- Venice, 1700s
- Disease, 1700s
- Sir John Floyer, 1701
- Queen Anne, 1702
- Toilet definition #4, 1703
- Goethe’s home, early 18th century
- Cologne, 1709
- The ‘heads’, 1712
- Versailles, 1715
- Personal daintiness, 18th century
- Country houses, 1730
- Toilet definition #5, 1735
- Bathing machines, 1735…
- Brondel, 1738
- Bath, 1742
- Dry washing, mid-18th century
- George Washington’s home, mid-18th century
- George II, 1760
- Safety razors, 1762
- Toilet definition #6, 1763
- Showers, 1767
- Don’t let the bed bugs bite, 1770
- Origin of the term ‘loo’?, 1770s
- Joseph Bramah, 1770s
- Bath, 1770s
- Thomas Jefferson, 1772
- Alexander Cummings, 1775
- Ordure operatives in Paris
- Toilet definition #7, 1777
- Wesley, 1778
- Soap, 1780
- Louis XVI, 1793
In some ways Venice was a special place, but in others it was no different. While its streets were canals, these were still used to dump refuse and of course not being rivers they did not have any flows to clear that accumulation. Some nearby villages would come and collect it as manure, but otherwise it reeked, especially in summer.
One writer (Maurice Andrieux) recounts the tale of a visit to a Venice theatre. Peddlars worked along the seating rows selling cold meats, fruit and wine. The lighting was so poor in the auditorium that, having partaken of all these wares, the audience would not bother to seek out the meagre facilities provided for hygiene, instead and relieved themselves where they sat. No matter how uplifting the performance, Andrieux suggested a live performance of Vivaldi with the man himself, ‘the whole place stank’.
Many diseases are present and spread in faeces, these include Cholera, Dysentery, Hepatitis A, Hepatitis E and Typhoid Fever. The bacteria that spreads Typhus is in lice faeces. Im the 18th century it was not yet appreciated that the key to avoiding these diseases is to keep human and other faeces away from water sources, from the food and milk supply chain and kitchen utensils. As a result of this lack of knowledge the eighteenth-century population could expect a short life, in the UK to live to 40 was a good outcome.
In Ireland, they had the Blaidhain an air (or year of slaughter), in 1740-1, when 300,000-400,000 died of dysentery, typhus or hunger (10% of its population). A further 45,000 dysentery fatalities occurred in 1817-8, though neither was quite as bad as the Potato Famine, a century later (1845-49), when a million died and another million emigrated. These sort of death rates appear more akin to war than something created by filth.
Sweden had regular dysentery outbreaks, in 1773 in some villages 90% of all local deaths were due to dysentery. France, in 1779, ten years before the French Revolution, recorded 175,000 deaths due to dysentery.
Not that we can feel superior because around the world today some 140m people (2% of global population) contract dysentery annually. Most of the deaths are of children under five. We know today that dysentery is a type of gastroenteritis spread by bacteria, viruses, parasitic worms and/or protozoa. It is a notifiable disease, spread by faecal contamination of food and water, usually in impoverished areas where overcrowding and poor sanitation facilitate transmission. The World Health Organisation in 2016, ranked the causes of global deaths, with heart disease and stroke being numbers one and two. Diarrhoeal diseases ranked only ninth-top global-killer, behind number eight as ‘road injury’ – we do have different problems!
Sir John Floyer, 1701
Floyer was a physician, practising in Lichfield Staffordshire. He was also an author and wrote on the benefits of cold baths as a remedy for many maladies, he suggested this was effected by the ‘Terror and Surprize [that] jolted jaded senses’.
In 1712 he advised that Dr Johnson (later a poet, playwright, essayist, biographer and lexicographer),while still a child should be taken by his mother to be touched by Queen Anne. Presumably he had contracted scrofula, a lymph node infection, that presents as a painless mass on the neck, as scrofa means ‘brood sow’ you can perhaps imagine the mass? From medieval times it was thought the touch of a sovereign of England or France could cure the condition based on their ‘divine right’. Notably Henry VI is claimed to have cured a young girl, and thereafter the condition was known as the ‘king’s evil’. The Anglican Church even published in its Book of Common Prayer a ceremony for doing this. In England it became traditional that the sovereign would touch the individual and then give them a gold coin, an ‘angel’ worth around ten shillings. When George I ascended he stopped the practice as ‘too Catholic’.
Queen Anne, 1702
At the dawn of the first Age of Awakening, the beginning of the 18th century, Queen Anne installed a WC, adjacent to her Windsor Castle dressing room, which boasted a marble toilet seat. It was described as ‘a little place of easement of marble, with sluices to wash them all down’. I imagine that placing the royal derrière on to that marble seat on a cold morning would be quite a rude awakening. However if you Google ‘Queen Anne toilet’ you will see a range of period furniture because the term toilet at the time still implied more about grooming than defecation.
Anne was also a victim to poor health, in her thirties she became obese and was routinely ill. She had seventeen pregnancies, yet died without surviving issue as the last House of Stuart sovereign. After one failed pregnancy in 1688 Anne recuperated at Bath, using the waters to ease her gout.
Toilet definition #4, 1703
The OED cites from this year its fourth definition of the word toilet as, the reception of visitors by a lady during the concluding stages of her toilet, esp. fashionable in the 18th century, quoting from 1703, ‘You shall introduce him to Mrs. Clerimont’s Toilet.’ So by this time toilet had become an act rather than a thing.
Goethe’s home – early 18th century
The German writer and statesman, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), was an erudite and successful man. His writing saw him celebrated by the age of twenty-five, the next year his first novel led to him being ennobled. His two-part tragic play Faust is of course what he is most remembered for today.
So the plumbing comes as some surprise in his home in Frankfurt, a substantial five-storey building. There was no running water, no bathroom, though they did have a personal well in the cellar. He like others of the era would use bowls and jugs to wash, and chamberpots for their toilet, though there was at some stage an outhouse added at the rear.
An Italian perfume maker, recently moved to Cologne, wrote home to his brother saying, ‘I have found a fragrance that reminds me of an Italian spring morning, of mountain daffodils and orange blossoms after the rain’.He called it Eau de Cologne, to honour his new home.
The Original Eau de Cologne 4711 was named after his address – Glockengasse, No. 4711.
The heads – 1712
The first recorded usage of the term ‘head’ was for a toilet in the 1712 Woodes Rogers’ book Cruising Voyage Around the World, when he used the maritime word in reporting a voyage from 1708-1711. Toilets aboard ships were often placed at the front so that waves would usefully wash away the material. So the toilet was at the front, ahead – so it might just as well have become known as the fore, bow or prow – but ‘heads’ it became.
Woodes Rodgers captained the Duke for this voyage was also responsible for a remarkable discovery. He liberated a Scottish sailor who had of his own volition been abandoned on Más a Tierra island in the uninhabited Juan Fernández archipelago, off the coast of Chile. He had become fearful that the ship he was on was unseaworthy, it did later sink off the coast of Colombia with just some of the crew surviving this. Selkirk had lived there for four years by the time Woodes Rogers arrived. Two other ships had called there but they had been Spanish and as a privateer Selkirk could not risk revealing himself. Continuing our theme, he had been spotted and chased by some sailors from one of those ships, he hid beneath a tree that the sailors urinated against, without discovering him.
Mark Girouard’s, Life in the French Country House, explained that Versailles had one hundred bathrooms and three hundred commodes. The truth was that, for all its luxury and obscene opulence, the Palace of Versailles was little cleaner than a sewer! Animals were allowed to wander at will through the stately halls and relieve themselves as they pleased. And it wasn’t just animals, either. It was a long distance between chamber pots, courtiers, servants and guests relieved themselves in a corner, underneath staircases, behind curtains, or in the dead-space behind doors. If they used the chamber-pots, the contents would then be ejected out the window into the palace courtyard below. As a result its corridors had to be cleared of faeces weekly! No wonder courtiers reported that Versailles had its very own and particular stench.
There was one toilet in Versailles, but for the exclusive use of the Queen of France. The toilet (still in Versailles today!) was one of the few plumbing fixtures in the palace, hidden away in the Queen’s royal apartment. Apartments which only her most trusted and intimate of servants would ever have seen. Most people didn’t even know the toilet existed!
Versailles apparently had some 300 “close stools” (a furniture seat that contained a chamber pot) at the palace. But these had to service a court population of 20,000 (some 9,000 soldiers were billeted in the town, 5,000 servants living in palace annexes, at least 2,000 nobles and 4,000 servants.
Some of these stools were placed in rooms or antechambers of their own, others were brought to you, on demand, into your own room by servants, then taken away when you were finished. Of course, visitors to Versailles might also bring their own favourite pot from home.
During Louis XIV’s reign, the Duchess of Orleans wrote in her diary ‘There is one dirty thing at Court I shall never get used to: the people stationed in the galleries in front of our rooms piss into all the corners’.
A Swiss visitor, Siegfried Giedion, said of the French of Louis XIV’s time that ‘the most elementary sense for cleanliness was lacking’. Louis XIV was known to go to the bathroom in his coach while traveling, even when there were female passengers.
The Duc de Saint-Simon wrote of the Princesse d’Harcourt when he met her at Versailles, that she left ‘a dreadful trail behind her that made the servants…wish her to the devil.’
The custom at nearby Fontainebleau was to wait until dusk and then make for a lawn outside. Here lords, ladies and the Swiss Guard would assemble, each trying to ignore the other and get on with his or her business. As a result, the pretty walks became unwalkable.” (An Irreverent and Almost Complete Social History of the Bathroom, Frank Muir, 117.)
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was an aristocrat, poet and great traveller. She wrote many letters describing her travels through the Ottoman Empire, while her husband was the UK Ambassador. On one occasion she shook hands and the recipient mentioned her hands were very dirty, she replied, without shame, ‘what would you say if you saw my feet?’
The Marquis D’Argens, an author and critic of Catholicism, was a great friend of Voltaire for thirty years. In the 1760s he lived part of his life in exile at the court of the Prussian King, Frederick the Great.
He must have had something about him, as he married French ballerina and writer Babette Cochois. Yet, he is reported as always wearing to Frederick’s court, dirty stockings, a grubby shirt and a threadbare suit. Apparently, he was a hypochondriac and always wore the same flannel undershirt for fear of catching cold. After wearing it for four years Frederick ordered it removed and when it was taken off, sections of his skin came with it. (Julia Gasper, The Marquis d’Argens: A Philosophical Life.)
Country houses, 1730
In theory any substantial British country house would by now have had the facility and capability to have running water to all floors, with bathrooms and toilets. However personal daintiness was not high on their agenda. Still most had servants fetch and carry any required water and any waste and sewage was run off to a cesspit that the gong farmers could deal with when they overflowed.
Toilet definition #5, 1735
The OED cites from this year its fifth definition of the word toilet as, a cloth cover for a dressing table, formerly often of rich material and workmanship, quoting from 1735 ‘Toilette (or Covering for a Dressing-Table).’ It first took on the French spelling when it reverted to being a cloth, not one to wear, one on which to set out your grooming items.
Bathing machines, 1735
The invention of bathing huts has many claimants. A resort in Devon claims it had them from 1735, Scarborough Library has an engraving from there dated 1736. Benjamin Beale, a Quaker, invented the ones at Margate from 1750. At this stage many bathed naked and so the machine allowed then to be wheeled into the sea to protect their modesty.
Nice on the south coast of France had become popular as a recuperation location for breathing and lung problems. Tobias Smollett, novelist and doctor, suffered from asthma, but when he stayed in Nice he wrote about the other benefits of it as a sunny resort. In 1764, venturing into the sea in a sedan chair to assist his asthma recovery he transported the bathing and bathing machine habit, and founded the French Riviera. There is still a rue Smollett in Nice, though it is located in a much less salubrious area than the Promenade des Anglais.
The Prince of Wales, and subsequently as George III, took his family each summer to Weymouth, essentially founding the first British seaside resort. From 1840 onwards the coming of the railways opened these up to the working classes, leading to the development of a whole new industry.
While much attention is given to the toffs who used Bath’s waters, many of the ‘deserving poor’ also turned up to seek its efficacy.
The Mineral Water Hospital was founded in 1738, using Bath Stone donated by Ralph Allen the building was opened in 1742. Its treatments were free for seriously ill patients.
In 1750, James Heath invented the Bath Chair, which helped the sick and immobile to get to the waters of Bath and their healing powers.
It was also around this time that father and son, John Wood the Elder and John Wood the Younger, redesigned the bath houses, to be more Palladian than in Elizabethan times.
Usually it was naked bathing in the springs, with segregated time slots for men, women and children. Men began to wear calecons, which originated in France around 1830. By the Victorian era, mixed bathing was becoming more and more popular, and family’s could swim together
Dry washing, mid-18th century
Dry washing was popular, this used a brush to dislodge lice and open pores. Benjamin Franklin air bathed, he moved around outdoors naked. But doctors had gained a little bit more understanding of our physiology, and realised that your pores needed to be opened to let out sweat and other things. Beliefs changed to consider that it was healthy to clean your pores and let perspire.
George Washington’s mansion – mid-18th century
Washington was of course the first President of the United States. His plantation estate sat along the banks of the Potomac River, near Alexandria in Virginia. It’s name was changed by George’s brother, Lawrence, to Mount Vernon. This was to commemorate Lawrence’s period of service in the British Royal Navy under Vice Admiral Edward Vernon.
BRIEFER: Vernon has a number of other claims to fame.
In 1728 as a member of parliament Vernon took up the case of ‘Jenkins’ Ear’, the British captain of a merchant ship who claimed his ear had been cut off by a boarding party of Spanish coastguards, during an uneasy peace between the two nations. The Spanish accused Robert Jenkins of smuggling, the British accused the Spanish of provocation. Vernon became a Vice-Admiral and was despatched with a fleet to attack Spanish possessions in the West Indies.
He is also attributed as the officer who first introduced ‘grog’ a mix of rum, water and lemon or lime juice that was issued as rations to the sailors, it improved the stale water, helped guard against scurvy while giving their right to a measure of rum. Vernon wore coats made of grogram cloth, a coarsely woven mix of silk, silk/wool or silk/mohair. This earned him the nickname ‘Old Grog’ which was transposed to the drink.
Mount Vernon is a wooden-built Palladian-style mansion, built on land the family had owned since 1674. The house was built by George between 1758 and 1778, he and his wife, Marta, are interred here, it became a National Historic Landmark in 1960.
As father of a nation it might be expected that he would have the latest in plumbing, but the house had no bathroom, their servants would bring jugs of heated water to a bath tub. Originally they would have used chamberpots for their ablutions, the same servants removing it, wither to the Potomac of, as Washington advocated manure, tipped onto his fields?
Toilets were later added to Mount Vernon’s facilities, have not been able to find a date for these, but they were communal.
He also used flowing water on the estate to create his own rye whisky distillery in 1797, thanks to a Scottish farm manger’s skills. Their first venture produced 600 gallons that made a healthy return. By his death in 1799 they were producing 11,000 gallons. This was reconstructed and reopened in 2007, producing 5,000 gallons per year.
George II, 1760
King George II of Great Britain died upon the toilet on 25 October 1760. Horace Walpole, son of the PM, was a writer and Whig politician, he described what happened in his memoirs. King George:
‘rose as usual at six, and drank his chocolate; for all his actions were invariably methodic. A quarter after seven he went into a little closet. His German valet de chambre in waiting heard a noise, and running in, found the King dead on the floor.’
In falling he had cut his face. But, the cause of death was an aortic dissection, which is when the aorta allows blood to flow between the layers of the aortic wall, starving the heart of blood supply. This can often lead to a stroke.
Toilet definition #6, 1763
By now the OED suggested it had become a mass noun. It was the term for the articles required or used in applying make-up, arranging the hair, dressing, etc.; a toilet set. Also: a case containing these. Quoting from 1763, ‘How can you intrude so rudely into a lady’s ruelle? You see I have set out my toilet.’ So toilet had been the dressing table, then the cloth upon it and now was the articles laid upon the cloth.
The first modern shower was invented by Englishman William Feetham
Life magazine published this picture, and described it thus
Safety razors, 1762
The first safety razor was produced in 1762, though the first time the term was used in a patent was in 1880.
In 1762 French barber Jean-Jacques Perret wrote La Pogonotomie – ou l’art d’apprendre à se raser soi-même (The Art of Learning to Shave Oneself) which gave advice on the use of different shaving products and equipment. The book is the first to propose the idea of a safety razor.
The Perret Razor was manufactured as an L-shaped wooden guard that holds a razor blade in place. It prevents the user cutting themselves too deeply. It still does not have any real safety and is not considered to be the first true safety razor but this was the beginnings of the safety razor. It encouraged men and women to shave without using a barber. French women shaved their heads completely so they could wear the huge powdered wigs of the latest hairstyles.
Don’t let the bed bugs bite, 1770
For generations the prevalence of lice, bedbugs and fleas was accepted as the norm. Bedbugs were a particularly common nuisance even in royal palaces. Marie Antoinette introduced an innovative remedy when, in the late 1770s, she ordered beds of polished iron from the royal locksmith Courbin. Since the bugs could not nest in the iron bed frames as they did in wooden ones, the royal children were protected from bites. Iron beds subsequently became the standard for homes, hospitals and dormitories.
Origin of loo, 1770s
Tobias Smollett’s funniest work, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker following the eponymous character around spa towns and seaside resorts that provide satirical inspiration.
If you were out and about in Edinburgh, people worked the streets at night. They wore large capes and carried buckets. They covered their customers with their cloak, while the customers made use of the pail. But Smollet’s description of Edinburgh focused on the fact that the waste of some 50,000 persons was nightly cast out of the windows into the streets.
The accompanying cry was ‘gardez l’eau’, look out for the ‘water’, but clearly meant ‘run for it’. It is conjectured that this is where the expression ‘loo’ derived.
Joseph Bramah – 1770s
Samuel Prosser patented a plunger-closet in 1777, used to replace a valve to control the water flow into the bowl. But the plunger allowed both the inflow and outflow to be expelled simultaneously. These were a little too close to each other and solid waste would adhere to the inlet plunger.
Joseph Bramah was formally a cabinetmaker and locksmith but also something of an inventor too. He was installing Cummings (patented in 1775) water closets for his employers and realised that they had a flaw, the valve would freeze in cold weather. He improved upon the design by replacing the valve with a hinged flap that sealed the base of the bowl and also created a float valve system in the flush tank. When his employers did not patent the device he applied for and received the patent for himself in 1778. His design is essentially the system that we use today. This was the first water closet that gained massive recognition and business.
Audley End House, near Saffron Walden in Essex was a Jacobean house that boasted a Capability Brown parkland garden and a drainage system from Tudor times. John Griffin inherited in 1762 and proved very innovative in his stewardship. He installed a pump house to bring water from the River Cam, which runs through the estate, to fill tanks in the roof of the house. It installed the very first Bramah flushing toilets in 1775 (before it got its patent), a further four were installed in 1785. Their cost was the equivalent of £1,000 today, perhaps more tellingly the price was equivalent to the salary of a servant for two years!
James Graham was an 18th century Scot, who became quack doctor by attracting the support of several wealthy patrons to establish a ‘medical’ practice in Bath.
Prior to this he had travelled extensively learning in America of electricity from a colleague of Benjamin Franklin. This prompted him to develop an electro-magnetic bed, the ‘Celestial Bed’ that was promoted through ‘Temples of Health’. He sold quack medicines like his ‘Electrical Aether’.
Graham’s advertisements in Bath promoted cures by the use of ‘Effluvia, Vapours and Applications ætherial, magnetic or electric’. He also proposed ‘earth bathing’ where patients were buried up to their neck in soil and also offered milk baths. Sexual innuendo was used heavily in his approach by the use of a setting augmented by classical statuary, music and scantily-clad hostesses. One such hostess was Emma Lyon who would later become Lady Hamilton, Horatio Nelson’s mistress.
Thomas Jefferson, 1772
Thomas Jefferson, as part of his go-between role for the American and French revolutions, travelled to France and encountered a flush toilet. He was moved to try to import the notion into his home at Monticello in Virginia.
He first built a chamber made from wood with a lid that slaves could empty using a system of pulleys. In his notes it appears that there was some intention to lead water to the privy for a flushing process but this never happened. Later, he installed three indoor loos, perhaps the first in America. These had ventilation to carry away odours, there was no flushing, but research indicates the material was led away to a pit, though some theories suggest potties were used and their contents taken to the pit. Later still, at the President’s House (aka the White House) in 1801, Jefferson did install three flushing toilets, applying collected rainwater stored in the attic for the purpose.
Alexander Cummings – 1775
Alexander Cummings, born in Edinburgh, became a watchmaker but was also an accomplished mathematician and mechanic. He received commission to design organs for the Duke of Argyle and Duke of Bute. He moved to London, and opened Bond Street premises. He built some impressive clocks, including a barometric one for King George III that earned him an annual retainer to manage its maintenance. Other barometric clocks of his are in the Science Museum today. As a Fellow of the Clockmakers’ Company, his repute was sufficient to have him appointed to the Commission that assessed John Harrington’s clock to calculate longitude for mariners. He was an all-rounder, publishing books on watches and clocks but also on the effects of gravity and the impact of roads on carriage wheels.
Of more interest to us is that in 1775 he patented a water closet design. It first introduced an S-shaped trap which was external to the bowl, today these are of course an integral part of the toilet design. The water at the bottom of the bend provides a barrier to stop smells and gases (hopefully rats too!) emerging from the connected drainage system. As it said in the patent application, ‘having the stinktrap so constructed that its contents shall or may be emptied every time the closet is used.’ Harrington had said of the Ajax, that flushing ‘once a day is enough […] though twenty persons should use it…’!
Ordure operatives in Paris
In Paris local officials initially opposed water closets on economic grounds, this was based on the desire to maintain cesspits so that human waste was available for fertiliser, the WC would lose the material into sewerage systems.
In the nineteenth century, Alphonse Guérard, a physician and chemist, who became editor of France’s Annales d’hygiène publique from 1845 to 1874. He had also taken courses at the Ecole des Mines, this combination making him a suitable commentator on the subject of cesspits. One of his articles in 1846 identified that there were 30,000 cesspits in Paris and between 200 and 250 operatives who were cleaning these. The opposition delayed the city’s sewerage system until the 1880s, with cesspits still present into the 20th century.
Toilet definition #7, 1777
Still expressed in the form ‘toilette’, the OED shows that it had become the action or process of washing, dressing, or arranging the hair, quoting from 1777, ‘Mrs Wall was still at her Toilette!’ and from 1822, ‘She actually spent an hour longer at her toilette, and made her appearance with her hair uncommonly frizzed and powdered.’
John Wesley, 1778
Methodist John Wesley, preached in his Sermon #88 entitled ‘On Dress’:
‘slovenliness is no part of religion; that neither this, nor any text of Scripture, condemns neatness of apparel. Certainly this is a duty, not a sin. “Cleanliness is, indeed, next to godliness.’
It appears that Wesley intended this to mean clean clothes rather than bodies.
However, the essence of this notion may be traced back to Babylonian and Hebrew religious writings. For example, the first mention of washing in the Bible is when Abraham extends hospitality to three visitors includes providing water to wash their feet:
‘Please let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree.’ (Genesis 18:4)
Haggai, a Hebrew prophet and one of the twelve minor prophets in the Hebrew Bible, gave as background:
‘God is teaching us through Haggai that the uncleanness of this world can be transferred from one person to another, but holiness cannot! […] The same is true of character. It cannot be borrowed or lent. We cannot borrow a relationship with God. It is non-transferable as holiness is non-transferable.’ (Haggai 2:11-14)
Note: Toilets have sunk more ships than torpedoes, because on most ships, the head connects to an opening below the water line. Waste is exhausted and flush water ingested. But, if the seal leaks the ship can take on water, and in some cases sink.
Until the Industrial Revolution, soapmaking was conducted on a small scale and the product was rough. In 1780 James Keir, a Scottish chemist and geologist, was involved in a glassworks and experimented with alkalis. established a chemical works at Tipton Staffs. Here he synthesised alkalis from the sulphates of potash and soda, and went on to set up a soap factory on what was unimaginatively named Soap Factory Road.
Louis XVI, 1793
Louis XVI was guillotined at the age of 38 in the Place de la Révolution. It is said that he had taken just one bath in his life – on his wedding day.