Yep, this will be a shit-post in the most literal sense imaginable, as it’s about how we take care of shit, crap, excrement, poop, bodily waste, as individuals and as a society through history.
A public forum may be a strange place to tackle the subject of our relationship with the toilet, as we go there to do some of the most private shit known to humankind. When we take a crap, we’d like to do so in the most private of circumstances, preferably at our own home, in a tight and tiny, securely locked room without windows, with some product nearby to cover up any unpleasant odors lingering about and if at all possible we’d like the water closet to be soundproof too. Or else, when we have to give up the fight against nature and are pressed to go to a public crap-house, we just flush the toilet multiple times in an effort to mask out any embarrassing noises we might make during the act of relieving ourselves. Yeah… you too, just admit it 😉
Some of the best humor can be found in the jokes about our shared taboos; that’s why there’s so many about sex, farts, underwear and poop. It confronts us with ourselves in a fundamental way it seems. As a little boy, must have been during the early 1980s, I once read an article in a Dutch science magazine (Kijk) an article with the title “The secret of the hollow throne”, in which it was explained that the origin of private toilets was with royalty, and that the King had a hollow throne to do his business right there at the dinner table. Yeah, one thing to understand right away is that taking a shit was a public affair back in the days, often done in groups, and in some cultures it still is.
I really doubt if that story about the hollow throne is all there is to say about the beginning of the, shall we say “privatization” of excretion, or if it’s even true. The Romans had magnificent public toilets and aqueducts; there usually was a row of stone seats with a hole, with a stream of water running under the row of holes to carry the poop away, and a stream of water running in front of the seats, used to wash up afterwards. There were sticks with a sponge attached on one end, so you dipped the sponge in the water and used it to wash your bottom. This is where the phrase “getting the wrong end of the stick” originates.
It’s proof of our capability to lose knowledge, to regress instead of progress, that after the fall of the Roman Empire, all knowledge about running water seems to have been lost for centuries, and we went back to shitting in holes in the ground. Even The Bible has something to say about the matter:
Deuteronomy 23:12-14 New International Version (NIV): 12 Designate a place outside the camp where you can go to relieve yourself. 13 As part of your equipment have something to dig with, and when you relieve yourself, dig a hole and cover up your excrement. 14 For the Lord your God moves about in your camp to protect you and to deliver your enemies to you. Your camp must be holy, so that he will not see among you anything indecent and turn away from you. – source: BibleGateway – Deuteronomy 23:12-14
During the Middle Ages it was normal to leave your excrement out in the street or in the park. Often there were public shit-benches hanging over the outside of the city wall, with people dropping their turds on the ground outside the wall, leaving some poor folk with the job to clean that shit up in the evening. In the countryside families had an outhouse to evacuate processed foods from their bodies; to fend off the smells and insects, they often covered the body waste with ashes from burned coals.
Slowly we learned that a lot of the diseases plaguing Europe were caused and spread due to a lack of hygiene, and the first water closets were developed. It was not until the late 19th century that private toilets were cheap enough to incorporate in every home. We have the marketing genius of Thomas Crapper to thank for that:
As the first man to set up public showrooms for displaying sanitary ware, he became known as an advocate of sanitary plumbing, popularising the notion of installation inside peoples homes. He also helped refine and develop improvements to existing plumbing and sanitary fittings. As a part of his business he maintained a foundry and metal shop which enabled him to try out new designs and develop more efficient plumbing solutions. – source: Wikipedia
There’s a lot more to say about the smallest room in the house, not only about the history, but about the present and the future as well; there’s a chance your excrement will be used to power the house someday… All of this and more can be seen in the video I link below. It’s too bad I can’t find that article I read as a little kid, as it would be interesting to see how it matches up with this documentary. In any case, I recommend you watch it, it’s interesting stuff.