenement houses near the end of the Middle Ages aggravated the sanitation problem, not only because of higher density, but also because the residents on upper floors were far enough from the ground to be tempted to empty their waste out the window (Mumford, 290-92).

[Woman emptying chamberpot on passersby]In Renaissance Scotland, the housewives threw their chamberpot contents and slops out the windows with the cry "Gardy Loo!" (This evidently derived from the French "Gardez l'eau," meaning "Look out for the water!") Unfortunately, the sound of the cry and the discarded material often arrived simultaneously. Woe to the one who looked up to see what was happening. It is believed that this may be the origin of the British term "loo" for a toilet (Pudney, 28-9). The high-rises of Edinburgh were hardly the only places in Europe to present a sanitation problem during this era.

Indeed, the period from 1550 to 1750 has been called the "two rather insanitary centuries." When the court of Charles II spent the summer of 1665 in Oxford, the local diarist Anthony Wood observed they were "nasty and beastly, leaving at their departure their excrements in every corner, in chimneys, studies, coalhouses, [and] cellars." Contemporary accounts and engravings frequently illustrate the morning ritual in English and Scottish cities of emptying one's ordure out of upper-floor windows into the streets beneath (Wright, 75-8). It was not until the mid-1800s, when Dr. John Snow proved the connection between cholera and sewage-polluted drinking water, that cities began to control their waste (Colman, 46). There is no reason to suppose that Port Royal and other contemporary cities in the colonies were any cleaner than those in Europe during the "insanitary centuries."

Link to:

  1. A Matter of Convenience--Introduction
  2. A Matter of Convenience--Historical Background
  3. A Matter of Convenience--Dry Land Disposal (You are here)
  4. A Matter of Convenience--Chamberpots
  5. A Matter of Convenience--The Building 5 Privy
  6. A Matter of Convenience--Port Royal Chamberpots
  7. A Matter of Convenience--Conclusions

Revised: 1 December 1996

Christine A. Powell
Nautical Archaeology Program
Texas A&M University
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