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How Have Washrooms Changed Over the Years?

Most of us take for granted that, in many parts of the world, we are able to use indoor washrooms that are clean, safe and private. In fact, washrooms have become such a regular part of our lives, it’s easy to forget that they were a considerable technological step forward  – and one that keeps on advancing. Once just a hole in the ground, some washroom services now incorporate AI, music and seat warmers to give you a surprisingly luxurious experience. 

With smart technology propelling washrooms and toilets into the future, it is fascinating to take a look back at the history of these services within Europe. How much has really changed since some of the first washrooms were used in the UK – and how have our ever changing priorities regarding sanitation, hygiene and privacy altered the way in which we use washrooms today?

To Flush or Not to Flush?

One of the most fascinating trajectories to follow in sanitation history is our relationship with sewage systems. As is the case with many other aspects of modern life, the first examples of advanced plumbing systems were found during the Roman Empire. One only has to look to the advanced systems in the Roman city of Bath to see evidence of these methods. 

The first sewers of Rome were built between 800 B.C. and 735 B.C, and cities across the empire soon followed its example. The Romans pioneered the use of a grid system, and entire networks of pipes and sewage systems would run beneath the streets; more akin to modern day Paris, perhaps, than an ancient way of living. The Ancient Romans even worshipped a goddess of sewers called Cloacina – the same root as the word ‘cloaca’.

By the Middle Ages, however, many of the innovative ideas that the Ancient Romans created had either been destroyed or forgotten, as the empire collapsed and the knowledge was lost. The notion of a mainstream plumbing or sewage system had been abandoned, even in wealthy areas or households. Instead, washrooms (or garderobes) were as basic as a wooden shaft with a seat atop it, with waste making its way into a moat or pit below. 

This out-in-the-open approach to sewage disposal didn’t stop there. Public washrooms (latrines) which began to sprout up in medieval England around the 14th century were often built on bridges, in an attempt to direct waste down the river rather than out into the streets. 

It would be the Victorians who would finally popularise public washrooms with adequate sewage systems and mainstream flushing toilets. A formative understanding of microbiology – in other words, finally understanding that mass disease and infection were being caused by open sewers in the streets and rivers – and the advent of the Industrial Revolution was the perfect storm for these massive new construction projects. 

These more modern-style sewage and plumbing systems can be seen as a shift in priority from what seemed convenient, to what was necessary to improve hygiene and save lives. Even today, we still take for granted just how sophisticated and vital waste disposal systems in developed countries are, and how instrumental they are in keeping us healthy and safe. 

Cleanliness is Next to Godliness

With hand-dug pits in the ground thankfully a thing of the past, it’s safe to say that our standards of hygiene have changed drastically over the centuries. And while there is a case to be made for modern society being a little too germophobic in some instances, at least less of us are dying from typhoid. 

However, long before the Victorians were attempting to clean up their rivers of waste and infection, the Ancient Romans were again ahead of the curve when it came to personal hygiene and cleanliness – especially when it came to washroom facilities. There was no fear of toilet paper ever running out in a Roman public washroom — because they didn’t use any. 

They may not have had luxurious smart toilets like the Japanese, but Romans would clean themselves off using a ‘tersorium’ – essentially a sponge on a stick. The tersorium would then be rinsed in either running water, vinegar or salt water before being used by the next visitor. This effective approach to washroom hygiene was in use for far longer than modern civilisation has ever had access to toilet paper. 

Since then, our relationship with washroom hygiene has fluctuated considerably. And while a lack of personal cleanliness or adequate facilities was not much of an issue when the population was more manageable, by the time we get to the Industrial Revolution, our lack of knowledge resulted in a health crisis that would prove deadly, and lead to wastewater finally being diverted from our main rivers and waterways.  

While not a breakthrough reserved purely for washroom hygiene, it was also during the 19th century that we came to understand the link between bacteria and disease. Before Florence Nightingale introduced handwashing in hospitals during the Crimean War, most people still believed that the infectious diseases were spread through odours they called ‘miasmas’. 

Personal hygiene was kept to the bare minimum, especially amongst the lower class, for whom clean water was at a premium (most people drank weak beer, where the fermentation killed the germs). This did nothing to stop the spread of bacteria in overcrowded cities, where human waste from rivers would sometimes flow into the streets, and even into people’s houses.  

Thankfully, we’ve come a long way in our understanding of cleanliness, hygiene and the way in which these diseases can spread – even if our public washrooms may not always be the cleanest.

A Private Matter

These days, there are few experiences more private than going to the bathroom, but it didn’t always used to be that way. In fact, privacy is a very recent addition to our washroom-going habits, and our lives in general. While indoor toilets seem the most natural thing in the world to us now, this would have been unthinkable to people even 60 years ago. 

Outdoor, communal toilets were frequently used all the way up until the 1950s. In the most extreme circumstances, one toilet may have had to service 100 people in the same street, necessitating that families line up outside whenever they needed to use the facilities – hardly the most private way to go about your business. 

However, this method was so universally accepted that when councils encouraged families to install indoor WCs, many people resisted on the grounds that it was far too unsanitary. Considering what the condition of a shared, outdoor toilet must have been at the time, this concern is understandable. 

Even these conditions would probably be preferable to a modern user as opposed to what might have happened a few hundred years ago. In the Middle Ages, privacy was not considered much of a priority when using the toilet, and waste would often be thrown out into the street, often direct from a chamber pot. 

For centuries, British Kings even had attendants whose sole purpose was to attend to them while they used the toilet. Repulsive though it may sound by modern standards, Master of the Chamber or Groom of the Stool was actually an incredibly sought after position, often awarded as an honour to sons of noblemen. 

The privilege of being up close and personal with the King on a daily basis meant it was far more likely that these attendants would be able to gain some gifts or favours; a far greater priority than any potential embarrassment. 

And of course, there’s no better example of a truly public washroom experience than the ones discovered in Ancient Roman cities. These facilities really took the word “public” in its literal form, as Ancient Roman washrooms were essentially large rooms with stone benches where people would use the toilet right next to one another. 

Once again, not only was this a completely average part of daily life, these public encounters allowed Romans to catch up with one another or even make business deals while they were doing their business. 

While some similarities of these shockingly public washroom experiences still remain – modern day urinals, for example, are still relatively open – it is safe to say that most of us value our privacy when we go to spend a penny, even if it’s just a thin cubicle wall. 

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We may not have noble attendants aiding us in our washroom activities anymore – and we’re much better at washing our hands – but such a universal human experience will still have traces of ancient habits passed down throughout time. Even some of the toilet-related slang we use today comes from our ancestors and their experiences. 

From simple pits in the ground to toilets with smart technology, our ancestors would likely not even recognise a modern day toilet if they came across one. But while it is true that technological advances have made toilets and washrooms cleaner and more efficient, it is just as fascinating to see what might have remained the same. 

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