S S and S – Foreword

© Bob Denton, 2016
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Civilisation is the distance that man has placed between himself
and his own excreta.’ Brian W Aldiss, ‘The Dark Light Years’

Today in the West we appreciate the health-and-safety requirement to dispose of our excreta effectively. The benefits of regular washing and good grooming are also (mostly) pursued. But we need only look back a handful of generations to see this is a recent development.

A gzunder in pride of place

My family was not particular poor or insanitary for our age, but when I think back it sounds dreadful. In my 1950s childhood we had an outside loo and all five of us used a potty overnight, ceremonially emptied in the morning. Initially to bathe we shared the water in a tin bath placed in front of the fireplace, the water topped up by kettle-fulls of hot water. We had a water geyser in the kitchen, no central heating, no fitted carpets (linoleum around mats)…

Zinc bath in front of fire

At school in the 1950s/early 60s I used one of two shirt bodies with several loose collars which were worn one way on Monday and the other way on Tuesday, the next collar for Wednesday/Thursday but the shirt itself had to last all week.

Brut advert

As I started working in the late 60s I had just the one suit that I have no recollection of ever having dry-cleaned. I used aftershave (Brut, thanks to Henry Cooper, Barry Sheene and Kevin Keegan) but I was an infrequent user of a toothbrush and don’t recall any application of deodorant – baths were once a week. All perfectly normal for then but very cringe-worthy today.

The 3 Ss is the story of personal hygiene, which the Aldiss quote above affirms, is inevitably linked with the advance of human civilization. But, like most history, this is no gentle graph wending its way from the dirt of the distant past up to the perfect now. Instead it is a series of lurches, with sociological and technological forward strides, punctuated by ecological backward steps.

There can be little argument that for millennia we humans have been prepared to live in foul conditions, allowing rubbish and ordure to build up around us, accepting long-term stinks and health-risks rather than dealing with these accumulations; when the need to resolve this was perfectly self-evident.

1850s London is often presented as the height of Victorian modernity, the largest and richest city in the world, sat at the heart of the rapidly expanding British Empire. Yet it was under pressure, with over 200,000 cesspits and some 350 sewers, all of which dumped their effluent directly into the river Thames. It was also the dumping place for industrial and commercial waste from abattoirs, tanneries… The river is tidal and while some of this was conveniently washed out to sea, a great deal of it was brought back in on the very next tide.

Cholera outbreak – Broad St, Soho 1854

As usual, it was only when our leaders were personally disadvantaged that something was done. Three major cholera outbreaks in the city (1832, 7,000 dead; 1849, 14,000 dead; 1854, 10,700 dead), generated little effective action. It was when the (recently rebuilt) Houses of Parliament in Jul/Aug 1858 were subjected to what became known as the ‘Great Stink’, that the government authorised a major review of London sewerage. Their plans showed prompt benefits, though there was an 1866 outbreak in the East End (6,000 dead).

Contemporary illustration of The Great Stink

Pressures of global population

The most important component of hygiene is of course water, the supply of clean drinking water, water to irrigate, water to wash, to clean and to flush. This book will look at how early communities developed techniques to garner and manage vital water resources, how they dealt with storm water, waste water and sewage and how these developments drove trends in personal hygiene.

But we should be clear that this is not just a matter from our past – today 17% of the world’s population has no safe access to water, 37% lack any safe sanitation and 15% still defecate in the open!

In 1927 the world’s population first exceeded two billion, it doubled in a little less than fifty years, reaching four billion by 1974. It took half that time, just twenty-five years, to add a further two, reaching six billion by 1999. In the spring of 2012 it was estimated that the world’s human population would first exceed seven billion. The pace appears to have steadied, is now forecast that it will take twenty-seven years to reach eight billion, by 2026.

A UN-Water Report (2007) suggested that by then one-eighth of the world’s population (one billion) will live in countries that are water-scarce and a further quarter (2 billion) will live in water-stressed countries.

Maplecroft, a British risk-analysis firm, monitors where water conflicts might flare. It shows the Middle East as the most water-stressed, ranking its global top-ten for highest risk of water conflict as Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Western Sahara, Yemen, Israel, Djibouti and Jordan. India is shown as high-risk (30th) and China as medium-risk (56th).


The Classical Greco-Roman era was a time of major advances in terms of water supply and waste management. Bathing became popular and latrines were introduced.

The Greek historian Herodotus (485-425 BCE) reported that Egyptians bathed several times a day and ‘set cleanliness above seemliness’. Being so clean all the time was considered nothing short of fanatical behaviour by Romans and other outsiders. Ancient Romans believed that the Egyptian practice of removing body hair resulted in something akin to a terrible deformity.

Roman lead piping

Sadly their water was stored and transported using a great deal of lead, so clean they may well have been, but their health was a different matter. Most authorities assume that the Greeks learned their medicine from the Egyptians though there is no absolute proof for or against this belief. Some suggest that the Minoans were their go-betweens. Pythagoras was a regular traveller, Archimedes is said to have developed his ‘Screw’ in Egypt and Thales was trained medically there, so the connection should be no great mystery.

Cleanliness is next to Godliness was a concept present in a number of ancient and early civilisations, but it is first found written down as a notion in a John Wesley sermon of 1778. Bizarrely. Christianity welcomes babies and converts into its community by baptism with water, but spent many centuries revelling in extreme dirtiness.

Sanitation technology

After the fabrication of tools and weapons, the manipulation of water to serve our needs prompted some of the earliest of human technologies. Many early civilisations became adept at managing their water supply, using it for agriculture, for bathing, for latrines, for waste systems… This came to a peak when Roman developments created systems of aqueducts, siphon piping, hypocausts, baths…

Roman aqueduct

But in Europe the fall of the Roman Empire did not just halt this progress, it set the cause of world hygiene back for a millennium or more. When the Western Roman Empire crumbled in the 5th century we appear to have lost the clean-gene, or meme, and overlooked or forgot their techniques, pitching us into centuries of disgusting and unhealthy living conditions.

In fact for many centuries the very notion of cleanliness was considered unhealthy, it was believed that it was uncleanliness that was next to godliness, saints and hermits wore their filth as a sort of badge of piety. In many civilizations it was proposed that bathing was dangerous, that if you washed you unblocked your pores and this permitted harmful fluids to leave or enter the body.

The disgusting circumstances in which we humans were happy to live sounds incredible today:

  • Norman castle garderobes evacuating human waste through a chute into the moat
  • The Tudors tossing excrement from their overhanging windows into the street
  • people defecated on the stairs and along corridors of the palace of Versailles
  • Victorian houses had multiple families, some living in basements full of sewage

Centuries of disease and death accompanied this awful record of poor hygiene and deficient waste disposal

Incredible that is, until you recall that, globally today, one-in-six people are without a safe water supply, four-in-ten are without sanitation, one-in-seven still defecate in the open. The battle for good global hygiene and sanitation has yet to be won!

Bill Gates has used his wealth to tackle diseases, prompted by smallpox being eliminated in 1980, the first disease Man has completely eradicated. The Gates Foundation believes that other diseases can be eradicated by 2030 – polio, Guinea worm, elephantiasis, river blindness and blinding trachoma the most likely candidates. However, Internet anti-vaccination scare-mongering has served to rekindle measles and mumps!

The UN, the World Resources Institute and others do routinely debate water scarcity, but few global schemes are being pursued.


The first evidence of personal grooming dates to Neanderthals 100,000 BP (years Before Present). They plucked hair from their bodies and to filed down their teeth. Cave paintings suggest they used mussel and clam-shells as an early set of tweezers to remove facial hair.

Neanderthal tweezers

The adult modern male face has between 7.000 and 15,000 thousand hairs that grow between 12.5 and 15 cms (six inches) per year. Today males commit, on average, 125 whole days of their life to shaving off this facial hair. But early man’s grooming was perhaps more about controlling lice and some suggest that pulled out or cut their head hair to avoid it tangling in twigs and branches as they hunted.

Flint razors have been discovered dating to 30,000 BCE (Before Common Era). These would have required regular replacement because our facial hair is as tough as copper wire and would have soon dulled the flint’s edge – so flints were perhaps the earliest disposable razors! But these old ancestors were not content with shaving they also cut designs in to their flesh and poured dies in to them to create simple tattoos.

By 4,000 BCE women were also depilating, they used ‘tweezers’ too but also applied chemicals like arsenic and quicklime to remove hair, later they would singe it off with fire!

The Egyptian ruling classes practised shaving all of their body hair. By 3,000 BCE this was somewhat assisted by their skill working with copper to create metal razors.

Elaborate bronze razors have been discovered in Scandinavia dating to 1,500 – 1,200 BCE. Danish mound graves have also yielded some that were kept in leather cases.


As I originally wrote this section the ‘Movember’ movement for charity was in vogue . As I edit this the fad has faded and hipster beards and soul patches are all the rage.

Gillette, 1895

Our three main topics are toilets, bathrooms and grooming, but these don’t provide as catchy a title as the popular saying – Shit, Shower and Shave.

But, it’s not all shit and despondency, the book celebrates human ingenuity and the many advances in civilization. Settle down, make yourselves comfortable and don’t forget to adjust your dress and wash your hands afterwards!          

WATER – a real and current danger

You can’t trust water: Even a straight stick turns crooked in it.’ 
W C Fields

Personal hygiene developed alongside communities achieve some control of their local water supplies. They needed to overcome the potential for damage of storms and floods, develop techniques for drawing water from rivers, lakes and aquifers, create means of storing water for times of shortage, and invent systems for distributing water for agriculture and cattle, disposing of waste and, where culturally desirable, develop bathing facilities.

This phase of early civilization is just as interesting as the central subject of The Three Ss, but I have chosen to make this a separate suffix volume called.  The Three Ds – dominate, disperse and dispose – the early history of water management.

The Three Ds is Part 2 of this journey, it is a lengthy topic all its own, which, while worthy of comment is perhaps not of such general (or do I mean prurient?) interest. Of course, if you should want to read them chronologically then you should read Part 2 first.

In Part 1 we will consider our history of hygiene within five time periods:

Trust you enjoy the journey as much as I did!

Bob Denton

© Bob Denton, 2016
Forward to Classical Era   –   Back to Three Ss
Back to Unpublished writing