Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Bath or bed?
 Embarrassing subject, but....yes, necessary to the health and well being of our ancestors. Western authors usually rely on the windmill, cistern, or hand-dug well for their stories. I cringe when I read a story in which the pioneer heroine, exhausted from a hard day's work, makes herself a deep tub of steaming water and bathes. Honestly, if you were so tired you could hardly struggle to bed, would you carry that much water, heat it, and bathe before bed. I doubt you would, no matter how much you longed to for a bath. My grandmother said she used a pan of warm, soapy water and washed thoroughly, face to feet. She was a fastidious lady and never went to bed without washing even the bottoms of her feet and between her toes. <g> Baths were only once a week. But I got ahead of myself.

Garderobe, Peveril Castle, Derbyshire
 Probably everyone is aware that early Romans and Greeks had ingenious indoor plumbing and heating based on water flow. Many of the early sewers built by Romans in England are still utilized. King Minos of Crete had the first recorded flushing water closet. A toilet was discovered in the tomb of a Han Dynasty Chinese king dating to 200 BC. Garderobes in medieval castles were a step down [even though they were upstairs] from the Romans. They emptied into the moat, lake, or stream, which sometimes seeped back into the drinking water’s source and caused cholera and other diseases. The dark ages swept advances in plumbing under the rug, so to speak, along with cleanliness. What about more recent history for writers whose books are set in the Regency period through the early Twentieth Century?

Chamber pot and lid
The first sewers in America were built in the early nineteenth century in New York and Boston. These were to rid the streets of refuse. At this time, no one addressed getting fresh water safely to individual homes and apartments or eliminating the smelly outhouse. Chamber pots varied from open buckets to decorative ceramic containers with tight fitting lids. The pots were emptied daily into an outhouse or, heaven forbid, into the street.

Chamber box
Offal carts made the rounds of city streets, sometimes called "the nightman" because in some cities the offal removal people came at night. The drivers used buckets and shovels to empty outhouses and cesspits and sprinkle the recesses liberally with lime. What a horrid job that must have been!

Thomas Crapper [yes, that really was the man’s name] was erroneously credited with inventing the first flushing toilet. However, he was a plumber and holds many patents for plumbing products, and had several plumbing shops. Actually, the earliest known flushing toilet in Western history is credited to Sir John Harington, godson of Queen Elizabeth I. It was crude and the Queen reportedly refused to use it.

Flushing toilet
The earliest patent for a flush toilet was issued to Alexander Cumming in 1775. The problem with early toilets was that people did not understand how germs spread or the need for venting fumes away from the toilet. There was also difficulty perfecting a system that would take away all of the refuse when flushed. In addition to smell, germs accumulated and spread disease. People became afraid to install the toilets inside their homes.

Bathing rooms were exactly that—rooms in which people could bathe. Using a cistern or a pump from the kitchen range’s water reservoir, water was piped to the bathtub. It was never more than tepid, and bathing was in only a couple inches of water. The alternative was having servants carry buckets of water to the bathing room. Usually, the tub emptied into a pipe that dumped water into the yard, street or a cesspit. These tubs were often set into elaborate wooden cabinets that matched the bathing room wainscoting—not at all suitable for long term exposure to bath water.

Bathing room with wood paneling tub enclosure

Although it was not until the 1880’s and 1890’s that American plumbing flourished, early inventors were moderately successful. In 1829, the Tremont Hotel of Boston became the first hotel to have indoor plumbing and featured eight water closets. Until 1840, indoor plumbing could be found only in the homes of the rich and in better hotels. In 1852, J. G. Jennings invented an improved flushing system, and popularized public lavatories by installing them in the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851. Over 800,000 people paid to use them. 

In 1910, toilet designs began changing to resemble those of today. However, in rural areas as in the poorer section of cities, the outhouse was used well into the twentieth century. In a recent television interview, actor Michael Caine remarked that—as a child in England—his four-story tenement had only one outhouse for use by all the building’s residents.

Authors of Georgian through modern times may determine how plumbing was utilized in their time period by seeking publications on home restoration. Books on restoring homes of various time periods detail the plumbing plans with useful illustrations. Information on earlier time periods is available on the web and in history books.


  1. Caroline, very interesting info here. And my great grandmother was the same way with a basin of warm soapy water. She was one of a kind. Thanks for bringing back memories of that era.

  2. Caroline--I never knew the subject of the toliet could be so fascinating. The photos you found are priceless and give us a good idea of the hardships.
    Interesting that the Romans had the indoor plumbing, but not surprising, since they had so many things, that to us, almost seemed modern. And yes, of course, the Dark Ages ruined a lot of things in the life of us humans.
    I was born in a country village/very small town, with one store. We only had an outhouse, and it wasn't until we moved away that I discovered real bathrooms.
    And baths. My own mother washed us with that pan of soapy water when we went back to Palo Pinto county to visit grandparents...who never had running water in the house--even in the later 40s.
    When we went back to visit, and had to use the outhouse, as a child, it scared me to death. There were always spiders which scared me, even though we were warned to watch for snakes. Never saw a snake...but lots of big spiders. Ewwww, the whole thing makes me shudder, remembering.
    Thanks for the research and the photos..very good. Celia

  3. Remarkable post, Caroline. I loved it--who would have thought?

  4. I can remember when I was a child that my grandparents still had an outhouse with dual holes. My Dad would wrap us in blankets and take us out there before we went to bed and the 'bucket' was placed next to our beds just in case...

    The Cary House Hotel in Placerville (prototype for my third story hotel) was one of the first places in the area to bring water to the second floor for the use of patrons. The toilet did flush and the hot water is what went through the pipes to warm the rooms first.

    Yes, I think we've come a long way and am certainly happy for it. I do have a couple of the porcelain pots here just in case. ;)

  5. Caroline, loved the pictures of old toilets. Makes me glad we only have to write about those days and not live them :-)

  6. What a great post, Caroline! Loved the pictures and what a ton of research you must have done! I remember going to visit my Aunt Myrtle and Uncle Johnny--this was my Granddad's brother and his wife. they lived in a VERY tiny rural Oklahoma town, where all my Mom's and Dad's family was from back when it was a thriving community. They had an outhouse with 2 holes. I hated that thing so much! In the summers there were always wasps and yellow jackets flying around inside and out. I was worried about spiders and I always thought how awful it would be if we'd spent the night with them and had to get up and go in teh night -- not being able to see WHAT was in there. Great post--loved those old early attempts at bathrooms. LOL

  7. Caroline -- I really enjoyed your post and appreciate the historical research and pictures. Definitely something to file away for future reference. Thanks!


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