A Brief History of the Toilet – DW – November 19, 2022

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What goes in has to come out: That applies to everyone in the world. Sooner or later we all have to go to the toilet.

And while most people in Germany take their own toilet for granted, the situation around the world is blatantly different. According to the United Nations, 3.6 billion people live without safe sanitation: This is a full-blown global sanitation crisis, the UN says. Without proper facilities, disease spreads more easily and drinking water can become polluted, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths every year.

To highlight the problem, the United Nations has declared November 19 as World Toilet Day.

As the Romans do

The history of the toilet is anything but boring. Thousands of years ago, people were already aware that faeces had to be disposed of properly.

The Sumerians of Mesopotamia built the oldest known toilets between 3,500 and 3,000 BC. They consisted of deep pits lined with stacked ceramic tubes on which the user sat. The solid excrement stayed in the container and liquid oozed out through holes in it. There was no flushing system.

Toilets in ancient Rome looked like these in Ostia Antica
In ancient Rome, people often frequented public toilets like this one. Image: picture-alliance/dpa/imageBROKER

The ancient Babylonians and Assyrians also built toilets out of two small walls with a narrow gap for feces. These were flushed into canals along with the water used for bathing.

However, such toilets were not used by the masses until the ancient Greeks and Romans. At home, poorer households used a barrel as a toilet to empty the contents of their chamber pots, while wealthier Romans had private toilets.

Many people used public latrines that were open to 50 to 60 people at a time while toilets were flushed non-stop. Business was often discussed in the toilet. It is the source of the expression “doing one’s business”.

A mess in the Middle Ages

With the collapse of the Roman Empire, the sophisticated toilet culture also disappeared. The common people of the Middle Ages “did their business” in chamber pots that were emptied into the streets.

Both private and public toilets were in short supply in the Middle Ages. Castle dwellers used small niches in the castle walls as toilets, but such methods were also unsanitary: excrement and urine ended up in the moat, and plague, cholera, and typhoid epidemics resulted from such practices.

castle wall.
In medieval Europe, many diseases were spread via sewage due to improper sanitationImage: Herve Champollion / akg-images/picture-alliance

Noble looks and bad smells

Over the years, the bathroom situation hasn’t improved dramatically. Ordinary people usually relieved themselves in stables or fields.

Even the nobility at the court of Louis XIV did not seem to attach too much importance to privacy and hygiene. Although there were 2,000 rooms in the Palace of Versailles, there was only one toilet in the building. Chamber pots were often overflowing and dumped straight out of the palace’s finely crafted windows. When the Sun King organized one of his famous castle festivals, noble guests relieved themselves in the castle park.

Delayed success for the flush toilet

The flush toilet only began to gain acceptance in Europe in the second half of the 19th century.

Although the British poet Sir John Harington invented it as early as 1596, his compatriots apparently failed to appreciate its merits and his designs fell into oblivion.

Almost 200 years later, English inventor Alexander Cummings applied for a patent and added a double-bend drainpipe to combat stench, paving the way for the production of flush toilets in the late 19th century.

These began to appear in the major European cities. The development of sewage treatment plants around 100 years ago ensured that rivers and streams in Europe were spared human waste.

An old toilet with a wooden seat.
Toilets have changed shape over the years, like this one from 1794 in a Prussian castle in GermanyImage: Bernd Settnik/dpa/Picture Alliance

Safe sanitation is still far from a global reality

And today? Too many people still do not have basic sanitation facilities such as toilets or latrines.

In sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia, the burden of poor sanitation is particularly high. Diseases spread when proper sanitation is not available. It is estimated that nearly half a million children under the age of five die every year from diarrhea caused by poor sanitation.

India’s Prime Minister Nerendra Modi has made toilet building a campaign issue, while philanthropists like Bill and Melinda Gates have used their Microsoft fortunes to improve sanitation infrastructure in South Asia.

The striking differences in sanitation worldwide are reflected in the variety of debates: In wealthier nations such as Germany or the USA, for example, the use of transgender toilets is being debated. In India, two children were beaten to death for defecating outdoors.

World Toilet Day may sound like a gimmick, but it underscores a very serious issue.

This article was originally written in German.

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