- Early 1800s status
- Toilet definition #8, 1789
- Nicholas Leblanc, 1791
- Henry Drinker, 1798
- Midden privvys. 1800s
- Pail privvys, 1800s
- Philadelphia, 1801
- Napoleonic toilet box, 1804-14
- Beau Brummell, 1805
- Pears Soap, 1807
- Beethoven, 1809
- Regency Period, 1811-1820
- Albert Giblin, 1819
- Cholera, 1820s
- Public toilet, Paris, 1824
- The Thames, London, 1827
- Steel razors, 1828
- Karl Marx, 1830
- London and cholera, 1830s
- Paris, 1837
The ‘long nineteenth-century’ is a term coined by Eric Hobsbawm, a British historian and author. He saw this as the period between the start of the French Revolution of 1789 that established the first republic in Europe and set about challenging other kingdoms and empires, and that ends with the outbreak of WW1 in 1914 that marked the decline and end of several European empires.
Early 1800s status
At the start of the century, iron founders were improving the quality of cast iron piping and potteries were improving terra cotta piping. Yet in the 1800’s, any bath or toilet facilities tended to be in an outhouse.
What few public sewers existed, were routinely choked, blocked, overflowing and completely unable to handle the waste of the millions of people who flooded into the cities and towns of Europe during the Industrial Revolution. Indeed, the idea of modern sewers wasn’t given any serious, practical thought until the 1860s
Sand filters and chlorination meant that the water supply became much cleaner. However, in the early 19th century, most people obtained their water from wells. By the late 19th century piped water became much more common. In the UK local councils took control of the water supply from private companies and began to take responsibility for collecting refuse. Manchester’s council took that responsibility as early as 1845.
Thousands and thousands of people moved to towns and cities and lots more houses were needed for them. These were initially built without any thought of toilets or were designed to be so crowded tha there was no room for toilets inside. Problems in retro-fitting toilets in to existing houses led to the outside toilet.
‘Back-to-back’ houses were very common with little in the way of a gap between them, perhaps just a narrow ginnel or alley. Where several houses shared a small yard they could install an outside toilet, the multiple users would often queue to use this loo. These would often overflow and leach their filth into ground floor homes.
Later in the century, the squeamishness of Victorian times forbade explicit reference to toilet paper. Women might ask a shopkeeper for ‘curling papers’, which were used for making hair-curling rolls, but somehow imply that she really meant toilet paper. Or it would be called ‘wrapping paper”’ The squeamishness continued for a long time. For example, until 1975 ABC, the American Broadcasting Company network, prohibited the use of the phrase ‘toilet paper’ in advertising, although ‘bathroom tissue’ was acceptable.
For depilatory creams European women used their own recipes to produce them in their kitchens. Popular ingredients included oak and white wine.
Toilet definition #8, 1789
The OED cites from this year its eighth definition of the word toilet as, the dressing table covered by this cloth, thus a toilet table. Quoting from 1789, ‘My book was on every table, and almost on every toilette.’ It had taken on the French spelling by this stage and moved from the cloth of the table, through the act of grooming and then switched back to the table itself.
Nicholas Leblanc, 1791
Prior to the French Revolution, in 1775, the French Academy of Sciences in 1775 offered a prize for anyone who could come up with a process for making sodium carbonate, aka soda ash, from common salt.
After the Revolution in 1791, Nicholas Leblanc, a French chemist, received the patent for his two-step process for doing this. The resultant alkali combines with fat to form soap. Leblanc opened his own plant to produce 320 tons of soda ash per year.
But the revolutionary government refused to pay him the prize money and confiscated the plant. In 1802 Napoleon handed it back to Leblanc, but by then he could not afford to finance it – despairing, he finally shot himself in the head in 1806.
Henry Drinker, 1798
Henry, or Harry, Drinker was a lawyer and prominent Quaker (a rather unfortune surname for a Quaker!). In Philadelphia Drinker followed a trend and installed a bathhouse in his back yard, it had a tin bath and a pump-driven shower. The whole creation cost him five pounds, a great deal of investment in 1798.
His wife Elizabeth, a musician, maintained a diary in which she recorded that she had refused to use the bathhouse for a year. When she did, she recorded that,
‘I bore it better than I expected, not having been wet all over at once for 28 years past.’
She added that in 1771 the family was visiting Trenton, New Jersey and commented,
‘[Henry] went into the bath this morning… Self went this afternoon into the bath, I found the shock much greater than expected.’ She visited it a few days later but ‘had not courage to go in’.
By 1806 she still had some reservations,
‘I went into a warm bath this afternoon, H.D. [Henry] after me because he was going out, Lydia and Patience
[the Drinkers’ maids]
Midden privys, 1800s
As Britain entered the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution developed momentum, there was a time of massive growth of Britain’s industrial cities. As the populations multiplied there needed to be new sanitation solutions. Water supply was not well organised and much was polluted. Sewage systems were a glint in the eye of their inventors.
An early solution in northern England industrial communities was the communal midden. These consisted of a small hut and seat erected above a hole in the ground. However, these frequently led to pollution of the subsoil and in some cases this would leak in to water courses and sources.
In Nottingham they innovated by creating a brick seat and a chute that directed the excreta to the centre of the pit. The pit was also lined with cement to limit the leakage. They added an opening through which material like iron sulphate could be poured to dampen and deoderise the smell. But, disposal and overflow problems remained an issue.
By 1860 Manchester with a population of 354,000 had 10,000 water closets (most privately owned and used) and 38,000 middens – a quite impressive midden for every nine people! But its sewers were blocked with solid waste. Expansion of the use of WCs was not pursued because of fears that it would pollute rivers, lakes and thus their water supply.
Pail privys, 1800s
The solution some communities developed was the pail privy. A small wooden cubicle built with two compartments, one for household rubbish the second as a communal closet that vented in to a pail or bucket. The local authority would arrange for it to be emptied and the contents either burned, dumped or used as fertiliser. Of course if they were less than diligent in emptying them this would lead to overflows and other unpleasant outcomes.
Refinements included placing materials like earth or ash in to the pail to try to absorb the fluids and mask the smells. The Rochdale system of 1869 used round wooden barrels for ease of disposal, each had a cast rim that allowed a close-fitting lid to be used during its regular maintenance. Rochdale had five wagons touring the town full-time and emptying 3,354 privys serving its 64,000 population.
Manchester employed 73 wagons to routinely empty some 5,000 pails. A separate cart followed to remove other household rubbish. The pails were emptied at a depot and cleaned with water and chloride of lime. Other refuse was burned to dry the night soil which was used for fertiliser. The residue of the burnt rubbish was used as mortar.
In the U.S., the first waterworks was installed in Philadelphia in 1802. Construction continued steadily until, until by 1880, some 598 cities piped water to their citizens. The system began service with two steam engines and elevated tanks holding about 17,094 gallons Centre Square (image above) on January 21, 1801. However, with piped water the per-capita use increased tenfold from three to five gallons per person per day to 30 to 50 gallons per person per day.
Of course, all water piped into houses also had to be piped out in some form or other. This meant cesspools overflowed regularly, spilling raw sewage into the streets. Engineers decided to connect the cesspools to the crude open-air sewers and the result was an increase in water-borne diseases such as cholera. Officials resorted to prayer as their citizens woke up healthy and were buried by nightfall.
People still didn’t fully understand the relationship between disease and contaminated water. They drank from wells contaminated by outhouses leaching into the water table and from contaminated rivers and streams. City engineers eventually concluded they needed to design closed sewer systems, still using water as the vehicle to transport excreta. Some wanted to return the sewage to agricultural land, but others argued that ‘water purifies itself’ and preferred to pipe sewage straight into lakes, rivers, and oceans.
Napoleon toilet box, 1804-14
The pictured wooden case contains nineteen instruments intended for use in personal hygiene, grooming and shaving while on the move, campaigning. It held razors, a strop to sharpen razors, a toothbrush, tweezers and a toothpick. The case also contains forks, spoons, corkscrews and a pen knife. The documentation for this object states that Napoleon I (1769-1821), Emperor of France between 1804 and 1814, donated cases like this to the generals of his army.
Beau Brummell, 1805
Beau (George Bryan) Brummell (1778-1840) was a Regency dandy, known for impeccable manners and his style. After inheriting a sizeable fortune Brummell dedicated himself to be known as a gentleman of fashion.
It is said that Beau Brummel bathed every day, and made this popular among the upper classes. He believed men should smell clean, without the use of perfumes. He shaved his face several times a day and plucked out any remaining hairs with tweezers. His example meant that shaving and grooming became a popular pastime for the better off.
Pears Soap, 1807
Andrew Pears created a new high-quality transparent soap in 1807. In 1862 his son-in-law Thomas J Barratt opened a factory in Isleworth Middlesex to mass-produce Pears Soap. Their advertisements attracted a great deal of interest and brand loyalty, but the one below even got a reaction when it was issued, definitely not acceptable today..
Regency Period 1811-20
Some London homes had WCs but their waste pipes frequently backed up causing unpleasant fumes to carry throughout the house. Others opted to use ‘earth closets’ that would periodically drop dirt into the pipes and flush out the waste.
The waste pipes from homes and the night-soil mens’ wagons full of muck were all dumped into the river Thames. This regularly engendered epidemics until the authorities realised they should empty waste at certain times (ie high tides) and away from any water supply.
At this time, bathhouses and sea-bathing became popular. In the homes of the wealthy they bathed in copper tubs lined with linen. The poorer if they had a wooden barrel would bathe in that. For the poor a weekly bath, shared by the whole family, became common.
Albert Giblin, 1819
Albert Giblin patented the improved flushed toilet when he received British patent 4990 for the “Silent Valveless Water Waste Preventer”, a siphon discharge system. This replaced the float system which often leaked water. This also diverted some of the water from the cistern to the bottom of the bowl, to create a jet flush that meant it worked even if the cistern was not full. The shape of the P-trap exit was also changed so that it acted like a siphon pulling the waste out.
Thomas Crapper did hold nine patents, but these were for further improvements rather then the invention itself. Some suggest he bought the patent rights from Giblin. He promoted his as patent no. 814.
Cholera had existed since time immemorial, but originally only in the Indian subcontinent. In the 19th Century, the greater number of international travellers and more speedy transport meant that like the Black Death it could reach western Europe.
Cholera is caught from unclean water, food that has been in contact with unclean water or eating food that has been prepared by an infected person. It exhibits as rapid dehydration, vomiting and watery diarrhoea, and can result in death in hours.
It is a faeces-related disease, with its bacillus able to live in human waste and foul water. By the 1820’s cholera reached Russia, reaching Moscow by 1830, and continued to spread to Poland and the Baltic area. While treatable, it still affects three million people each year.
Public Toilets Paris, 1824
Napoleon had begun a new sewer system in 1805, completing 26km of tunnels. Under the Bourbons, by 1824, this had been expanded to 25 kilometers of covered sewers on the right bank, 9.5 kilometers on the left bank, and 387 meters of sewers on the islands. Until late in the Bourbon Restoration, Paris was devoid of public toilets, people simply relieved themselves wherever they could. The hedges surrounding the Tuileries Gardens were considered particularly appropriate for this purpose.
Outdoor latrines filled a series of cesspools and emptied by vidangeurs, overnight workers who emptied the cesspool and transported the waste to large dumps located around the edge of the city.
A set of twelve public toilets were established by the Duke of Orleans at the Palais-Royal. They were called cabinets d’aisances (lavatories) and users were charged two sous a shot, but toilet paper was provided free of charge.
An 1819 guidebook praised these toilets,
‘Cabinets of an extreme cleanliness, an attractive woman at the counter, doorkeepers full of enthusiasm; everything enchants the senses and the client gives ten or twenty times the amount asked.’
By 1816, similar chargeable public toilets were available on Rue Vivienne, across from the public treasury, and in the Luxembourg and Tuileries gardens.
In 1830 the city government decided to install the first public urinals, called Vespasiennes, on major boulevards. Named for the Roman emperor Vespasian (9-79 CE) who, in 70CE, introduced a urine tax (vectigal urinae) to swell the imperial coffers, this was credited as prompting the Latin proverb Pecunia non olet (Money does not stink).
The Thames London, 1827
The Thames, from which much of London drew its drinking water, had become a foul sewer. A pamphlet, ‘The Dolphin’, was distributed around Westminster in 1827, it said the river was,
“…charged with the contents of more than 130 common sewers, the drainings from the dung-hills and lay-stalls, the refuse of hospitals, slaughter-houses […] and with all sorts of decomposed animal and vegetable substances […] so foul a source.”
Steel razors, 1828
In Sheffield production begins of straight steel razors and they were in constant demand until the middle of the 1800s. These razors became dull very quickly however so they had to be honed and stropped frequently in order to use them repeatedly.
Karl Marx, 1830s
Karl Marx described his mother as ‘an angel of a mother’. She urged him to ‘accumulate capital instead of just writing about it’ (he relied on Friedrich Engels to finance him). But she is also said to have suggested he take a weekly scrub with sponge and soap, because he almost never did and had terrible carbuncles as a result.
London and cholera, 1830s
The Thames was the receptacle not just of human waste, but animal waste, dead animals, spoiled food and industrial waste and chemicals. Live animals walked from the countryside to Smithfield market, along the way depositing tons of dung. The River Fleet was motionless with solidifying filth. Hyde Park’s Serpentine was so foul that park users stayed up-wind of it. In the 1860s fifteen feet of sewage was dredged from it.
By the 1830s many London houses had indoor plumbing, but still used cesspits. Their contents were often poured into the streets, or else cesspits were not emptied they would just dig a new one. Some did try to sell the material as fertilizer.
Edward Doubleday, an entomologist and lepidopterist, visited London homes in the 1830s and reported being
‘almost knocked down by the offensive smells.’
It is suggested that news of the resultant diseases were suppressed. Michael Durey reports in his 1979 The Return of the Plague: British Society and the Cholera 1831-2 describes
‘moves of the commercial class to deny the existence of cholera. Letters to newspapers and official circulars were part of this programme….” Doctors who spoke of Cholera were intimidated into silence, local Boards of Health taken over in order to be controlled, and there were ‘Dire warnings of the results of widespread unemployment […] The denial of cholera…was to be the major tool for those whose profits were threatened by government regulation in 1831-2.’ Commercial interests characterised the deaths from disease as simply the result of the dissipated lives of the unworthy poor and was not this thing some were calling cholera.
About 31,000 died of Cholera in the British Isles in 1831-32, 7,000 of these in London, and Britain’s response was inadequate. A greater epidemic in 1848-49 killed up to 62,000 (14,137 in London) and that of 1853-54 another 31,000 (10,378 in London). No real action occurred until physician John Snow published a paper On the Mode of Communication of Cholera, in which he suggested that cholera might be waterborne. During the 1854 epidemic, he collected and analysed data and established that people who drank water from contaminated sources such as the Broad Street pump died of cholera at much higher rates than those who got their water from elsewhere.
But it was the Great Stink of August 1858 that brought aboyt action to combat these problems. A hot weather spell created a noxious smell in central London along the banks of the Thames – including in the Houses of Parliament. The authorities had Joseph Bazalgette build 1200 miles of sewers in London, he constructed three embankments d, Albert, Chelsea and Victoria, under which the new sewers were routed. The effect was to stop the dumping of sewage into the river. Bazalgette’s sewers are still in use today.
In New York there were cholera epidemics in 1832 (killing 60,000), 1848, 1854 and 1867. It was dismissed initially as the ‘poor man’s plague’ and blamed their way of life!
In Leeds , one street in 1830 that housed 176 families was found to be floating with sewage that had not been cleaned for fifteen years. In Liverpool, one-sixth of families were recorded as living in cellars where the risk of sewage seepage was at its highest.
Well into the 19th Century several thousand carts a night would rumble through the streets of Paris, carrying the contents of cesspits away. Paris went on to expand its sewer kilometrage fivefold between 1837 and 1863.