Turning Back the Pages: The evolution of toilets has provided safer water and less bacteria

I have recently had some interesting conversations with someone who likes to read my column, but stresses that he doesn’t have any idea who those old families were or the farms or businesses that I talk about from 100 years ago.

He challenged me to share some things that might have been common to pretty much everyone living anywhere, and perhaps some things that people living today might remember with clarity.

So let me start with one of the daily activities that we all partake in. Young or old, rich or poor, we all use the bathroom.

Over the centuries, that has meant a host of different things. And the things that I have learned about this daily activity that we all share is startling.

I guess I may have always known that people literally pooped on the streets of the cities of old but my research took me to some of the early cities where ditches were built to convey the waste on a slow path away out of the city.

In many of these cities the ditches that held the water ran right beside the ditches that carried the waste away and when the rains arrived and the ditches overflowed one into the other.

The waste was washed away, but not before depositing bacteria and bugs in the water channel.

So, you definitely wanted to live on the high side of town or uptown.

During this time period people used chamber pots or bowls to collect their waste and once full they carried it into the street to dump in the ditch.

The Romans were the first to spend money and time planning and building communal toilet rooms.

And as glamorous as this sounds, the toilets were basically just holes that one sat on and the waste went down a shoot on the outside wall of the castle and built up on the ground.

Which explains why you don’t see paintings of old showing people fishing in the moats.

Keep in mind that these rooms seldom had windows and certainly any light that came in was poor, so I cannot imagine them being a sanitary place to sit.

If you’ve ever used one of those roadside washrooms in a big truck brake check or other roadside bathrooms you’ll understand what I’m talking about.

If you happened to be born royal, life in the toilet was different for you. You had a hired hand to aid you.

For instance if you were a king, you hired a man who’s title was “the groom of the stool.”

You might laugh but it was a coveted position because, as the person closest to the king, there was every possibility of advancing to a role such as private secretary because you knew all the king’s most intimate secrets.

In the late 1500s, a clever Scotsman invented the flush toilet and the trap that would stop the gases coming into the house, which changed toilet visits for the wealthy.

However, common folks were still using privy pits or chamber pots that were taken daily out to the privy pit to be dumped. Eventually the privy pits had walls built around them which didn’t keep the weather or bugs and vermin out but did provide some privacy. And I’m thankful that at my parents place we had an old outhouse with a roof. It was a two seater, one built higher for adults and the other shorter for children and it was common place for parents to accompany young children to the outhouse and use it at the same time.

Here in Golden’s earliest days, a poorly built building called the Queen’s Hotel welcomed a guest who asked where the bathroom was.

He was given directions to a log out back because an outhouse had not been built yet. He just got his drawers lowered when a bullet whizzed past his head and a voice from inside the hotel said “sir you are on the ladies end of the log, kindly move down.”

It was situations like this one, and for matters of health, that Golden became incorporated as a village.

Each home had a well and an outhouse or privy pit and the rise of the water table in the spring was causing contamination of the drinking water. In order to finance a new water and sewer system the village had to be able to tax the people.

Never take for granted the town systems that run under your feet, better there than above.

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