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7. TOILETS. AND OUR ALLEGIANCE TO MODERN CIVILIZATION. (August 2005)
In my last Extended Political Essay, "Global Warming: The Truth. And What
The Truth Means.", I basically discussed the end of civilization as we've
known it, primarily because of the actions of the wealthiest, most powerful,
most highly educated and most technically advanced segment of the human race.
It's going to be the story of your most successful friend, the one with the
biggest houses and cars, the richest, the best body and face, the most women and
the most beautiful women-- and how you're going to wake up one day, flip on the
radio, and hear he committed suicide.
Why did he do it?
Since I wrote the essay, with its seemingly extravagant yet I fear realistic conclusions, I've tried to understand the "Why?". I am not rooting for my predictions to come true. Because human suffering is going to be endless if they do. And as yet nobody in the world, apart from some religious fanatics and a few apocalyptic radicals, is actually rooting for civilization's heat death.
Yet here we go.
A conclusion is unquestioned. Modern civilization, however shortsighted it is and whatever its crimes and whatever its stupidity, has won the allegiance of most of the human race. If a world-wide referendum was held, "Modern Civilization - Yes or No?", it would win overwhelmingly. This techno/Capitalist and often democratic thing of ours has triumphed over Fascism, Nazism, Communism, Maoism, Socialism, Liberalism, Environmentalism, Christianity itself, any alternate "ism" you can think of. (Today extreme Islam takes its turn as a challenger, attempting to succeed where all the other challengers since the Renaissance have failed.)
I do think I know why. And I'm going to come at the answer from a slant, looking down at human history again from a seemingly odd and eccentric angle, and watching it replay itself. But this time the great scenes-- of battle, of coronations and inaugurals, revolutions, voyages of discovery, artistic triumphs and Einstein-like "Eureka!" moments-- are all missing. Instead-- but don't be embarrassed-- from this angle we learn from sights we are supposed to politely turn from.
In 1809 a Frenchman, the Baron de Tremont, a great admirer of the music of Beethoven, managed to visit him in Vienna. Beethoven was a notoriously difficult, often unsocial, creature, but sometimes visitors had surprising success just by showing up at his door. From the Baron's account:
"I rang three times, and was about to go away, when a very ugly man of ill-humored mien opened the door and asked what I wanted.
" 'Have I the honor of addressing M. de Beethoven?' "
Ludwig van Beethoven approached as near godhead as a human ever will. We will remain in awed communion with his spirit till the end of human times. It seems scarcely possible that those sounds were produced by just flesh and blood. Here is what the Baron saw in the god's apartment:
"Picture to yourself the dirtiest, most disorderly place imaginable-- blotches of moisture covered the ceiling; an oldish grand piano on which the dust disputed the place with various pieces of engraved and manuscript music; under the piano (I do not exaggerate) an unemptied pot de nuit [chamber pot]...."
Beethoven, like almost all people in his time, had tremendous trouble keeping himself clean. Without toilets, without piped water, what could he do? Anton Schindler, a violinist, conductor and friend, eventually became for Beethoven what we would today call a Personal Assistant. In his biography of Beethoven, he remembers "he [Beethoven] would stand at the wash-basin, often in extremest negligee and pour great pitchersfull of water over his hands, at the same time howling or, for a change, growling out the whole gamut of a scale...he would get into a fight with the landlord when the water leaked through the floor which, unfortunately, often happened. This was a principal reason why Beethoven was everywhere unwelcome as a lodger."
Gerhard von Breuning, a boy whose father had known Beethoven since youth, became a little friend to Beethoven in the composer's last years. He too remembered "he was neither handsome nor elegant, but looked positively unkept and unkempt....He always had been in the habit, after he had sat for a long time at the table composing...of rushing to the washstand, pouring pitchersful of water over his overheated head and...returning to his work...without his noticing it, the water he had poured over his head would flood the floor...." The boy also did Beethoven the service, as the giant lay dying, of bringing him some disinfectant to try to relieve him from itchy torment of vermin. The filthy bedding (and clothing) of the time was thick with bed bugs and other creatures. Insects were no joke. Typhus, caused by contact with the feces of lice or their crushed bodies, caused death on a vast scale. A Typhus epidemic killed almost 28,000 in England and Wales in 1837-38, thousands in London alone, and over 30,000 died in England and Wales in 1847-48, about 3,000 in London. But these were just pinpricks. Typhus killed about 3 million in Russia and Poland between 1918 and 1922. It was little more than 80 years ago-- but who today remembers this great plague? And in the concentration camps it was often Typhus, and not a Nazi bullet or gas, that took victims. Anne Frank died of Typhus in Bergen-Belsen. Irma Sonnenberg Menkel, who was with her, remembers: "Conditions were extremely crowded and unsanitary...no showers...no bedding....Typhus was a terrible problem, especially for the children. Of 500 in my barracks, maybe 100 got it, and most of them died....Anne Frank was among those who asked for cereal, but how could I find cereal for her? It was only for the little children, and only a little bit....She would say to me, 'Irma, I am very sick.' I said, 'No, you are not so sick.' She wanted to be reassured that she wasn't. When she slipped into a coma, I took her in my arms. She didn't know that she was dying." But after the fall of Rome, up until very recent times, humans in the West (and many in other places) often lived in such filth and degradation that their conditions essentially duplicated the living conditions of concentration camps, and in pitiful, crying, helpless ones and twos, or in large groups, by the uncounted millions, they died of their dirtiness.
How bad was this world, which inevitably we think of as just a simpler version of our own, when in fact it was a kind of dark counter-universe? Venice, in the 1700's, was in many ways one of the more advanced places on Earth. But the canals were reeking sewers, especially in summer, and the streets "were as filthy as all Italian streets were at that time. Refuse dumped by the bucketful could have rotted there for ever had the inhabitants of the nearby islands not needed manure and collected it occasionally." (Daily Life in Venice at the time of Casanova, Maurice Andrieux, 27) But let's go to the theater. Here, surely, we'll find some level of civilization missing in the streets. Or to the opera. Maybe it's a work by Vivaldi tonight, perhaps the master himself conducting from his violin chair or at the harpsichord. What would the experience be like?
"Lighting, save on the stage, was sparse or non-existent, as was any provision for hygiene. Before the play, peddlars went along the rows with fruit, cold meat, fritters and wine, and the pit, having eaten and drunk, indulged without discomposure in what one writer euphemistically calls 'the consequent activities': it is certain he was not thinking only of the peel and apple-cores and sticky paper thrown carelessly about. The show lasted for four or five hours; nature, after all this intake, made her imperious demands and where people sat there they fulfilled them, ignoring the special space they were supposed to use, just between the front benches and the stage...the whole place stank." (Ibid., 186-7)
Try to imagine you're at a play in Lincoln Center. You're attempting to concentrate, but you can't-- because of the foetid stench. Then your friend at your left, a lawyer, casually lowers his pants and boxer shorts, and suddenly you see------ ! You look away in disgust------ to find your girlfriend urinating all over her seat! Over at the Metropolitan Opera House, between the front row and the orchestra pit, well-dressed audience members are casually and unashamedly shitting their brains out, even as James Levine passionately continues conducting and the soprano's voice soars to the rafters. Don't move close to the musicians, though-- they're using their pit as a bathroom, some even while they're playing!
And nowhere in this entire Lincoln Center complex, indeed, nowhere in all of New York City, is
there a single faucet, so the people could at least wash their hands after.
What escape from this nightmare? Even for the richest and most powerful, with just a few exceptions, none. I visited Goethe's house when I was in Frankfurt. (It's largely a reconstruction, after war damage.) It is a handsome 5-story structure, with something of a Medieval look, the second, third and fourth stories overhanging the ones below. Two house built around 1590 were combined to create it, and many improvements were made over the generations.
There was no bathroom in the house. And no running water. But this was a wealthy and prominent family-- as can be seen by one of their luxuries-- the well in the cellar.
Where did these wealthy, prominent people "go"?
They "went" in pots indoors, and there's an outhouse in the backyard. You sat on a seat in a little shack, and it all dropped into a pit.
George Washington's estate mansion at Mount Vernon is a more beautiful building than Goethe's house, and much airier. It too had no bathrooms. Servants brought hot water in pitchers for bathing, such as bathing was. The Washington family also "went" in chamber pots, and servants took the pots away and emptied them. Where? Washington's slaves manured his fields, and Washington was a big believer in manure, but I haven't been able to ascertain if that was animal manure only or animal and human combined. If human waste was just dumped, I assume it was into pits. Or did they dump some of the chamber pot contents into the Potomac too? Mount Vernon was usually filled with guests. The servants would be kept busy.
And remember, there was no toilet paper then (a mid-19th Century invention). How did these wealthy, prominent people clean themselves?
Before toilet paper people used what they could. Newspapers, pages torn from books, rags, rope, feathers, leaves, rocks, corn cobs-- use your imagination. They did.
Of the wintry 19th Century/early 20th Century outhouse experience the poet James Whitcomb Riley ("The Old Backhouse" is usually attributed to him) wrote:
"The torture of that icy seat would make a Spartan sob,
For needs must scrape the goose flesh with a lacerating cob,
That from a frost-encrusted nail, was suspended by a string- "
But we have to reach the sad conclusion that they couldn't really clean
themselves. These impressive bewigged gentlemen and beautifully-gowned ladies
who stand proudly in old paintings reeked, and, though it is left out of their
portraits, little flecks of their feces clung to them and their clothes
throughout their whole (generally shorter) lives.
Even the wealthy and ever-inventive Thomas Jefferson-- the best he could do at Monticello was to "go" into a pan of wood ash contained in a wooden box with a hole on top, the contents of which were later hauled away by servants using a cleverly rigged up system of pulleys.
Yet Goethe, Washington, Jefferson-- these were paupers compared to the monarchs of France, ensconced in their incredible complex at Versailles. Here-- surely-- especially since the first primitive flush toilets had already appeared--....
Versailles apparently did have one or a handful of this newish contraption, but basically you used one of the nearly 300 "close stools" (a furniture seat that contained a chamber pot) at the palace. Some of these were placed in rooms or antechambers of their own, others were brought to you in your own room by servants, and taken away when you were finished. Of course, visitors to Versailles might also bring their own favorite pot from home. Commentators noted the stench at Versailles. The some 300 close stools weren't remotely enough. The population at Court was 20,000 (9,000 soldiers who were billetted in the town, 5,000 servants who lived in palace annexes and, at the palace itself, at least 2,000 nobles and 4,000 more servants.) Anyway, as we saw in Venice, the behavioral standards even of aristocrats then strike us as low and dog-like. 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 himself was known to go to the bathroom in his coach while traveling-- even if there were female passengers. The Duc de Saint-Simon wrote of one of the Court ladies at Versailles, the Princesse d'Harcourt, "leaving a dreadful trail behind her that made the servants...wish her to the devil."
And other "memoirs and diaries give similar accounts of courtiers using the walls of the Hall of Mirrors, corners of staircases, in fact any part of the building where they were unobserved by the King. The custom at 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. The pretty walks became unwalkable." (An Irreverent and Almost Complete Social History of the Bathroom, Frank Muir, 117)
(It must be remembered that while the ladies had lots of deliciousness under their gowns-- chemises, petticoats, hoops, stockings, garters-- panties, and drawers with bottoms, were still unknown. Closed drawers are a mid-19th Century invention, and panties came even later. Since virtually all Western women, up until the 1920's, wore floor-length skirts and dresses, what was the point? "Ladies were accustomed to relieving themselves discreetly almost anywhere...it was simply a matter of standing astride some sort of gutter and gazing dreamily about for a minute or so." [Ibid., 114] )
And these were the aristocrats, the rich, the Alpha Males and Alpha Females of the past, the Great 1%! If their lives were so dirty, what of the commoners?
In trading the free-roaming hunter/gatherer life for the sedentary agricultural one, man both gained and lost. Instead of leaving his excrement and moving on, into a world that was essentially one great natural paradise, a World-Park, he now had to live with his excrement. It created problems, both for aesthetics and health, that we haven't fully solved even today. 42 % of the world's population still lacks toilets, even of the pit latrine kind. ("Millennium Goals", ehj[Environmental Health Journal]-online.com, March 2005). My readers are Westerners or those who've achieved a measure of Western prosperity elsewhere, and few of you have any idea how poor and desperate so much of this world still is. Do you believe that 2/3 of the human race has never made a phone call? That 1/3 has no electricity? But it's true. ("Capitalism's future on trial", Jeremy Rifkin, insnet[Internetwork For Sustainability].org) (On my two trips to Thailand, outside of three Western-style hotels, I never encountered a flush toilet. Granted, I spent much of my time in the relatively poor North-Eastern part of Thailand. But even my last night in Bangkok, staying with my fiancee and her family at the home of a prominent Thai teacher-- I thought Aha! Finally!-- it was the same old story-- dip a pitcher into a basin-- then splash the contents down at the hole in the floor.)
Some societies dealt with the sedentary sanitation problem better than others. Ancient Rome, for instance, with its great system of aqueducts, sewers and plumbing-- the most advanced before the late 19th Century. But even Rome didn't get a complete handle on the problem. Before the late 19th Century every advanced society and civilization was a failure, and paid an immense price for it, as we will see. The rise of great cities, long before the human race had the technological capacity to deal with such a phenomenon, only made the situation worse. Even just aesthetically no pre-modern city can be given a high grade. We would be appalled if we traveled back in time, and one of the pieces of equipment we would have to be sure to take, along with whatever high tech, would be clothespins-- for our noses. If we think ancient Athens, for instance, would suit our senses-- think again. Yes, if we looked up at the Acropolis, with its gleaming young Parthenon-- we would still surely be impressed, even awed. But as a whole, technologically Athens was hardly more advanced than old African cities like Timbuktu or Benin. The ancient writer Pseudo-Dicaearchus, who visited it, wasn't overly impressed: "The city itself is dry and ill-supplied with water. The streets are nothing but miserable old lanes, the houses mean, with a few better ones among them." In fact, there was no formal water supply in Athens, apart from a few fountains. As for relieving themselves, many Greeks just went outside their houses, wherever.
But there was worse than ancient Athens. Well into the 19th Century London was a horror. Even when houses had cesspits, when full the contents were often dumped oozing into the streets. Sometimes cesspits were never emptied at all, even by the rich. They'd just dig a new one. People would live along with years' worth of their own feces, urine and garbage. Others might eventually try to sell their crap as fertilizer. A Britisher, Edward Doubleday, recalled visiting London homes in the 1830's and being "almost knocked down by the offensive smells". The contents of the cesspits (and remember-- many Londoners didn't even have those) commonly seeped into the water supply. And for some, the Thames and the smaller streams were their bathrooms. From the minutes of the Board of Health of the Liberty of the Rolls, a tiny London precinct, in the 1830's: "Mr Mainwaring...complains of the nuisance occasioned by the dung heap-- at times there will be pails of blood thrown thereon and maggots by tens of thousands make their way into his cellars." Somewhat earlier, the great 17th Century British diarist Samuel Pepys noted his own cellar problem on October 20, 1660: "Going down to my cellar...I put my foot into a great heap of turds, by which I find that Mr Turners house of office [privy] is full and comes into my cellar, which doth trouble me...." Other people, and this was common throughout Europe, just flung their excrement out the window, and if it landed on someone, too bad. In April of the same year Pepys complains one night of "Sir W Pens shying [throwing] of a shitten pot". Or sometimes people dumped their excrement in the local churchyard.
The Thames, from which much of London drew its drinking water, was a foul sewer. A pamphleteer, "The Dolphin", described it well in 1827: "...charged with the contents of more than 130 common sewers, the drainings from the dung-hills and lay-stalls, the refuse of hospitals, slaughter-houses...and with all sorts of decomposed animal and vegetable substances...so foul a source." Alexander Pope put it all more poetically in the Dunciad in 1728:
"...where Fleet-Ditch with disemboguing streams
Rolls the large tribute of dead dogs to Thames,
The King of dykes! than whom no sluice of mud
With deeper sable blots the silver flood."
In 1858 the Thames rebelled, with what was called "The Great Stink", a
stench "so overwhelming that the windows of the House of Commons were
draped in curtains soaked in chloride of lime, and members debated whether to
move...There were plans to evacuate the Law Courts...paddle steamers churned up
the sewage-laden river ('Aqua mortis') into stinking eddies." (London
Under London, Richard Trench and Ellis Hillman, 66-7)
Those living today and in modern comfort can have little sense of how demoralizing and enraging and shaming it could be and can be to live filthied by yourself and seemingly powerless to escape dirtiness and disease. Thomas Burtt, an Englishman who traveled to Scotland in 1741, wrote of the children there as "miserable objects indeed and are mostly overrun with that distemper [diarrhea] which some of the old men are hardly freed of from their infancy. I have seen them come out of their huts early in a cold morning, stark naked, and squat themselves down (if I might decently use the comparison) like dogs on a dunghill." Burtt is writing of an unchanging world, a hopeless world (or so it seemed to many).
Now it's true such wretched and poverty-stricken Scotsmen of the mid-1700's knew no other world than this, and would generally accept its worst aspects as simply a given, perhaps from God, a thing to be endured. But human endurance does break, and when it does what starts as a yelp of pain or disgust or hopelessness may turn out to be the surprising prelude to one of those great sea-changes in human affairs-- a Reformation, a French Revolution, the explosion into history of an Islam or Christianity-- that suddenly, amazingly, alters the seeming unalterable. When Jonathan Swift's poem "The Lady's Dressing Room" was published in 1730 I don't think he realized that the disgust he expresses at the filthiness of life as men and women had to live it was actually part of a stirring in the human consciousness that would, within two lifetimes, begin to break that old and inadequate world-- with modernity.
But all Swift knew at the time was the disgust and shame:
"Strephon, who found the room was void,
And Betty otherwise employed,
Stole in, and took a strict survey,
Of all the litter as it lay;....
And must you needs describe the chest?
That careless wench! no creature warn her
To move it out from yonder corner;....
So things, which must not be expressed,
When plumped into the reeking chest,
Send up an excremental smell
To taint the parts from whence they fell....
Thus finishing his grand survey,
Disgusted Strephon stole away
Repeating in his amorous fits,
Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!"
Now you can say this poem is as much an expression of Swift's own psychology--
his hang-up about physicality, if you will, especially female physicality-- as
it is an objective social commentary on "The State Of Sanitation In 18th
Century Europe". Actually, it's both, and is a very characteristic
expression of Western thought. No other civilization in the world ever engaged
in this kind of close and unblinking examination of reality, and daring to speak
what other men and women, with very few exceptions, only thought. Such Western
"impoliteness" is actually a kind of scientific method, a ruthless
probe at things, and a necessary preliminary to breakthroughs and change.
Around the world there was a shame and frustration at excrement, especially feces, no doubt a disgust that such a thing had to exist for us, and a determination to keep the phenomenon compartmentalized. This can be seen, for instance, in the demonization of the left hand, which in so many cultures was the hand officially designated for cleaning yourself after excretion (and not to be brought into contact with food). Hell on lefties. (My Thai ex-wife, Nudjarin, is a lefty, and initially she apologized to me for eating with her left hand. I told her it was fine, I understood, stop worrying about it. When we sat at a table with others, she would generally sit to my right, so her damned left hand would only operate near me, becoming less offensive by being less obtrusive. Eventually, after coming to America-- supermodern let-the-old-realities-drop-dead America!-- she seemed to relax her defensiveness, her shame really, but never entirely.)
The determination to keep the phenomenon of bodily reality compartmentalized can be seen too in the way societies and civilizations made dealing with excrement the work of lower classes or slaves or outcasts. In India, work such as cleaning out latrines or sewers or clearing away dead animals or being a leatherworker is considered "unclean" and therefore the destined occupation of Untouchables, who are paying for the sins of previous lives. "Regarded by society as the vilest dregs of the human species, they had to be most careful to avoid polluting members of the castes by any kind of contact or even coming within their sight...When a man of caste chanced to glance at one of them, he was bound to carry out rites of purification." (Daily Life In Ancient India, Jeannine Auboyer, 30-1) This attitude toward Untouchables, or, as they now prefer to be called, Dalits, continues to this day. In the towns and villages of pre-modern Japan the disposal of excrement was given to the Japanese equivalent of Untouchables, the Hinin. In Hangchow, the capital of China's Southern Sung Empire (and probably the largest and richest city in the world in the 1200's AD), "nightsoil" was collected from homes on a daily basis by human scavengers called Pourers, who sold it as fertilizer to farmers or gardeners. Of course, such scavengers operated throughout Chinese history. While the Pourers performed their necessary work in Hangchow, at the other end of Eurasia their London brothers the Gong-fermors were busy cleaning out the Medieval cesspits of that city. (Eventually, when the growth of London's sewer system made it possible, another tribe appeared, the Toshers, who would push through barely-lit sewers for mile after mile, looking for "treasure", maybe gold or silver coins. Many, of course, never emerged, that thick muck becoming their resting place.) (And the phrase "pooper-scooper" comes from yet another group, poverty-stricken children of Victorian London who collected dog droppings, used for tanning leather.) Other cities had their own equivalents. Ancient Rome had its dung collectors. Well into the 19th Century several thousand carts a night would rumble through the streets of Paris, carrying the contents of cesspits away. Some hours later, after dark fell in New York, the carts of my own city's Nightmen carried similar contents down to the rivers for dumping, or onto boats to carry it over to New Jersey. Indeed, New York, like every urban area, remained a foul and dirty place, apart from some wealthier neighborhoods, deep into the 19th Century. For instance, it wasn't till 1896 that New Yorkers were required to put their garbage out by the curb. (Most New Yorkers probably think the regulation is eternal.) The sewer system was terribly inadequate, flush toilets few (and not mandated by law), housing for the poor hideous, pigs wandered the streets eating various forms of waste-- it wasn't till 1860 that at least the pigs were cleared out south of 86th Street, though as late as the 1890's 100,000 pigs continued roaming other city streets-- and the army of animals added their own porcine piles to the mountainous urban swill. Meanwhile, the horses on which the city relied dumped a half a million pounds or more of manure on the streets daily, plus oceans of urine. You can see these horse droppings in old photos-- they're the big lumps in the streets. Sometimes a white-uniformed sanitation worker is pushing a broom at them.
And yet. A change was coming to the world. Tucked away within the vast library of Renaissance accomplishment, a few pages offer news of an invention humans today value more highly than overtly grander acts of genius like the airplane or atomic energy-- the flush toilet, at last. Genius was in the air in Elizabethan England, and it was a godson of Queen Elizabeth I herself, Sir John Harington, who in an 1596 book entitled The Metamorphosis of Ajax showed how a flush toilet could be constructed and, as he wrote, "how unsavoury places may be made sweet, noisome places made wholesome, filthy places made cleanly". A cruder version of our own toilet, when built it nonetheless worked. Queen Elizabeth installed one in one of her palaces (with her godson's book hung on a chain next to it-- the first toilet reading), and Harington probably built one in his own home. (Sometimes you may have read of ancient civilizations that had flush toilets too, such as Crete or Rome. Close but not quite. These were seats placed over an artificially-induced stream of water. Harington's was the first toilet with moving parts, and not perpetually flushed.)
But the invention was taken up by the world with aching slowness. Some accounts give the impression that basically nothing further happened until the second half of the 18th Century, but in fact, here and there, primarily among British aristocrats, an occasional toilet might appear. (In Britain they called a room with such a convenience a "water closet".) Celia Fiennes, touring around England in the late 1600's and early 1700's, wrote of seeing a few. At the Duke of Devonshire's great estate of Chatsworth, ten or more water closets were installed in the last decade of the 1600's. Queen Anne of England (1665-1714) installed one-- with a marble seat, no less-- in Windsor Castle, off her dressing room. There were a few in France, if not by 1700 shortly thereafter. In the great complex of Versailles, which Louis XIV began constructing in the 1660's? Witold Rybczynski, in Home (92), is unclear on how many water closets the palace at Versailles had, and when they may have been installed, simply writing: "An early type of water closet was housed in the 'English place' ".
How was it such a marvelous invention took so long to "take"?
In a wonderful book, Life In The English Country House, Mark Girouard, page 256, gives much of the answer: "By 1730...any country house could in theory have running water on all floors, and as many baths and water-closets as its owner wanted or could afford. But comparatively little use was made of this technology in the next fifty years....The lack of progress in sanitation was due to a combination of cheap labour, lack of demand and technical disadvantages. Personal cleanliness did not rank high enough on the eighteenth-century list of priorities to offset the expense of installing an elaborate water system, especially since water in small quantities could very easily be carried by servants. Moreover, since no adequate valve had yet been invented, water-closets were still malodorous and inefficient." To which we add that it's one thing to install a toilet in your house when you can hook it up to a piped-in water supply ready to deliver water 24 hours a day from lakes, rivers or reservoirs, and then pipe the waste out into an efficient, large-scale sewer system, and another, much harder, much more expensive and less compelling thing to install it when your only water supply is what you store on your roof from rain, or what's in a box above your toilet that's filled by bucket-carrying servants, or at best what's in a tiny private reservoir or in a water tower you have to fill up using a private steam-pump or what you can bring from a lake or stream or river using a small local system built by yourself, all very expensive and beyond the average man-- and then have no place to flush the waste but down into the same damned sort of cesspit that your forbears used for centuries!
Yet the crisis of sanitation was growing critical. Suddenly a necessity, the mother of, was impinging. Cities were expanding to unprecedented size with unprecedented speed, and still the technology of hygiene in the cities hardly bettered that of the little Medieval pigsty cities. Even as electricity and gas lighting and railroads appeared, people still defecated into rivers and dumped other excrement into them and then drank the water. A New York City in 1900, with humanity on the verge of the airplane and relativity theory, still didn't mandate flush toilets, and some families crowded into tiny apartments that as far as sanitation technology went were no more advanced than those of the Roman apartment blocks of two millennia earlier. In a sense, the hunger and greed and, yes, the energy and genius of human beings was pushing into a new form of living before the technology was in place to sustain it, with mass death the result, just as today man is rampaging ahead with a civilization based on carbon burning, which is unsustainable, deadly and, yes, actually "primitive". Again, a smaller human population burning a little coal, and maybe a pinch of oil, could survive for thousands of years while using such energy technology, but for the vaster numbers of today our fate will be-- evolve again, evolve beyond the last evolution, or die.
Essentially, the coming of the modern world was indeed a form of almost instantaneous human evolution, a sudden staggering unprecedented leap into new forms of behavior which now demanded solutions to millennia-old problems that appeared to so many to be intractable and getting worse. Slavery was such a problem. Energy was one. The absence of freedom in the world was one. And sanitation, for the ever-growing and gigantic population agglomerations, was become a matter of life and death. Modernity now had to come, the same way an adult cannot wear the clothes of a child.
And, interestingly, one of the battles that now had to be fought and won was that against Capitalism and the business community. Today the "left", from liberals to Marxists, appears discredited, and a kind of Predator Capitalism reigns supreme again and glories in itself, as if it created the modern world, but in fact modernity was imposed on it, from labor standards and environmental standards (such as we have) and the banning of slavery to modern sanitation. These things were forced on Capitalism by radical and moderate revolutionaries of all kinds, and in the end that turned out to be good for Capitalism too, serving to make that economic system more intelligent and less raw, more humane, and actually more profitable, because it created a mass market for it, different from the old elite luxury market. It even taught Capitalism how to be a good revolutionary itself sometimes. But now Capitalism is falling back into its bad old ways, and as with sanitation, so with global warming Capitalism stands in the way of solutions, and impatient revolutionaries will have to take it in hand again.
But let us continue.
We have already seen the immense toll Typhus took. Typhus is a feces disease, in that deadly bacteria lurk in lice feces. There are other feces diseases, such as Typhoid Fever, Dysentery, Cholera, Hepatitis A and Hepatitis E, in which dangerous bacteria and viruses are present in human feces (and, in Typhoid's case, urine as well). It is vitally important then to keep human excrement out of our water supply (and food supply, milk, utensils, etc.) This the pre-modern humanity was largely unable to do. As a result of such conditions, "mankind was in a precarious position throughout the ancien regime. Before the nineteenth century, wherever he lived, man could only count on a short expectation of life, with a few extra years in the case of the rich." (The Structures of Everyday Life, Fernand Braudel, 90)
Typhus was only one of innumerable filth-plagues. As I wrote in my global warming essay, the death-tolls in the pre-modern epidemics were sometimes comparable to nuclear attacks. We need only give a few examples out of many. An estimated 175,000 died of Dysentery in France in 1779. In Ireland in 1740-41-- Blaidhain an air, "the year of the slaughter"-- somewhere between 300,000 and 400,000 died of Dysentery, Typhus and just hunger. That was at least 10% of the population. Before modernity, most Irish lived in deep poverty and primitiveness (including sanitary primitiveness), a poverty and primitiveness shared by much of the world, and made worse in Ireland's case by a brutal British colonialism. "They were used to living with the animals, sharing their hovels with them, and feeding on potatoes and a little milk." (Ibid., 555) In Old Days, Old Ways, Olive Sharkey gives an idea of Irish life back when: "During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries [into the 19th] washing [i.e., laundry] was a twice or three times yearly event ....It was traditional in some areas to bathe the whole body once a year....Long hair often attracted lice ...." The hopeless dirtiness of the life was the cause of some 45,000 Irish dying of Dysentery in 1817-18, and that was just a preliminary to the disease holocaust during the Great Irish Famine of 1846-49, when as many as 800,000 to 1,100,000 died of Typhus, Dysentery, other diseases and hunger. (Some of the deaths came in 1850.) 44,558 Union soldiers died of Dysentery and diarrhea in the Civil War, 29,336 died of Typhoid Fever, and some others succumbed to Hepatitis. The death rate was no doubt just as high if not higher in the primitive living conditions of the Confederate Army. Nonetheless, since the Civil War took place on the verge of the modern world, a counterattack was under way. A U.S. Sanitary Commission was established in 1861. "The Sanitary Commission helped change the way medicine was practiced in the United States." (Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence, 341)
Cholera, another feces disease, was a newcomer to Europe. It had existed since ancient times in the Indian subcontinent, but it was only in the 19th Century, with the spread and enhanced speed of international connections, that it was able to break free of its confinement, the same way the Black Death had earlier been able to break free of its Asian confinement thanks to the opening up of international connections by the Mongol Empire, or the way an infinite Pandora's box of diseases spread to the Western Hemisphere after the Europeans arrived there (the resulting disease holocaust, as it killed Indians by the millions, not horrifying the colonizers at all, rather delighting those brutal conquerors and confirming their belief that Jesus was the guider of events), or the way AIDS began its outward spread in the mid-20th Century thanks to increased travel and faster travel within Africa and between Africa and the outside world. In a sense, all these enhanced connections came before their time, before the human race was medically or technologically, or indeed morally, evolved enough to deal with the resulting consequences. But this has been the way of human "genius", to race ahead regardless of consequences, as long as at least a small minority of humans become rich and powerful thereby. Is it any different today, with the establishment of megametropolises with (often desperate and poverty-stricken) populations 5-, 10-, 20-million strong, way beyond our medical/technological/moral capacity to provide with a good life, or the way our entire civilization is based on a deadly but relatively cheap and convenient energy system of carbon burning, and damn all the ultimate consequences?
By the 1820's Cholera was lapping up against Russia. In 1830 it reached Moscow, then continued on to Poland and the Baltic region. By now many in Britain understood a new plague was coming.
The Cholera bacillus can live in human waste, or water itself. (Not that anyone anywhere then understood such science.) The hygienic swamp that was Britain promised an ideal home. Nor did Britain even have a Central Board of Health yet.
Cholera is a horrible disease, a terrible way to die. You die of rapid dehydration, with uncontrollable vomiting and diarrhea, your body turning blue and shrinking. You can go from no symptoms to death in a couple of hours.
So here was a great crisis rapidly approaching Britain. Yet the revolutionary changes in human behavior called modernity, that would one day protect Britishers from such plagues, hadn't happened yet. One of the reasons they hadn't, as is so often the case, is that the business community stood against vital change, or intelligent response, twisted by its own intellectual and moral limitations into thinking that these were "too radical" and "bad for business". They especially feared the effects of quarantining, how it might shut down much of their business activity. Just as Capitalism today supports the SUV and the coal-fired plant, and fights against rail or conservation, indeed, even goes so far as to deny climate science as a sort of radical lie, so, Michael Durey reports in The Return of the Plague: British Society and the Cholera 1831-2, there were "moves of the commercial class to deny the existence of cholera. Letters to newspapers and 'official circulars' were part of this programme...." (143) Doctors who spoke of Cholera were intimidated into silence, local Boards of Health taken over in order to be controlled, and there were "Dire warnings of the results of widespread unemployment" (146) (just as George Bush warns will happen if the U.S. attempts to implement Kyoto) if anti-Cholera measures were taken. "The denial of cholera...was to be the major tool for those whose profits were threatened by government regulation in 1831-2." (147) Even when the dying began, the commercial interests characterized the deaths as simply the result of the dissipated lives of the unworthy poor (a similar response took place during New York's Cholera epidemics), not this thing some were calling Cholera.
"But once several members of the Stock Exchange fell sick with cholera, the exodus [from London] began. Similarly in Bilston, prominent among those fleeing were the manufacturers...." (149)
It is so fascinating in historical study to watch how societies and civilizations which seem frozen unfreeze, and how the impossible sometimes breaks through the possible like a spear of sunlight. I mentioned slavery as one of those problems that in the 1700's seemed eternal and unsolvable. For instance, in 1783 in Britain there was a notorious court case. The Captain of a slaveship, the Zong, threw 132 slaves overboard because of their sickness and an alleged shortage of water (but not for the Captain and crew, I'll bet!). Lord Justice Mansfield, swathed and swollen with wig and robes, ruled that the owners were entitled to compensation because it was "as if horses had been thrown overboard". Yet just twenty-four years later the British slave trade was banned. Or, shortly before Cholera struck Britain-- in the 1820's-- "the British government adopted a new policy of reform towards the West Indies. Measures were taken to improve the slaves' lot, such as abolition of the whip, of the Negro Sunday Market, forbidding the flogging of women, giving slaves another day off for religious instruction, the freeing of female children born after 1823....", but "The planters, outraged, protested against such infringements of their 'property rights.' " (History of Slavery, Susanne Everett, 151) Yet by 1833 it happened-- Britain's West Indian slaves were freed.
It is wonderful, and blessed are the generations who live in such times, to see how fast and effectively the human race can move when it feels it has to, and then all the eternal fortifications of "No" are stormed and overcome. About 31,000 died of Cholera in the British Isles in 1831-32, almost 7,000 in London, and Britain's response to the crisis was pathetically inadequate. A greater epidemic in 1848-49 killed up to 62,000, and that of 1853-54 another 31,000 or so. But in 1853, Dr. John Snow, with one of those great and simple insights that have brought the modern world into being-- here is an exception to the absence in this story of "Eureka!" moments as mentioned earlier-- pointed out that people using a certain Broad Street pump in London were suffering inordinately from Cholera, while people nearby using other wells had far lower death rates. The pump was closed and Cholera deaths in the area plummeted. Snow was the first to demonstrate a connection between water tainted by waste and Cholera. He would be met by resistance, including by a medical establishment still trapped in the Middle Ages, and a Cholera epidemic in 1865-66 killed about 15,000 more, a third in London. But in 1855 London set up a Metropolitan Board of Works, with the aim of adding a modern sewer system to London that would enable the city to handle all of its household waste, and this aim was carried out, and in just six years (1859-65). (Similarly, Paris almost quintupled its sewer mileage between 1837 and 1863.) The construction was done at the tail end of the Little Ice Age, and indeed one of the winters was the coldest of the 19th Century, but nothing was allowed to stop its progress. To bring clean water, and to bring it 24 hours a day (a radical notion), into the homes of all Londoners, proved a harder fight. Water 24 hours a day? "This the water companies refused...to do. They claimed that it would be too expensive, and that the mains were not large enough." (London Under London, 90-1) For half a century, from the Metropolis Water Act of 1852 to the creation of the Metropolitan Water Board for London in 1902 (when the private water companies were finally taken over by government), the reformers of government warred with the reactionaries of business, and so it wasn't until into the 20th Century that clean, safe water on tap (or flush) for all Londoners at all times was finally assured. (Interestingly, as part of today's great worldwide thrust to privatization by a reinvigorated and ever-more-confident Predator Capitalism flush with its recent triumphs in the U.S., Britain and other places, there has been a movement to return government water supply systems back to private enterprise.) Elsewhere in Britain water supply improvements on a smaller scale were accomplished, sometimes just in the form of public fountains and taps for groups of houses, and many municipalities decided to take over the job of water supply from companies long before London did (Manchester, for instance, as early as 1847).
The time definitely had now come for Sir John Harington's excellent invention, worked on and improved over several centuries by a series of clever minds (some of them forward-looking, successful businessmen), to be made universal, not the possession of a few aristocrats. The sewers were in place. The water supply was increasingly assured. The technological tinkering was essentially completed. "By the late 1800's, the golden age of toilets had arrived. Suddenly, toilets were on everyone's mind. Architects earnestly began incorporating flush water-closets (toilets) into building plans. Inventors and entrepreneurs scrambled to corner the new market." (The Porcelain God: A Social History Of The Toilet, Julie L. Horan, 78-9) The remaining problem (and still with us today in the Third World) was to retrofit the homes of the poor and working class and even many in the middle class with toilets and pipes, so they could participate in the beneficial revolution, and to demand, indeed dictate, that future housing for these people include such modern conveniences, with zero tolerance at any attempt at obstruction by reactionaries, whether landlords pleading expense, or political reactionaries, or medical authorities still trapped in the Middle Ages. This battle would have to be waged, and it would be waged successfully in the Developed World, deep into the 20th Century.
In the typical dwelling of lower-middle class and working class Londoners in the late 19th Century, the 2- or 3-story terraced (or row) house, regulations still allowed buildings without toilets. They might be placed in the backyard, sometimes just one per building. Elsewhere in Britain, even for some higher up the economic scale, indoor toilets might also be absent, and of course many Britishers, especially the poor, continued to use outhouses over pits, or indoor pots, or they just did their business outdoors somewhere. Manchester in 1902 featured 42,000 toilets, 14,000 pails and 3,000 "middens" (dungpiles). There still seems to have been a feeling among many in the "better class" in Britain in the early 20th Century that indoor toilets were somehow too good for "lesser folk". But a true tidal wave of modernity was sweeping in, in many forms, political reform, business enlightenment, media pressure, greater education, increases in wealth, technological advancement, and the old center finally couldn't hold, and though the history of the toilet may seem a minor chapter in this story of a kind of magical tsunami of beneficial change, it is in fact emblematic of the whole. A 19th Century Englishman would wander openmouthed and popeyed through the Britain of 2005. He would be astounded by its cleanliness, at how good it smells, how shiny and healthy its people seem, at its enormous and obvious wealth, and he would marvel to learn how so many of the plagues of his own time, including those plagues of filthiness which we have dealt with, have been almost entirely eliminated.
In the city where I live, New York City, I work at WOR, a radio station which began broadcasting in 1922, in the decade when New York really emerged from the the 19th Century. The station recently moved to the Trinity Building at 111 Broadway, just north of Wall Street. The building, whose architecture can be called Skyscraper Gothic, opened for business in 1906, three years after the current New York Stock Exchange. And you can rest assured that both were equipped with the latest in toilets from opening day. The building stands at the north edge of a cemetery belonging to Trinity Church, and then comes the church itself, not the original one from 1699, or even the second, but a third 1846 version. The whole complex of church, cemetery and office building speaks of eternity and commerce, peace and busy power, beauty and utility. I imagine that most visitors, seeing it all, will somehow think of the agglomeration as a "good" thing. But Trinity Church isn't as innocent as it seems. It built 111 Broadway (and 115 Broadway to its north) and was, and in fact remains, one of New York's great landowners and landlords. And at the time 111 Broadway went up, it was one of New York's great slumlords too. It was thus one of the players in what we might call The War Of The Toilets, that worldwide struggle of reactionaries against reformers. It was fought in London, it was fought in New York, it was fought around the world and continues to be fought around the world. Where sanitation's reformers win the results are always good, so you wonder why the war was ever fought at all, and why it continues. What sort of mindlessness does it take to oppose modern sanitation? What vested interest does anyone on this planet really have for this kind of modernity's defeat, other than some immediate profit? How powerful that interest must really be, that it could override the interest of humanity as a whole.
Trinity Church, like most landlords of working class and poor housing in New York City a century or more ago, was a criminal. (One notorious building, not owned by Trinity Church, Gotham Court, built in 1853, had 120 apartments and about 800 tenants but no plumbing and no heat. It wasn't until 1863 that at least some privies were placed in the basement.) In 1908 a magazine writer, Charles Edward Russell, examined some of Trinity's Manhattan tenements. (It owned hundreds.) He found that "Not one of them is fit for human habitation...." Speaking of one tenement of four floors he wrote: "The halls are narrow...and smell abominably....The only sanitation for the families dwelling in this dreadful house is to be found in wooden sheds in the back yard...The back yard is a horror into which you set your foot with an uncontrollable physical revulsion against the loathsome contamination...The water-supply in the house consists of one common tap for each floor, placed in the hall...and it was this feature of the law that Trinity most opposed." (Many of these tenements were also firetraps, having no fire-escapes, and no lighting of any kind in the halls, and sometimes the hatches to the roofs were nailed shut.) He writes of one sick little girl in a tiny bedroom: "The old mattress she lay upon was filthy, the old blanket that covered her was filthy...one window...opened upon the filthy back yard...the reeking back yard and things I must not speak about." And of other little children in the tenement he wrote: "One of the girls had a running sore at her ear; all of them looked unwholesome and abnormal. They were dirty, for how could you expect them to be clean in the midst of all this filth?"
And this was New York City in 1908! There was electricity (for some), there were cars in the street (for some), the Wright Brothers had flown, radio had been invented, TV was less than two decades off, in a little more than two decades the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building would rise, the A-Bomb would explode in 37 years and rockets would shoot into space just a few years after that. These twisted contradictions in human endeavor, and ultimately the human spirit, are what drive good and sane people out of our minds!
It was just yesterday. My own mother, born to a poor family on Manhattan's Lower East Side in the 1920's, remembers the tenement of her childhood, whose apartments still had no bathrooms. (There were two in the hallway, for the four families on the floor to share.) But slowly and surely, with agonizing difficulty against rich, powerful, ruthless opponents at first, but then picking up speed, as the modern world swept in, evil and morally decrepit opposition to toilets was fought down. In 1901 New York City made it the law that there must be one bathroom for every two families in a building, though the bathrooms could still be placed outside in a yard, and they had to contain legitimate flush toilets connected to the sewer system, not just privies. And yet the landlords reacted with fury to this law, though it strikes us today as barely humane. Most ignored it, and the United Real Estate Owners' Association fought it in the courts, claiming a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment and an illegal taking of private property. It wasn't until 1906 that the Supreme Court ruled in New York's favor. Yet for several decades some of these embittered landlords continued to ignore the law and get away with it, because City inspection was inadequate, or inspectors were paid off.
Modernity had to be forced on them. For instance, in 1905 a new law had to be passed just to mandate windows in bathrooms. A law actually had to be passed to accomplish that! One toilet for each apartment wasn't mandated till 1929, and even then pre-1901 buildings could keep the apartment's bathroom in the hallway. The fight for toilets was long and hard and only won inch by inch, but in the end sanity and progress prevailed.
The resulting improvements in sanitation and personal cleanliness, rather than the coming of antibiotics, was what made disease rates in New York City plummet, from their peak before the Civil War to modern rates by the 1920's. (An additional great improvement was the coming of a modern water supply system of aqueducts, reservoirs and water tunnels, starting in the 1840's. Without this system, pushed into being by New York's own filth-disease epidemics-- one out of every hundred New Yorkers, maybe more, died of Cholera in 1849, and many more in earlier or later Cholera outbreaks-- as well as the Great Fire of 1835, when firemen couldn't get enough water to contain it-- the toilet could never have reached the masses. Of course, such a system is also a prerequisite for bathing and showering to become commonplace, two more simple but powerful weapons against dirtiness and disease.)
And so we reach today, to a world both amazing and odd. Great and beneficial revolutions have happened-- this essay is about one of the beneficial ones, while the unbeneficial are acknowledged-- and the humble toilet bowl, which really required no apparent technological breakthrough beyond what the ancients knew-- ranks higher than many admit, breathless as we are at the more spectacular breakthroughs of cars, computers, airplanes, giant suburbs with their giant suburban homes, outer space, sexual revolutions, biomedical revolutions, the wild new banquet of drugs...As I wrote in my global warming essay: "Yes, human beings, for the most part, are proud of the fact that they 'don't know much about history'. But it's as if they operate through a collective memory of it, of their starving days and peasant days, all the raggedy incarnations they barely survived or didn't...." Few will know anything about living conditions in 18th Century Venice, or Beethoven's domestic arrangements, or the Cholera epidemics of the 19th Century, or how the toilet came to New York City. But people do, however incoherently, understand that once they were dirty and now they are clean, once they died of things and now those things seem to have gone away, and they are grateful. They have been partly rescued from their animal selves, animal limitations, lifted above them, and they love the feeling, in some moments their esprit soars, though humans as a whole remain fundamentally unsatisfiable, and a kind of insanity always walks hand in hand with their genius. Nonetheless, this modern world has won their allegiance. What's amazing about today is a) the general indifference to the fact the good revolutions haven't reached all humanity, the work is incomplete-- yet those who have seem to think it makes no difference (and that includes Third World elites), and b) how the good things about modernity seem to have won so many peoples' allegiance to all things about it, so a resistance has developed to further necessary change. There seems a lack of understanding that modernity has created epic additional challenges and dangers, as it did in its early 19th Century phase, and we should soar on with our new evolutionary wings, as we did to get here, not just take a seat, flush, and be happy. We're too happy, really. Those who have are too happy. Toilets have made us happy, but it was unhappiness and danger that gave them to us, and we need to be inspired and driven on by further unhappiness and dangers, or greater unhappiness still is capable of finding us.
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