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The wee one’s fascination with bodily functions (as witnessed by her poetry) must be rubbing off on me, as I couldn’t stop browsing Quora to learn more about toilet habits, old and new.

Sher Afgan and Silvia Serra have shared a brief illustrated history of toilets from Roman to Victorian times.

Roman toilet | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book

Housesteads Roman Fort, Hadrian’s Wall: All together now…

The best-preserved Roman loos in Britain are at Housesteads Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall. At its height, the fort was garrisoned by 800 men, who would use the loo block you can still see today. There weren’t any cubicles, so men sat side by side, free to gossip on the events of the day. They didn’t have loo roll either, so many used a sponge on a stick, washed and shared by many people. Predictably, most Romans suffered from VD and parasites.

Housesteads Roman fort toilet | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book
Housesteads Roman fort toilet. Image: Quora

Old Sarum, Wiltshire: Luxury facilities, until you have to clean them…

These deep cesspits sat beneath the Norman castle at Old Sarum probably underneath rooms reached from the main range, like private bathrooms. In the medieval period luxury castles were built with indoor toilets known as ‘garderobes’, and the waste dropped into a pit below. It was the job of the ‘Gongfarmer’ to remove it – one of the smelliest jobs in history? At Old Sarum, the Gongfarmer was dangled from a rope tied around his waist, while he emptied the two 5m pits. Other castles had different arrangements.

Medieval gongfarmer | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book
A crappy job if I ever saw one. Image: Quora

Muchelney Abbey, Somerset: Thatched loo for monks

Many medieval abbey ruins across the country include the remains of the latrines, or ‘reredorter’ (meaning literally ‘at the back of the dormitory’), including Muchelney Abbey, Castle Acre Priory, and Battle Abbey. At Muchelney the building survives with a thatched roof, making it the only one of its kind in Britain. The monks would enter the loo block via their dormitory and take their place in a cubicle – you can still see the fixings for the bench and partitions between each seat.

Muchelney Abbey toilet | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book
Muchelney Abbey toilet. Image: Quora

Audley End House, Essex: Feeling Flush

Along with many other technological advancements, Audley End was one of the first country houses in England to have flushing toilets. The first of Joseph Bramah’s new hinged-valve water closets was purchased in 1775, and a further 4 were bought in 1785 at a cost equivalent to the wages of two servants for a whole year! Although none of the Bramah toilets survive, there are two other early loos from the 1870s, one next to the chapel and another in the Coal Gallery.

Audley End House toilet | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book
Audley End House toilet. Image: Quora

Brodsworth Hall, South Yorkshire: Thunderboxes

Inside the elegant Victorian country house of Brodsworth Hall, almost everything has been left exactly as it was when it was still a family home. So as well as the grand furniture, there’s also everything from the commodes of the 1840s to a modern pink bathroom from the 1960s/70s. A highlight has to be the flush thunderboxes – essentially mahogany boxes with a hole, and a brass handle for flushing – part of the original sanitary arrangements in the 1860s.

Brodsworth Hall thunderbox | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book
Brodsworth Hall thunderbox. Image: Quora

Space: the Final Frontier

And then, there’s space… How do you “go” in space?

Spacesuits are fitted with diapers so that astronauts can work outside for long hours (especially during spacewalks), as Ayush Sharma explains.

When they’re back in the ISS, toilets have various restrains (foot loops, thigh restraints, etc.) so that astronauts will not float away when using the loo. Also, due to weightlessness, the toilets rely on air and vacuum pump which creates suction to remove the waste. When urinating, astronauts use a large tube that is connected to the bottom front of the toilet. This tube also has air circulating through it carrying the urine to a holding tank. Anatomically correct urine funnel adapters are attached to this tube so that both men and women can use the same toilet.

On the ISS (and formerly on the Space Shuttle) space travelers use wipes – what amounts to a sponge bath taken in a privacy cubical. Because water likes to stick to itself, ISS crew can wash their hair simply by squirting water onto the scalp and working it back through the hair with their fingers before toweling. A “leave-in” shampoo is used because there is no effective way to rinse.

ISS shower | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book
Washing your hair in space drop by drop. Image: Quora

The ISS also has a full-body shower unit. When astronauts want to take a shower, they step into a cylindrical shower stall and close the door. They then get themselves wet and wash up just like you would on Earth. However, due to weightlessness, the water droplets and soap don’t flow downwards into a drain, they float about. Astronauts use a suction device to get rid of the wastewater.

The Skylab space station launched in the wake of Apollo had a shower, and it was highly effective and appreciated by crews–but took a lot of space.

Skylab shower | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book
Skylab’s shower, much appreciated by crews. Image” Quora

As for odors… According to Mats Andersson, it’s not something usually advertised but it’s considered to be a great bonus for an applicant to an astronaut program if they have a bad sense of smell. After all, when there’s a bad smell aboard the ISS, what can they do? Open a window to let some fresh air in? 

Incidentally, the same bad-smell problem is true of submarines after they return from long deployments according to several sources. In the words of Mitchell Huang,

My wife always threw out all my clothing from an extended underway when I came home. There is no point washing it. You can never get the smell out.

So, there you have it: something to add to your next novel, whether it takes place in the 1st or the 21st century!