Toilets in the 1800’s
Probably everyone is aware that early Romans and Greeks had ingenious indoor plumbing and heating based on water flow. Many of the early sewers built by Romans in England are still utilized. King Minos of Crete had the first flushing water closet recorded. A toilet was discovered in the tomb of a Han Dynasty Chinese king dating to 200 BC. Garderobes in medieval castles were a step down [even though they were upstairs] from the Romans. They emptied into the moat, lake, or stream, which sometimes seeped back into the drinking water’s source and caused cholera and other diseases. The dark ages swept advances in plumbing under the rug, so to speak, along with cleanliness. What about more recent history for writers whose books are set in the Regency and Victorian periods through the early Twentieth Century?
The first sewers in America were built in the early nineteenth century in New York and Boston. These were to rid the streets of refuse. At this time, no one addressed getting fresh water safely to individual homes and apartments or eliminating the smelly outhouse. Chamber pots varied from open buckets to decorative ceramic containers with tight fitting lids. The pots were emptied daily into an outhouse or, heaven forbid, into the street. Offal carts made the rounds of city streets. The drivers used buckets and shovels to empty outhouses and cesspits and sprinkle the recesses liberally with lime. What a horrid job that must have been!
Thomas Crapper [yes, that really was the man’s name] was erroneously credited with inventing the first flushing toilet. However, he was a plumber and holds many patents for plumbing products, and had several plumbing shops. Actually, the earliest known flushing toilet in Western history is credited to Sir John Harington, godson of Queen Elizabeth I. It was crude and the Queen reportedly refused to use it. The earliest patent for a flush toilet was issued to Alexander Cumming in 1775. The problem with early toilets was that people did not understand how germs spread or the need for venting fumes away from the toilet. There was also difficulty perfecting a system would take all of the refuse away when flushed. In addition to smell, germs accumulated and spread disease. People became afraid to install the toilets inside their homes.
Bathing rooms were exactly that—rooms in which people could bathe. Using a cistern or a pump from the kitchen range’s water reservoir, water was piped to the bathtub. It was never more than tepid, and bathing was in only a couple inches of water. The alternative was having servants carry buckets of water to the bathing room. Usually, the tub emptied into a pipe that dumped water into the yard, street or a cesspit.. These tubs were often set into elaborate wooden cabinets that matched the bathing room wainscoating—not at all suitable for long term exposure to bath water.
Although it was not until the 1880’s and 1890’s that American plumbing flourished, early inventors were moderately successful. In 1829, the Tremont Hotel of Boston became the first hotel to have indoor plumbing and featured eight water closets. Until 1840, indoor plumbing could be found only in the homes of the rich and in better hotels. In 1852, J. G. Jennings invented an improved flushing system, and popularized public lavatories by installing them in the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851. Over 800,000 people paid to use them. In 1910, toilet designs began changing to resemble those of today. However, in rural areas as in the poorer section of cities, the outhouse was used well into the twentieth century. In a recent television interview, actor Michael Caine remarked that—as a child in England—his four-story tenement had only one outhouse for use by all the building’s residents.
Authors of Georgian through modern times may determine how plumbing was utilized in their time period by seeking publications on home restoration. Books on restoring homes of various time periods detail the plumbing plans with useful illustrations. Information on earlier time periods is available on the web and in history books.