History Down the Toilet

S_bendAs a historical romance writer, I have often found myself asking the weirdest questions of the Universe. How complicated was it to remove women’s underwear in the late 1800s? What did peasants eat in the Middle Ages? How dirty were cities really in the early Industrial Age? And, of course, the topic that has had me scratching my head recently as I write a novel set in Montana in 1897, Would houses have had flush toilets by this point?

No, seriously, the question of when running water and flush toilets became standard in all houses is one that has kept me up at night for years. It’s not something that gets brought up in your average history class, but if you’re writing any sort of historical novel—or if you’re a history nerd like me—it’s something that you need to know.

Now, I grew up in a house that was built in 1918. We had the original blueprints framed on the wall in the downstairs hall, and the bathrooms were clearly marked as bathrooms in those drawings. (Well, the downstairs half-bath is marked as “WC” for water closet) So yes to plumbing by at least 1918. On the other end, I’ve read plenty of novels written and set in the first half of the 19th century that clearly refer to chamber pots and the necessity of having the maid empty them. So no to plumbing before, oh, say, 1850.

Okay, so when did indoor plumbing become commonplace?

The cheeky answer to that question is Ancient Rome. It’s true. The Romans had an extensive system of aqueducts and underground lead pipes to bring fresh water into every home and to remove waste. Those aqueducts were so well-constructed that many still exist and are still in use today. And as for the lead pipes causing extensive lead poisoning, nope. According to scientific research, the water was running too fast for much lead to leech into it. So score one for the Romans for their sanitary advancements!

And then, of course, Rome was no more. Plumbing wasn’t exactly forgotten. Several medieval monasteries had varying degrees of plumbing. But it didn’t hold a candle to the Roman system. As cities grew in the Middle Ages (and were ravaged by diseases caused by poor sanitation) rudimentary systems of waste removal were implemented. They usually involved redirecting sewage through the streets or crude pipes into rivers or cesspits.

But that’s not running water and flushing toilets like we enjoy today. So how did we get to our glorious and convenient system of faucets, sewage systems, water treatment plants, and clean drinking water at the twist of a handle then?

crapperWell, as you might imagine, the impetus for bringing running water into every home came from Science by way of the Industrial Revolution. Systems for moving water along pipes and into machinery were developed as the demand for steam power increased throughout the early Industrial Revolution. In order for steam-powered machinery to have steam, it needed to have water that was either pumped up through wells or brought in from rivers. The technology developed thanks to Industry.

It didn’t stop there though. Throughout the first half of the 19th century (yes, the first half), more and more companies were popping up that specialized in pumping water in from river sources far up-stream from population centers and into public cisterns, industrial locations, and the homes of the wealthy who lived along the pipelines. So if you happen to be writing a novel about a duke set in the 1830s, his house very well might have had running water!

The drive to carry that technology into every home, thus providing fresh water for domestic use by the low as well as the high, came about with the advent of germ theory. In particular, an outbreak of cholera in London in 1854 drove home the need for a filtration system to “clean” the water that was being pumped into the city and to make sure it was supplied to everyone.

So as with so many other things about the 19th century, it wasn’t that the technology wasn’t there at first. Some homes and public places did have running water as far back as the late 18th century, thanks to the Industrial Revolution. But as Science advanced, so did public awareness of sanitation and the necessity of equipping all homes with the basics. By the end of the 1850s, British building codes required that all new construction of middle-class homes include a “water closet”.

Awesome! But what exactly did a water closet entail? What did those early flush toilets look like?

Believe it or not, the idea of a flushing toilet had actually been around since the Middle Ages (not counting those Romans). In fact, in 1596, Sir John Harington had one installed in Richmond Palace for his godmother, Queen Elizabeth I. She refused to use it because it made too much noise. The design was played with and updated throughout the 1700s as new and better ways of causing the water to flush and preventing leakage and back-seepage were discovered.

The invention of the good old S-bend came about in—wait for it, wait for it—1775. We still use it today. The design prevents the escape of sewage by standing water in the bowl of the toilet. The “plunger closet”, which gets the water into the toilet, was invented in 1777. Translation: toilets are an 18th century invention!

Think this is a modern plumbing design?  Nope.  It's a drawing from 1888 for plumbing in a New York house.

Think this is a modern plumbing design? Nope. It’s a drawing from 1888 for plumbing in a New York house.

The very first public toilets may have been those used at The Crystal Palace during the 1851 Great Exhibition. They were such a novelty that people paid a penny to use them. After that, they began to slowly and steadily appear in homes. And, of course, let’s not forget Thomas Crapper, whose company began manufacturing and selling toilets in the 1880s. He did not, however, lend his name to the word “crap”. “Crap” is a much older word, and it’s all a coincidence.

So this brings us back around to the question I started with. Would my characters and indeed my town of Cold Springs, Montana have had running water and flushing toilets in 1897? Absolutely. In fact, they would have been so common at that point that no one would have blinked an eye. Now, it would likely have taken longer for the existent technology to make its way out to the frontier the way it was in use in cities, but if you’ve read the books you know that Cold Springs “secret benefactor” made sure that the entire town had every modern infrastructural convenience installed, including power plants to supply electric light (which is a whole other blog post).

Incidentally, at some point in the next several years I will be writing a large series that takes place in London in the 1880s. I am now confident that yes, the dwellings of the characters involved in those books would have had running water and flush toilets at their disposal. Regency? Not so much.

Once again, the late 19th century proves how much more advanced it was than people generally think it was! Go Gilded Age!

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19 thoughts on “History Down the Toilet

  1. This is great, Merry. I’ve been having similar thoughts with my fantasy world set in a time of great change – telegraphs and electrical systems spreading, but still not 100% coverage. Likely the same could be said about the sewerage system! Just one more layer to think about when I’m doing revisions!

    • It does give you a lot to think about, doesn’t it. We underestimate history so much when they actually came up with things far earlier than we would have thought, eh?

      • We sure do. I try to remind myself of the ol’ Romans and their systems. I suspect we’re “more advanced” on the fine details just because that’s how things work… evolution at play. But our needs and wants, as a species, haven’t changed all that much. Which is great for us writers. We can set a story in any world, and the base desires are all still there! Identifiable characters everywhere!

    • Isn’t it great how the things we take for granted every day have their own deep history? Next I want to figure out when refrigerators became common in houses….

  2. Great post! Some time back, I had to research the invention of toilets as well. I was surprised to learn that Europe was way ahead of the U.S. in installation. I was also surprised when I investigated the production of toilet paper. Ouch! It was loaded with wood fibers at first. No wonder people used corn cobs and Sears Roebuck catalogs. Thanks for a fun read.

    • Thanks for the info, Kathleen! I think I did know that toilet paper was not fun stuff in the early days, but I wasn’t aware that the US was so behind Europe. All of my research books are about European history, specifically England. It does make sense though.

  3. Yet, in 1950 I stayed at a property in North Carolina that had indoor plumbing for water but no flush toilet. They still had a privy in the yard. There were many places such as that in the south.Piped in water didn’t mean that there were fklush toilets . pipes carrying water to the house weren’t the problem, the problem was often the sewer line carrying water and sewage from the house, Septic tanks had to be dug for indoor toilets and had to be cleaned out after awhile. Waste water from sinks and baths didn’t require such maintenance.
    Also, post WWII European toilet paper was very bad and not at all absorbent. American toilet paper was the envy of the world at that time.
    We even had chamber pots in a London hotel in 1960 even though there were toilets down the hall with the baths ( though not in the same room as the bath tubs)

    • Yeah, as Kathleen said in the comment right before yours, the US lagged behind Europe in the implementation of all things toilet-y. I think a lot would depend on the choices that any given local government would have made about where to put their resources. But at least the technology was there!

      Also, we had a septic tank growing up that must have been there since the house was built. I remember them pumping it every once in a while, but it wasn’t all that noticeable.

    • Thanks, Ella. I think a lot would have had to do with the infrastructure that was available in any given place at any time. Heck, the house I grew up in still had a septic tank until less than ten years ago when it was hooked into the borough sewer system. It’s comforting to know that at least the technology had been invented in the second half of the 19th century.

  4. I love this post! I’ve always been fascinated with the more mundane aspects of history and when we write historical romance, I think these little details make a story more interesting.
    Thanks.

  5. What terrific information! This is a keeper, Merry. Thanks for investigating the subject of indoor toilets and sharing what you learned.

  6. Great info, Merry! I always wonder about things like that too, but try to sidestep it as much as possible in my stories because even if it existed at the time, readers might not buy it. lol

  7. Great post! I learned about those flush toilets when I was researching The Great Exhibition for my novel “An Heiress at Heart.” I wanted so badly to mention them in the few scenes that take place there! But sadly, there was no good way to work it in to the story–a standard problem for us historical novelists who love these fascinating tidbits of information! 😀

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