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In days of old, most toilet facilities weren't exactly commodious

Wednesday, February 12, 2003

By Lillian Thomas, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

For most of the world during most of human history, the public toilet has been a convenient bush, riverbank, street or wastewater canal.

Though sophisticated water systems that included underground drainage and running water were developed in a number of ancient cultures, they usually served the rich. The poor just tapped into them at strategic spots.

As early as 3000 B.C., people on the island of Crete began to build sophisticated sewage disposal and drainage that included underground channels. Many other ancient Greek cities had toilets in private homes and some system of wastewater drainage.

Around 2500 B.C. in Mohenjodaro in the Indus Valley in what is now Pakistan there was a highly developed drainage system that carried waste water from buildings into a main drain.

One of the earliest recorded sanitary regulations came a thousand years later, when the Hebrews were instructed by Moses to dispose of their waste away from the camp, and to use a spade to turn the remains under the earth or sand. Alexander the Great was similarly instructed by his teacher Aristotle.

Flush toilets have been discovered in Bahrain in the Persian Gulf dating from around 1000 B.C. A Chinese toilet complete with running water, a stone seat and a comfortable armrest was found by archaeologists in the tomb of a king of the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 24), who believed his soul would need to enjoy human life after death.

Despite these bright spots in sanitation, most large cities prior to this century were intolerably foul-smelling places.

The rivers that flowed through the cities were open sewers. By the 14th century, the Fleet River in London was commonly known as the Fleet Ditch, and it was notoriously filthy. The monks of the White Friars complained that its odors "have overcome the frankincense burnt at the altar." Sherborne Lane, once a lovely stream back in A.D. 1300, was to be more popularly known as Shiteburn Lane.

In Western Europe, the first public toilets appeared in the 13th century. They were usually haphazard affairs, wooden boards over a canal or offal pits that would periodically be raked by crews of very hardy, or very desperate men. A member of such a crew in Newgate, England, named Richard the Raker fell through the planks of a public latrine and drowned in the deep pit of excrement below, according to records from 1281.

Despite the current reputation of the French as being less than squeaky clean, they were leaders in public sanitation in centuries past. In 1668, an edict was issued by the police commissioner in Paris mandating construction of toilet facilities in all houses.

In 1848, England passed the national Public Health Act, which mandated a toilet, privy or ash pit in every household. It also provided 5 million pounds for sanitary research and engineering to build a comprehensive sewer system.

Though cities had long maintained outdoor privies, Paris began a more formal program of building public toilets in 1824.

By the late 19th century, sewage treatment was started in some cities. Bathrooms became commonplace in houses of all income levels, and public bathrooms -- both free and pay -- began to proliferate.

Now public toilets can be found all over the world, and even documented on the Internet. Robert Cromwell, who has traveled the world extensively, chronicles public toilets of all kinds, ancient and modern, elegant and disgusting, at www.cromwell-intl.com/toilet/#science.

Headings include "Ottoman toilets," "Biblical toilets, "Ancient non-Biblical toilets," "Revolutionary Toilets -- Totalitarian Toiletarianism, or Toiletarian Totalitarianism?" "Exploding Toilets" and even "Toilets I won't show." The author includes a photo of himself seated on an outdoor toilet in Ephesus, Turkey.


Lillian Thomas can be reached at lthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3566.


Correction/Clarification: (Published Feb. 14, 2003) Ephesus is located in modern-day Turkey. A story Wednesday on the history of toilets incorrectly located it in Greece.

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