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The Vacuum - Issue 18 - Waste spacer The Vacuum - Issue 18 - Waste
Toilet History
by Bindeshwar Pathak
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Unlike body functions defecation is considered very lowly. As a result very few scholars have documented the toilet habits of our predecessors. The Nobel Prize winner for Medicine (1913) Charles Richet attributed this silence to the disgust that arises from noxiousness and the lack of usefulness of human waste. Others point out that as sex organs are the same or nearer to the organs of defecation, those who dared to write on toiletry habits were dubbed either as erotic or as vulgar and, thus, despised in academic and social circles. This was true, for example, of Urdu poets in India, English poets in Britain and French poets in France. However, as the need to defecate is irrepressible, so were some writers who despite social stigma wrote on the subject and gave us at least an idea in regard to the toiletry habits of human beings. Based on this rudimentary information, one can say that development in civilisation and sanitation have been co-terminus. The more developed was the society, the more sanitised it became and vice versa.
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In my own country India, how can anyone ignore the subject of the toilet when society is faced with human excretions of the order of 900 million litres of urine and 135 million kilogrammes of faecal matter per day, with a totally inadequate system for its collection and disposal. The society faces a constant threat of health hazards and epidemics. Sewerage facilities are available to no more than 30 per cent of the population in urban areas and only 3 per cent of the rural population has access to pour flush latrines.
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As long as man did not have an established abode, he did not have a toilet. He excreted wherever he felt like doing so. When he learnt to have a fixed house, he moved his toilet to the courtyard and then within his home. Once this was done, it became a challenge to deal with the smell and maintain cleanliness. Man tried various ways to do so such as chamber pots, which were cleaned manually by the servants or slaves; having toilets protruding out of the top floor of the house or the castle over the river below, or common toilets with holes over a flowing river or stream underneath. While the rich used luxurious toilet chairs or close stools, the poor defecated on the roads, in the jungle or straight into the river.
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It was only in the 16th century that a technological breakthrough came about and helped human beings to have clean toilets in houses.
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Historical Evolution
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The perusal of literature brings home the fact that we have only fragmentary information on the subject of the toilet as a private, secluded place to help the body relieve its waste. Sitting type toilets appeared quite early. In the remains of Harappa civilisation in India, at a place called Lothal (62 Kilometers from the city of Ahmedabad in Western India) and in the year 2500 BC, the people had water borne toilets in each house linked by drains covered with burnt clay bricks. To facilitate maintenance they had man-hole covers, chambers etc. It was the finest form of sanitary engineering. But with the decline of Indus valley civilisation, the science of sanitary engineering disappeared from India.
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The archaeological excavations confirm existence of sitting type toilets in Egypt (2100 BC), in Rome, public bath-cum-toilets were also well developed. There were holes in the floor and beneath was flowing water. When the Romans travelled they constructed toilets for their use. Historical evidence exists that Greeks relieved themselves outside. There was no shyness in toilet use. It was common at dinner parties in Rome to see slaves bringing in silver urine pots for important people to use while they celebrated.
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At this period it was also common to emphasise the medicinal values of human waste. Urine was supposed to have many therapeutic values. Some quacks even claimed that through the study of urine they could confidently say whether a young girl was virgin or not. Hiroshi Umino(1) reports that a Pharaoh cured his eye by use of a woman's urine; he later married her. It was also widely believed that the dung of a donkey mixed with nightsoil removed black pustules or that the urine of a eunuch could help make women fertile. In the Indian scriptures there are stories about the strength of wrestlers. If a wrestler defecates too much, he is relatively weak because he cannot digest all that he eats. Similarly, a perfect saint has no need to defecate, for he eats no more than he can digest.(2) So not to defecate was considered saintly while in other societies not to defecate was considered manly.
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The period 500 to 1500 AD was a dark age from the point of view of human hygiene. It was an era of cess pools and human excreta all round. It was also an era of 'liberty to pee' French poet Claude le Petit described Paris as 'Ridiculous Paris' in the following words :
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My shoes my stockings, my overcoat My collar, my glove, my hat Have all been soiled by the same substance I would mistake myself rubbish
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There was lot of jest and humour relating to toilet habits and toilet appurtenances. Ballets were performed with dancers dressed in toilet themed costumes moving around to toilet sounds. The characters were known as Etronice (night soil) the Sultan Prime of Foirince (i.e. diarrhoea) etc. There are stories given by Guerrand(3) which depict the mood of Europe at that time. A lady of noble birth requested a young man to hold her hand. The young man suddenly feels the urge to urinate. Forgetting that he is holding the hand of a lady of noble birth he relieves himself. When he is finished he says 'excuse me Madam, there was lot of urine in my body and was causing great inconvenience'. Joseph Pujol (hero extraordinaire of French scatology) in his shows could demonstrate many different types of farts i.e. young girl, mother-in-law, bride. He could even extinguish a candle 30 centimeters away through his farting.
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Public Habits and Attitude
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In the absence of proper toilet facilities, people perforce had to defecate and urinate wherever they could. While the authorities were encouraging people to have private places for defecating in practice there was total disorder. Squalor and filth abounded in cities. Social reformers advised people where to defecate, how to defecate in privacy and the need to control themselves when in company. Children were taught not to touch human waste.
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Laws however, could not prevent people defecating in the open. A delegation in France led by a master weaver protested against these laws: 'our fathers have defecated in this place, We have defecated here and now our children will defecate here'.
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The rich used wool or hemp for ablution while the poor used grass, stone or sand or water depending upon the country and weather conditions or social customs. Use of newspaper was also common. In 1857, Joseph Cayetty invented toilet paper in the USA. In India it is very common to use water for ablution. However, the hand one uses varies in various parts of India. While in South India, people use the right hand for eating food, it is considered disgusting to use the same hand for ablution with water, so the left hand is used for sanitary purposes. In most parts of the North India, however, no such sharp distinction exists.
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According to Hiroshi Umino, European culture blossomed after Crusaders had contact with the East. Washing hands before food for example became popular. There were no separate toilets for men and women until a restaurant in Paris put up Male and Female at a party in 1739 AD. It is also around this time that the urinal pot was introduced to enable men to relieve themselves more conveniently. The facilities for women were niggardly and they were taught the virtues of control.
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Public Toilets and People
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In every society from time to time the government has felt the need to provide public toilet facilities to those who could not afford to have their own. Public toilets have a long history in a number of countries, mostly constructed and managed by municipalities. They have consistently caused disgust with their poor maintenance, vandalism and lack of basic facilities. The Mughal King Jehangir built a public toilet at Alwar, 120 kms away from Delhi for use of 100 families in 1556AD. Not much documentary evidence exists on the quality of its maintenance but with rudimentary technology it was probably in very unsatisfactory condition.
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It was in 1872 that local government in France asked private companies to manage public toilets for a lease period of 20 years. The private companies were also offering fees to government as they felt confident of recovering the same through user charges. Ground floor owners were also being requested to construct latrines for use of the passersby. At the Palais Royal Hotel in Paris, the owners started charging monthly fees from diners. Incidentally condoms were also sold as part of the facilities.
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In 1970 in a small village in Patna I founded Sulabh International, people laughed at me when I proposed the introduction of pay-and-use toilets. But my approach has succeeded and today 10 million people use Sulabh facilities every day. Most public toilets are being given to us to construct and maintain on a 30 years basis at no charge to the State. At the beginning of the 20th century most public toilets in Europe had gone underground, but in India these are still overground. Much more attention is being given to the construction of these toilets on a pay and use basis in slum areas. Men pay half a rupee per use, women and children avail of these facilities free. The facilities available include a toilet, bathing or washing of clothes and changing rooms. We are also setting up primary health care centres at these places. However, a lot of effort is required to get people's participation in the efficient operation and maintenance of public toilets. This remains a big challenge to be met by NGOs. Based on my experience of the last 25 years, I am also convinced that only cooperation between Government and NGOs can make the sanitation programme a success. Neither the NGOs nor the government can create an impact if they work in isolation.
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Law and Citizens
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In order to improve sanitary conditions, governments in various countries have resorted to legal measures. In 1519 the provincial government of Normandy in France made provision of toilets compulsory in each house. The French government also passed a parliamentary decree to make cesspools in each house compulsory. Again a similar attempt was made in 1539. In Bordeaux the government made construction of cesspools compulsory. It was tried again in 1668 when the Lieutenant of Police made construction of toilets compulsory. In England the first sanitation law was passed in 1848. In India the first sanitation bill was introduced in 1878. It tried to make construction of toilets compulsory even in huts of Calcutta the capital of India at that time. The Bill even proposed construction of public toilets at the cost of neighbouring houses. The government of India enacted another Sanitation Act in 1993. Under this Act construction of a dry latrine and its manual cleaning was made an offence. But despite these enactments open defecation is rampant, proving that unless adequate social awareness is created in a developing country where instruments of state are weak and family income is low, it is a hard task to make significant progress in this area.
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Toilet Technologies
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The eighteenth century was a century of toilets. Despite the invention of the water closet by John Harrington in 1596 which cost only 6 shillings and 8 pence this was not adopted on a large scale for 182 years. During this period people used earth closets, chamber pots, close stools; open defecation remained. Meanwhile Harrington's toilet under the name Angrez was being used in France, though not introduced on a large scale in England. In 1738 JF Brondel introduced the valve type flush toilet. Alexander Cummings further improved the technology and gave us a better device in 1775. In Cumming's design water remained in the toilet so it suppressed odours. Still the working of the valve needed further improvements. In 1870, S.S. Helior invented the flush type toilet.
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From 1880 onwards, however, the emphasis has been more on aesthetics to make cisterns and bowls decorative. The bowls were so colourful that some suggested using them as soup bowls. It was in 1880 that toilet curtains made their appearance. During 1890 we had the first cantilever type of toilet. Since then the world has not witnessed any significant technical change except some changes in the shape of toilets and reductions in the quantity of water per use.
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Unlike in the past when latrines were tucked away in attics to keep them away from the noses and eyes of the family and society the twentieth century has given pride of place to the toilet in the home. These are now more opulent, more spacious than at any time in the past. While the provision of toilets in the house solved household problems of cleanliness the challenge remained as to how to dispose of human waste at city level. This was also solved when the sewerage system was introduced. Haussmann, the mayor of Paris in 1858, described it: 'the underground galleries which are the organs of the big city will work in the same way as organs of the body, without being revealed.' Around the same time the sewerage system was introduced at Calcutta capital of colonial India. However its extension into the country was, and remains, slow as it is capital intensive and beyond the resource capacity of the economy, even today.
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Though the challenges to provide toilet facilities have been totally overcome in rich countries, it has still to be met in developing countries like India. The journey of toilet has ended in Europe and North America but continues in the developing countries.
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