History of the Toilet Part 2

About the history of the toilet tracing its origins to its modern forms.


At first the contents of the urban jerry pots were collected by nearby farmers, who were delighted to get nitrogen-rich organic fertilizer. But as London and other cities grew, the journey became uneconomical, and the waste was generally dumped in larger communal cesspits or in the nearest river. Today's modern sanitary system, with its maze of underground pipes, pumps, and treatment techniques, is a direct descendant of the communal and private cesspits and open sewers which emptied into rivers. For centuries, water as a waste-removal vehicle functioned adequately from the urban resident's standpoint. Ecologically, the price may have been high, but urban users found it convenient because it allowed them to simply flush wastes and forget them. Only those people living downstream might be forced to question the wisdom of such a system.

Now, though, as cities grow larger and rivers become more saturated, increasing numbers of people are finding themselves living downstream. In area after area, urban growth is creating major water problems which are becoming front-page news stories. For example, Virginia's Fairfax County, a suburb of Washington, has been forced to declare a moratorium throughout most of the county on residential and commercial sewer applications.

A major villain in each case is the flush toilet. Of all home water users, the flush toilet is the biggest single consumer. The average North American family annually uses 35,200 gallons for toilet flushing.

In addition to water costs, the economic costs of the flush toilet and centralized waste treatment are rising. Currently, the investment in the utilities infrastructure in Western countries is around $500-$600 per person. This contrasts sharply with a country such as Tanzania, which in 1969 could spend only $8 per urban inhabitant. Thus, because of costs, the "modern" sanitary system, which Westerners now take for granted, is out of reach to most of the world's population. Reportedly, 70% of the human race does not even have piped water. The World Health Organization estimated in 1972 that only 8% of urban families in developing countries of Asia and Africa had access to a sanitary sewage system.

Moreover, energy costs of large centralized sewage-treatment systems are staggering. While the professional literature is slim in this area, one estimate is that, at full capacity, a 309 million-gallons-a-day waste-treatment system, such as that being built now for the Washington, D.C., area, will consume as much as 900,000 kilowatt hours of electricity, 500 tons of chemicals, and 45,000 gallons of fuel oil daily. Some environmental groups, however, consider this estimate to be a low one and point out that, in any case, burning the sewage to produce 400 dry tons of sludge each day will create a major air pollution problem. Thus, even if the water required for the flush-toilet system were available in abundance, the growing scarcity of the other resources that support such a system is beginning to impose limits.

One critic of the centralized flush-it-and-pass-it-on system, Berkeley architect Sim Van der Ryn, has imagined how future archaeologists, sifting through the material remains of our present culture hundreds of years from now, will interpret the curiously shaped ceramic bowls in each house, hooked up through miles of pipe to a central factory of tanks, stirrers, cookers, and ponds, emptying into a river, lake, or ocean. According to Van der Ryn, their report might read: "By early in the 20th century, urban earthlings had devised a highly ingenious food production system whereby algae were cultivated in large centralized farms and piped directly into a ceramic food receptacle in each home."

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