A Very Brief History of Modern Sanitation

by Violet St. Cyr, salvage detective

Effective sanitation prevents the spread of diseases such as cholera, which spreads through fecal matter contaminating water supplies. Since 1825, there have been five severe cholera pandemics; during one of these outbreaks, in 1849, over 10,000 people died in London alone. The deaths were attributed to contaminated drinking water; the contamination source was a cesspit that was used by cholera-infected people. London’s sewer system had not reached the crowded Soho area where the outbreak was centered, and many homes had overflowing cesspools in their basements.

The chamber pot, a predecessor to the modern toilet bowl, was made of china or copper and sometimes elaborately decorated. They were in common use throughout Europe from ancient times through the Victorian era. In early days the chamber pots were emptied into the gutters of streets (often from windows) to await the next rain which would wash the waste away to nearby rivers and streams. During the Victorian era, housemaids emptied them into slop sinks within the home. As urban populations grew, the gutter system became inadequate in containing the increased volumes of human waste, so cesspits and cesspools were dug near homes. Cesspits were traditionally deep cylindrical chambers dug into the earth, similar to a well.

Cesspits were emptied by tradesmen at night, after liquid waste would seep from them leaving only solid waste. The solid waste was then removed for use as fertilizer. In 1846, there were approximately 30,000 cesspits in Paris, but only 250 cesspit cleaners working nightly. The economic value of the waste as fertilizer was a major reason that the development of city-wide sewage removal systems did not occur until the 1870’s and 1880’s.

In the 1880’s, the development of underground networks to remove sewage and replace open gutters led to the development of the first water-flush toilets in England and soon after in America, in wealthy homes and fine hotels. As public awareness of the correlation between germs and disease grew, so did the use of flush toilets; replacing chamber pots and outhouses in the homes of the middle- and working-class populations.