“Everything,” as they say, “has a history;” and so does shit. But I’m more interested in the story of shit removal than the substance itself. One of the most remarkable aspects of the modern world has been the extension of the average human lifespan and, while nutrition and health care have been major contributors to this phenomenon, so, too, has been public sanitation.
More tangibly, we can easily, via pictures and drawings get a sense of what pre-modern life looked like. We have some of the actual objects (often available in antiques stores) that were used. Historians and anthropologists have generated voluminous descriptions of life in Renaissance Italy, medieval Japan, or among Amazonian tribes. A few historians have even produced sonic reproductions—historical soundscapes—of early modern Paris. But even going to slum in contemporary Kolkata or some farm in Ghana will not give you the smell of the past. One of my favorite historical cartoons shows two elegantly-dressed gentlemen strolling in the gardens of 18C Versailles. One says to the other: “Yes, it might seem like a ‘golden age,’ if we didn’t have to deal with all these lice.” I have talked before about the importance of “mentalité”—state of mind or epistemology—in understanding the past and, therefore in understanding the nature and meaning of progress from that past. It’s no less true of olfactory sensations than other aspects of how we lived now/then.
How much of the drive to improve domestic and public sanitation was driven by these olfactory concerns and how much by a sense of the impact on public health is difficult to determine. Much of the work was started before modern germ theory had been developed and accepted (Pasteur, Koch, Lister in the late 19C). Indeed, public health concerns fostered the development of germ theory.
During an extended cholera outbreak in mid-19C London, John Snow used newfangled statistical analyses to show that germs were being passed through the water system. In addition to attacking the specific issue of cholera, it was an important instigation to the massive project of constructing London’s sewage system so that dirty water was not put back into the Thames until it had been treated and then deposited downstream of the metropolis. Joseph Bazalgette oversaw the project from the late 1850s and it wasn’t completed until 1875.
London was a busy place in the 1850s, epitomized by the great Crystal Palace exhibition which ran during 1851 (and which was the first “world’s fair), bringing the wonders of the modern age together, showing off British technology, trade, and imperial grandeur. It was the first “world’s fair” and the Crystal Palace itself (although destroyed in the 1930s), was the inspiration for our own Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
There were many remarkable exhibits on display, but among the concessionaires on the grounds of the Crystal Palace was a public pay toilet. Apparently, it was buried when the Palace was moved to South London after the Exhibition, but was rediscovered in 2016. A visit cost one pence; well worth it to many who were touring the vast show. Indeed, it seems that 675,000 pennies were collected (more than 10% of the total number of visitors).
What can we make of these three more-or-less contemporaneous events in London in the 1850s?:
* A perspective on basic bodily functions and their relation to public health.
* Some important steps towards making proactive public health management a basic governmental function.
* Components of a plumbing system.
* A decline in disease and an improvement in longevity.
The foundational characteristics of modern (“first-world”) living is often buried in the long list of things which we all take for granted. This list has to include the wonder of the municipal plumbing network.
Generically, gratitude is a great attitude to have at whatever age. It often takes some attention amid the schedule and aggravations of the day to recall and reclaim this stance. So, regardless of my bowel efficacy du jour, I try to take this opportunity to be grateful for these scientists and engineers and their plumbing successors who provide us with this daily blessing.
As I rise from the “throne,” I reach back, press a lever for a second and … flush.