A Different Kind of Flush

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

It’s World Toilet Day, a day reminding us that one-third of the world’s population does not have access to a toilet and consequently faces serious sanitary challenges.1

Similar difficulties once faced places where toilets are now widespread. In much of the Western world, filthy urban streets, unregulated sanitation, and a series of epidemics marked the early 1800s. Things began to change at the end of the century, dubbed in Sitting Pretty: An Uninhibited History of the Toilet as “the golden age of toilets,” due in part to innovative toilet design, consolidated sewage systems, and a better understanding of disease transmission.2

Flushing the toilet was a loud business in the 1800s, one often plagued by insufficient water and unpleasant smells. These issues with water toilets led to Reverend Henry Moule’s invention of the earth closet in 1860.2,3

The most basic version of the earth closet was a seat above a bucket filled with “fine dry earth, charcoal, or ashes.” Pulling a handle caused fresh earth to fall into the bucket from above. More elaborate versions included closets on adjacent floors, connected via a chute in the wall.3

The inner workings of a basic earth closet.4

The inner workings of a basic earth closet.4 Click to enlarge.

Multistory Earth Closet

Earth closets on multiple floors, connected by a chute.4 Click to enlarge.

In an 1872 pamphlet in our collection, “Earth-closets and earth sewage,” author George E. Waring, a 19th-century champion of sanitation, advocated for the earth closet’s use. According to Waring, benefits included a lack of odors; the “complete and effectual removal of all the liquid wastes of sleeping-rooms and kitchens”; the collection of “manure worth . . . at least $10 per annum for each member of the family”; and disease prevention.4

Waring acknowledged the growing popularity of the water toilet, writing:

“The water-closet is the chief thing of which women living in the country envy their city cousins the possession. In country-houses, one of the first steps toward elegance is the erection of an expensive water-closet in the house, provided with a force-pump that is doomed to break both the back and the temper of the hired man; a tank and pipes which are pretty sure to be burst by frost every winter; the annual tax of the plumber’s bill; and, worse than all, a receptacle in the garden known as a ‘cess-pool,’ which usually has a private subterranean communication with the well from which drinking water is taken.”4

By contrast, wrote Waring, the “properly constructed” earth closet was odorless and absent “of the depressing, headachy effect that always accompanies the water-closet or night chair.” He also argued that outdoor privies, if they must exist, should become earth closets.4

Clearly earth closets clearly never gained the popularity Waring hoped they’d enjoy, although some use their cousin, the composting toilet, today. Whatever toilet you use, give thanks on World Toilet Day for its enormous public health benefits.

References

1. What is World Toilet Day? (n.d.). World Toilet Day. Retrieved August 29, 2013, from http://www.worldtoiletday.org/whatis.php

2. Horan, J. L. (1998). Sitting pretty: an uninhibited history of the toilet. London: Robson.

3. Wright, L. (1960). Clean and decent: the fascinating history of the bathroom & the water closet, and of sundry habits, fashions & accessories of the toilet, principally in Great Britain, France, & America. New York: Viking Press.

4. Waring, G. E. (1872). Earth-closets and earth sewage. New York: Orange Judd and Co.