“Life is hard, Trace”, my Dad used to say to me. It drove me around the bend when he did but he was right. It is hard to keep packing away the shrivelled remains of old dreams into gilded reliquaries and to find new ones to parade about in delicate white Christening robes. It is what we do but it isn’t easy.
I closed my literary gift company since my last blog. I lost my courage somewhere along the line and you can’t do much when you’re not brave. Coping with this idea of failure has been hard, as my Dad said it would be. I have felt a little bit useless, a little bit weepy, a lot bit like I want to hide away. So, things have been…well, they’ve been sh*t but as a friend reminded me this morning, sometimes you just have to face up to the sh*t and get a move on.
We were having this conversation because of another aspect of life that is hard for me to face up to, loos and the goings on within them. I cannot talk about the loo. I don’t want other people to talk about it. Don’t tell me that everybody goes to the loo; Death is The Great Leveller, not Poop. I just don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to watch breakfast cereal ads where fibre is a selling point. I don’t want to hear about routines, or curries. I don’t want to know that somebody is texting me from the bathroom. Ever. I would frankly prefer a world in which I never had to think about that.
There was the brief stage when our kids were small when 23Thorns and I quite happily and with great relish discussed the contents of nappies but since that passed I am more poo-averse than I was beforehand, having seen and discussed poo more than enough for a lifetime. I have fulfilled my lifetime poo-talk quota and I have neither to think about it nor talk about it anymore thankyouverymuch.
Except, maybe my friend was right. Maybe it is time to just face the realities. Out with the old and in with the new. Life has been hard of late. It has been sh*tty; it is high time it was no longer. How did they dump their baggage in time past? Because I really need a roadmap here. I’m not sure how to start over. I’m not sure how to start writing again either. The W.C. seems as good a place to start as any really.
A BRIEF AND INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF THE LOO
Generally when I think of life a long time ago, I think of it as being quite smelly and many of the people as quite dirty. In Samuel Pepys’ diary which he kept for 9 years, he mentions his wife bathing only once. She promised, after seeing the filth in the water, that she would do so more often but Pepys had his own ideas about how her resolution would work out. I think of London’s Big Stink and the Fleet River choked with effluent. On a visit to Oxford, King Charles II of England and his court were said to have been really dirty and quite smelly too by Anthony a Wood.
Though they were neat and gay in their apparel, yet they were very nasty and beastly, leaving at their departure their excrements in every corner, in chimneys, studies, colehouses, cellars. Rude, rough, whoremongers; vaine, empty, careless
But it was not always so. The Minoans had flushing toilets, with wooden seats, about 4000 years before they came into regular use in England. Rainwater was collected in an overhead container and used to flush the ummmm….well…you know into earthenware pots which were cleared regularly. In Egypt they had sand-filled loos, cat boxes, that servants emptied. In China, the latrines had stone seats which could have been a little chilly but they threw in armrests for the comfort factor. Early civilizations in the Indus Valley had houses with almost modern plumbing. Bathrooms had waste pipes connected to sewers and ventilation shafts. The Romans, renowned for their cleanliness, were better at bathing than they were at pooing. A lot of Roman effluent was just thrown into the streets where it was flushed by street washers in the mornings into drains. This from the fabulous website http://www.sewerhistory.org. They did have lovely drains though.
So, the ancient and classical civilizations had fairly effective and sophisticated sanitation. They did show a penchant for communal pooping which sits about as well with me as does the texting while on the loo of today but they were at least not piddling on the stairs.
In 1589 the following ordinance was issued in England:
“Let no one, whoever, he may be, before,
at, or after meals, Early or late, foul the
staircases, corridors; or closets with Urine
or other filth.”
The garderobes of the early middle ages were somewhat grim: holes in the ground which led from the castle walls and down to the ground or occasionally directly into the moat. (In 1313 Sir William of Norwich built a stone wall around the outlets on his tower. A man with some sense of decorum. I like him.) Some garderobes, like those at Southwell Palace, were quite pally à la the Roman communal latrines but did at least have wall separating them. The four privy closets in Southwell though look quite intimate next to the over 20 in both Hampton Court Palace and Bodiam Castle.
For those not at court, there was a public necessarium on London Bridge itself which served 138 houses. Heaven help him who sailed beneath the bridge at the wrong moment. For out and about urges in Edinburgh, where there were fewer easements than there were in London, you could hire a man with a bucket and a curtain. He would screen you with his curtain, while you filled his bucket with cloaca. In an excavation of an ordure pit beneath a medieval monastery, remnants of strips of torn cloth were found. It is presumed these were used as loo paper. What Edinburgh bucket-boy offered you or didn’t in its stead just doesn’t bear thinking about.
By the Tudor period not much had changed. There were more privies about. They generally led to cess pits now as opposed to directly into rivers after questions raised about hygiene in an outbreak of plague. The gongfermors were still employed to clear out the cess pits. The average man just yelled Gardy Loo! from his window and threw his night’s leavings into the street below for the nightsoil men to clean up. Henry VIII, as was his general wont, had a spectacularly lavish privy off his bedchamber. No using of the Great House of Easement for him! In 1547 a close stool was made for him (it must have been his very last as he died at the end of January in that year. Perhaps he never even had the opportunity to use it). It had a black padded velvet seat, was decorated with ribbons, silks and fringes within, and was held all together with 2000 gilt nails. There was a pewter bowl beneath it which would be emptied by The Groom of The Stool.
In 1539, one groom recorded how Henry VIII had taken laxative pills and an enema, sleeping until 2am “when His Grace rose to go upon his stool which, with the working of the pills and the enema, His Highness had taken before, had a very fair siege”.
There are two boys in our house. I have witnessed a fair siege or two myself.
Henry’s daughter Elizabeth I who bathed once a month “whether she needed it or no”, saw the first advances in indoor plumbing in hundreds of years. Her godson, John Harrington, invented for her a flushing toilet, a water closet. Thankfully Erasmus had also declared in this period that it was no longer polite to talk to people while they did their business, a tradition that held until we got ourselves cell phones.
When portable water closets became all the rage in the time of Pepys in the 17th century, to have your WC in your drawing room was quite de rigueur, even if you had a curtain to protect the dignity of those with urges.
Harrington’s invention though, later improved upon by Thomas Crapper, started the long, happy slide to modern plumbing and dedicated private bathrooms. The Victorians improved upon things and by the mid 19th century bathrooms looked much as they do today.
The average family still used outhouses and or communal facilities but we were well on our way. Well on our way to being profligate with things of wonder like piped water and sewers and hot water and a flushing loo that didn’t smell the maw of hell itself.
In 1837, William Eassie published a book on indoor plumbing for use by architects and plumbers. His table of household water use for one day, lists 25 gallons as reasonable.
Today, the average American family of four uses 400 gallons a day. It makes me wonder if we are perhaps more full of sh*t today than we have ever been. Certainly I have been full of it in not facing up to the reality that my business is gone and that I just need to find a new one to replace it. Any dream will do. So thank you, friend Chow, for making talk about poo for 1700 words. I am quite ready for the next movement. And even as one who has both children and pets and hasn’t been in the bathroom on my own for over 10 years, rest assured, that whatever the Romans or Henry VIII’s mates had to say on the matter, it is never okay to text somebody while in the necessary house.
Unless otherwise credited, most of the information in this blog comes from Lawrence Wright’s Clean and Decent, The Fascinating History of The Bathroom and the W.C. (1960) Buy it if you find it. It is wonderful!