The Little House Out Back

I started the first grade at a little country school in Madera County, California in the fall of 1939, and discovered a wondrous thing…inside flush toilets. While it is possible that I may have been exposed to them at some point previously, it was during my first day of school that I first became aware of them. I recall that I was amazed…they didn’t smell, they were clean, and the school even provided paper on a roll; at home we used the pages of last year’s Sears Roebuck Catalog. 

Like many other rural farm houses of that period our house had running water to the kitchen, but no inside toilet or bath facilities. The water came from an elevated galvanized storage tank that was filled when the farm irrigation pump was running. Today one would realize that it would be a simple matter to install a flush toilet if one had running water, but in those days—for some strange reason—flush toilets were not a priority. The outside pit toilets, or “outhouses,” were smelly fly-ridden affairs; even more so in the hot summer months. On the other hand during the cold winter months the hard wooden seat seemed as cold as ice, and the wind that whistled up from beneath seemed to be coming straight from the Arctic. The rough wood of the often too-large hole would scratch my tender six-year-old bottom, and I would long for the clean restrooms at school. I recall that I once made a comparison between our outhouse and the school restrooms to my mother, but she just wrinkled her nose and said,

“Inside privies ain’t sanitary.”

Her reaction told me that she didn’t cotton to inside toilets, but since I wasn’t exactly sure what sanitary meant I didn’t argue with her, even though I knew that she used a chamber pot herself.

Grandma Minnie Erwin was a little more direct. My brother Clifford recalled that on a visit to her house in Severy, Kansas he innocently asked Grandma—shortly after she and Grandpa had first moved in back in the 1930s—if she had any plans to install indoor facilities. She replied,

“No...nobody’s agoin’ to s… in my house!”

Grandma Minnie was not one to beat around the bush.

If one stops to think about it though, the problem of where to “go” has been with man since he started standing upright and began living in close quarters with others of his kind. In the beginning it is unlikely that he even thought about the human function of “going,” but as he evolved it is probable that at some point his mate remarked,

“Wheweee! Next time go outside the cave.”

The rest, as they say, is history. Man evolved slowly over millions of years, and into several species of humanoid beings. Over time, however, all but one became “endangered,” and eventually died out. Only the homo sapiens species survived. Where was the Sierra Club?

Most of us would probably assume that the so-called civilized world use pit toilets, or “outhouses,” during the past several centuries...that is until some bright soul invented the flush toilet. History tells us that that is not so. Several ancient civilizations had plumbing systems that allowed one to “go inside.”

For instance:

·          Around 3000 BC, in Babylon, which was located about fifty miles south of Baghdad, early plumbers started constructing plumbing systems that included indoor “facilities.”

·          By 2500 BC the Egyptian pharaohs were probably using indoor privies. The remains of early earthen water closets with limestone seats have been discovered by Egyptologists. 

·           About 1700 BC the Minoans constructed stone sewers systems made of stone on the Island of Crete, and Terra cotta pipe was used to plumb the Minoan Palace of Knossos. The palace latrine included the first example of an actual flushing “water closet.” This technology, however, was lost for hundreds of years as a result of war, earthquakes and decay.

·          The first Roman aqueduct was built in 312 BC, and by early AD the Romans had developed a sophisticated plumbing system, including indoor privies, in most of their major cities, but they had not integrated the flushing water closet developed by the Minoans some 3000 years before. The contents of their privies was merely flooded away by their ample supply of water.

·          The Roman legions controlled Britain for almost 500 years, but they left in 410 AD, and they took their sanitary design technology with them. Soon various barbarian hordes took the place of the Romans. The Angles,  Saxons and Jutes invaded in 449 from Scandinavia and from what is now northern Germany; the Picts, and Scots moved down into the northern provinces from the Highlands of Scotland; the Irish came across the Irish sea, and the coastlines were raided by the Vikings. Finally, in 1086 the Normans—lead by William the Conqueror—invaded from Gaul and conquered England.

·          Medieval England and Scotland, and the whole of Europe, for that matter, was a stinking place. Early Christians rejected anything Roman, including the value of cleanliness. They considered it unsanitary to be clean, and sinful to display wealth. The Roman baths were soon abandoned. It was back to the bushes and slit trenches. August was a month when flies were especially troublesome, buzzing around the manure piles in the corner of every farmyard, and hovering over the open cesspits of human sewage that were located just outside of every house. Today we complain about the scent of gasoline vapor and exhaust fumes that emanate from our streets and highways, but the year 1000 was perfumed with human waste. Cow and horse manure, pig and sheep droppings, and chicken and goose poop—each variety of excrement had its own characteristic bouquet.

As dreary as it sounds, archeologists are eager to explore

·          the latrine pits of the first millennium. Their studies show how little people of the day knew about the basic rules of cleanliness and health. Plans that survive from a later period show that monasteries worked out a common-sense location for their necessary rooms. The monks were careful to build their latrines over running water, and to choose a site for their monasteries that gave access to drinking water that was upstream from the polluted water. Plans for the French monastery at Cluny show a wing with seventy separate stalls. There was no comment about the health of the folks living downstream, however.

·          But few common folk were so fastidious. Most medieval homes, in villages as well as larger towns, had their outhouses located at or near the back door, with no apparent concern for the odor or the flies, nor for the flies that so little distance to travel from the contents of the outhouse to the food that the people consumed.   

It was not until the first wave of the Black Plague in England in 1348 that the philosophy regarding bathing, and sanitation in general, began to change. A few early doctors began to suspect that some type of bug—not yet called bacteria—was causing the various catastrophic illnesses of the day. It was ultimately old-fashioned trial and error, and the process of elimination, that helped the medical men of the next few hundred years to determine the source of so much human suffering. Even so, it would take centuries to teach the common man that he should separate his food and drinking water from the final resting place of his excrement, as well as that of his animals.

The water closet was invented—again—in 1596 in England. Sir John Harrington, a godson to Queen Elizabeth, decided to make a modern “necessary” for himself and the Queen. He was successful, but he was so ridiculed by his peers that he never produced another one. He and his godmother, however, both used theirs.

Almost two hundred years passed before Alexander Cummins would reinvent Harrington’s water closet. Two years later, in 1777 Samuel Presser received a patent on virtually the same design. A year after that Joseph Bramah patented a valve for the bottom of the tank that worked on a hinge, the predecessor of the modern ballcock.

The invention of the flush toilet is widely attributed to Thomas Crapper, a London plumber. In truth, however, he only patented a U-bend siphoning system for flushing the pan. He is best known for the slang use of his name. Legend has it that World War I doughboys were passing through England and saw the words “T. Crapper-Chelsea” printed on the tanks in the railroad station, and coined the word “crapper,” meaning toilet.

*** we know that “crap” and “crapper” are not really dirty words, and that flush toilets have been in existence, albeit primitive, for about four thousand years. The next question that probably comes to mind is—why are some folks still crapping in outdoor privies.