Historical Shit

The human condition prevails upon us to deal with our shit. I mean it really stinks…right! Throughout the ages the smell of human excrement has warned us against getting it all over us, eating it, adding it to our water supply (oh hang on we still do that??). I guess if it smelled great we might not be so careful of the way we deal with it.  Remember the adage, if it looks like shit, smells like shit and tastes like shit…it IS shit. An ode to the fool who needed to go that far…….

The flush toilet is a relatively new invention (Sir John Harrington, 1596 but not commercialized until 1860’s by Thomas Crapper). Prior to that we all used dry toilets of various form and relatively primitive function.  A simple peasants abode would have had the animals on the ground floor and a drop into their dung heap from a hole in the upper floor.  All the manure would have been one big steaming pile, great for the one who got sleep above it in winter.  It’s a wonder our noses didn’t evolve filters!

If you were lucky enough to live in a castle, you may have had an “abort eeker”, or long drop to a closet below where a dung heap accumulated. I guess that is why the princess always got the tower.

Disposal of faeces has challenged humanity from the beginning, especially in cities. Many houses directed their secretions directly into rivers or ditches. Where this was not possible, sinks and coolers were used. Here, the dirty water was passed into supposedly waterproof cesspools that were made of wood or masonry. These cesspools were not as watertight as everyone thought and they were rarely emptied. As a result, there was groundwater contamination and the spread of epidemics such as cholera.

Later, these cess pits were sealed more effectively and a new profession, the night soil collectors, emptied them and took them to be mixed with other refuse to produce compost for growing crops. In Japan, fierce competition for traveler’s turds resulted in a culture of glorifying the toilets to attract custom.  

In the middle of the 19th century, people wanted to finally master the evil odours. The excrements were now dropped into pits supplied with various substances that absorbed the urine and removed the water that drives the decay process. The ammonia formed during storage was bound and composting accelerated. Peat litter was used as an additive, but also humus poor soil, ashes, sawdust and so on. This is how the first earth and compost toilets were created.

Modern composting toilets were invented by a Swede, Rikard Lindstrom in 1939. Clivus, Latin for slope and Multrum, a Swedish word meaning compost room have become synonymous with waterless toilets, thanks mainly to Abby Rockefeller who set up a company to produce them in the 1970’s.


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