November 25, 2017

Johnnie on the Spot

Timotehy Birdnow

And now for something completely different.

Thanksgiving may be intended to give thanks to God for our blessings, but it is also a time of rampant gluttony and a time to give back - to the soil, which receives a great amount of fertilizer as Americans try to empty their overfilled bellies. Unlike people of the past, we do not have to satchet out to a hole in the back yard or use a pan that smells up the place and then go dump it; we have a wonderful gadget that allows us to do our business and then be done with it. But what does any of us know about the history of the john? Well, for starters, it's called the John for a reason; the inventor was one John Harrington, a 15th century London nobleman, poet, and companion to Elizabeth I. Unfortunately Lizzie's "saucy Goose" had a penchant for the ribald, forcing Elizabeth to banish him. In his forced seclusion Harrington decided to solve a most pressing problem of the day.

The Belleville News Democrat tells the story:

"Elizabeth did have Harington install one of his toilets in Ye Royale Palace, but that, too, wound up raising a stink — literally. His contraption is described as having a pan with an opening at the bottom and sealed with a leather-faced valve. A system of handles, levers and weights poured in water from a cistern, which opened the valve, according to historian Ellen Castelow. But the whole thing was so poorly vented that sewer gas seeped back in, forcing the queen to continually have bowls of fresh herbs and flowers placed around the room to quench the stench, according to historian Maureen Francis.

It would take another two centuries for indoor toilets to pass the smell test. In 1775, Scottish watchmaker Alexander Cumming earned a patent by finally adding a water-filled S-trap in the drain to keep odors from wafting back up the pipe after the toilet was flushed. Three years later, English inventor Joseph Bramah patented improvements that helped keep Cumming’s toilet from freezing in winter."

End excerpt.

Bear in mind, they did not have sewer systems or toilet paper in those days and there was no good way to flush away your problems.

The BND article does not discuss dirt closets, which were a major competitor to the water closet. Dirt closets were glorified cat boxes, with a large space under them full of ash or lime or some other substance. One did one's business and then pulled a chain or whatnot, dumping the "litter" onto the offending offal, then you sealed the little door thus keeping out odors. There was no need for a sewere or whatnot as you simply cleaned it out just like a catbox. But it was more work and less sanitary, for sure.

At any rate, Thomas Crapper was misidentified as the inventor of the toilet. Crapper did indeed invetnt an improvement to the toilet, but he was a johnnie-come-lately and of no real consequences in the battle of the bilge.

Flush toilets are one of the cornerstones of modern civilization, an invention that revolutionized society as it became possible to build enormous cities of millions of people. Prior to that human waste was a serious problem, causing horrific plagues from time to time as the waste fed rats and incubated all sorts of diseases and infected water supplies. We owe our great cities (and indeed even our lives in the country) to this oft neglected but vital invention.

And while the Romans had fine sewer systems their toilets were primarily holes in the floor with water running to move the waste. They worked, but water had to flow continuously and so they used whatever source was handy, including used bath water. The end result was an unsanitary system that promoted disease.

So we owe John Harrington a debt of thanks. Think about that as you labor to empty out your Thanksgiving feast.

Posted by: Timothy Birdnow at 11:27 AM | No Comments | Add Comment
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