6 Predecessors to the Toilet

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Humanity has always wanted a nice way to dispose of their body waste. Well, some people in humanity. Most people threw it out the window, put it in their water supply, or left it in an open pit on the edge of the village. But every now and then a more convenient, less disgusting option would present itself. Here are six ways people have tried to make the troublesome business of doing your business more pleasant.

1. The Great Drain

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Not all ancient Romans used the public toilets available to them. If you were at home, it was still more convenient to go in a pot and throw it out the window. This practice was less offensive in Rome than in most places, because their streets were angled so that waste naturally fell into the gutters, which fed into The Great Drain—a constantly flowing stream that washed away from the city. Public toilets were communal and open to all genders and ages. Sponges sat in the ditch in front of the sitter in a constantly running steam of water, which allowed Romans to stab one with a stick, clean their bits, and toss the sponge into The Great Drain.

2. The Garderobe

Note the erosion on the wall directly below the garderobe. Photos courtesy of Flickr (left: gowersaint; right: Ronald Hackston)

It can really add a whole new perspective to Disney movies when you consider that most of the princesses would have relieved themselves in a stone hole that sluiced down the side of their castle to the ground (or moat) below. “Garderobe” can also mean closet, and often the two functions were used at the same time. It was believed that the odor and ammonia would kill off fleas and moths, which were apparently more miserable than smelling like your toilet chute.

3. The Close Stool

Photo courtesy of Stuart Interiors

Ever wonder why the doctors call it a “stool” sample? Well, you’re looking at it. The close stool (also called “the night stool”) held a chamber pot within a pleasant, often ornate seat. Close stools had the hygienic option of being able to close the lid, which would remove the evidence of your vile humanity until a servant came to collect it.

4. The Water Closet

Image courtesy of Victorian Passage

The Water Closet was the first widely used form of flush toilet. It was delightfully civilized and offered the furthest distance man had ever been able to put between himself and his sewage. Water fell from the cistern by force of gravity, and the carefully designed curves of the pipes in the basin helped prevent blockage and kept sewer gas from rising back up through the pipe. Where the pipes led to … that took some years to iron out. Water Closets predated widespread sewage treatment, and often the pipes led to water supplies. They didn’t call it a bathroom in those days, because your bath wasn’t in that room. Rather, many of the toilets were placed in remodeled closets, with just enough room to do what was necessary.

5. The Earth Closet

Photo courtesy of Mark Henderson via The Outhouse of America Tour

The man who invented the Earth Closet, Henry Moule, thought Water Closets and outhouses were “an unnatural abomination.” He became so disgusted with his own outhouse that he filled it in and demanded his family use buckets instead, the contents of which he buried. When he realized that in a few months’ time human waste becomes indistinguishable from the dirt around it, he created the Earth Toilet. After use, a cistern would drop a pile of ash or soil into the pot inside the seat, covering sight and smell until it was taken and buried. He boasted that the excrement/dirt mix that resulted could be dried and reused 25 times without ever becoming offensive to eye or nose. His invention was a reasonable, sanitary solution for the era. But eventually, the cleansing "out of sight–out of mind" swoosh of the water closet won out.

6. The Pig Toilet

Fair warning: This is going to be very unpleasant and might affect your ability to enjoy sweet and sour pork. Pig toilets were once widely used in China, and can still be found in certain provinces. The basic idea is that a person defecates into a pig trough, where pigs, who can and will eat anything … yeah. It was actually considered a very sanitary solution, far superior to an open cesspit or the hassle of proper waste disposal. Not to mention, as far as environmental concerns go, this makes recycling cardboard look decidedly unambitious.

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March 12, 2014 - 5:00pm
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