Friday, December 26, 2008

a basic matter

While watching the pleasant movie Ever After, featuring a younger Drew Barrymore as a Cinderella figure in cahoots with Leonardo da Vinci, we heard a joke about cleaning some queen-like figure's throne, which led us to speculate about toilets in the time of da Vinci, and also about how the Romans did it. 

 The Romans improved greatly on the Greeks re sewerage. Some of their sewers are still being used. They had public toilets which housed many people at once, as shown. The picture is from Ostia, Rome's harbour city. They seem not to have been partitioned off, and I don't know if they segregated men and women. It isn't clear whether the Romans squatted or sat at these toilets, but they were probably raised from the ground more for sanitary reasons than for ease of sitting. The sewerage, washed away into rivers by aqueducts, wasn’t treated of course, Romans had no such technology nor would they have seen the reason for it, not knowing anything about bacteria. No toilet paper, instead citizens used a communal sponge, washed after each use.

 One authority has claimed or calculated that Rome had some 144 public lavs in the later empire. They were generally connected to public baths, and would have been utilized by most of the population, except for the poor who couldn’t afford the public baths. The poor relieved themselves in chamber pots, which were emptied into vats under the stairs, which in turn were emptied into cesspools located around the city. Lead pipes connected to the aqueducts provided running water for wealthy homes.

 The excavations at Pompeii have provided invaluable info on Roman plumbing. They found that most houses were fitted with taps, and waste was piped away into sewers and trenches. I’d be very interested to see a picture of a Roman tap, or a surviving example to compare to modern types. Lead piping was used in the Roman area and the Western Mediterranean, and ceramic piping [developed by the Greeks] in the east.

The public lavs, which seemed to be popular hangouts, used buckets or containers, calleddolia curta. These were collected by fullers, who used the urine to clean laundry [because of the ammonia]. Clothes washing wasn’t a regular thing though. They seemed to be more tolerant of smelly clothing than smelly bodies.

 The Oxford Handbook of Engineering and Technology in the Classical World looks like a great place to start [and finish] as regards this sort of thing, but what about the da Vinci era?  

Leonardo da Vinci lived from 1452 to 1519. We know that the collapse of the Roman Empire led to a degeneration of sanitation in subsequent centuries. For example flush toilets were, amazingly enough, first used in the Indus Valley civilization as long ago as the third millenium BCE, and the Romans also used them, but the technology was lost for centuries. The flush toilet was rediscovered or redesigned by John Harrington in the 1590s for the use of Elizabeth I [she didn't like it, it made too much noise]. It didn't take off in England but was adapted by the French, for limited use. From the eighteenth century, a number of modifications and design features led to the development of a recognisably modern toilet. The plumber Thomas Crapper is often associated with the flush toilet, but he was more of a promoter and manufacturer, flourishing in the late nineteenth century. Our crap doesn't come from the name, instead it's a delightful case of nominative determinism. So to get back to da Vinci, the thrones of those times wouldn't have flushed, and presumably the contents of these thrones would've been dealt with by the servants [in the case of the rich]. The nightsoil man doesn't seem to have been a feature of towns until the eighteenth century. 

So there you go. A very patchy history.



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