The Necessary, or Excuse Me, I Have to Powder My Nose

cheryl_stjohn_logo.jpgI’d wager that an author uses about one to five percent of the research she gathers during the plotting and planning of a story.  Last weekend I did the opening session for the Nebraska Writers Guild’s Spring Conference and I spoke about how to store gathered information and how to integrate it seamlessly into a story.  Writers are fascinated by research, often to the degree that we have to draw a line so we can actually write the book!  When I was planning the book I just finished (a December release titled A Hero’s Embrace) I envisioned “modern” plumbing in my hero’s Montana hotel.  He has traveled with the Army and camped under the stars for years.  When he settles down, he’s ready for some comforts. 

public-bath-ancient-rome.jpgPlumbing is by no means a modern invention.  Ancient plumbing is found in the ruins of rudimentary drains, grandiose palaces and bathhouses, and was used in vast aqueducts and lesser water systems of empires long buried.  Close to 4,000 years ago, the Minoan Palace of Knossos on the isle of Crete featured four separate drainage systems that emptied into great sewers constructed of stone. Terra cotta pipe was laid beneath the palace floor, hidden from view and providing water for fountains and faucets of marble, gold and silver that jetted hot and cold running water. Harbored in the palace latrine was the world’s first flushing “water closet” or toilet, with a wooden seat and a small reservoir of water. The device, however, was lost for thousands of years amid the rubble of flood and decay.  

stone-sewers-palace-of-knossos.jpgThere was a noble origin to the water closet in its earliest days. Sir John Harrington, godson to Queen Elizabeth, set about making a “necessary” for his godmother and himself in 1596. An accomplished inventor, Harrington ended his career with this invention, for he was ridiculed by his peers for this absurd device. He never built another one, though he and his godmother both used theirs.  

Two hundred years passed before another tinker, Alexander Cummings, reinvented Harrington’s water closet. Cummings invented the Strap, a sliding valve between the bowl and the trap. It was the first of its kind. However, it didn’t take long for others to follow Cummings lead. Two years later in 1777, Samuel Prosser applied for and received a patent for a plunger closet.  One year later, Joseph Bramah’s closet had a valve at the bottom of the bowl that worked on a hinge, a predecessor to the modern ballcock. A sailor himself, Bramah’s closet was used extensively on ships and boats of the era. 

victorian.jpgIn the 16th Century Sir John Harington invented a “washout” closet, similar in principle. Another Englishman, Alexander Cumming, patented the forerunner of the toilet used today. The luminous names of Doulton, Wedgwood, Shanks, and Twyford followed. But it’s to the plumbing engineers of the Old Roman Empire that the Western world owes its allegiance. The glory of the Roman legions lay not only in the roads they built and the system of law and order they provided. It was their engineering genius and the skill of their craftsmen that enabled them to erect great baths and recreation centers.  Amazingly, aqueducts from sources miles away supplied water.  

outhouse1.jpgWaste management took a turn for the worse following the fall of the Roman Empire. In the 15th and 16th centuries, English castles had small rooms featuring a wooden or stone seat placed over a vertical shaft that leading to a moat, a barrel, or a pit.  Poorer people simply threw their wastes into the gutter. Indeed, people have not always treated their bodily wastes with the ritualistic sophistication of saying, “Excuse me, I must go powder my nose.”  Quite the contrary, in England and much of Europe during the industrial revolution, when so many people moved to the cities and into crowded and unsanitary living conditions, politeness dictated that people tossing waste out of their windows onto the street below were to shout, “Gardez L’eau” (literally “watch out for the water”). This saying remains a part of British vocabulary today in the use of the word “loo”, slang for toilet.  

rotterdan.jpgThings got so bad in England that in 1848 a Public Health Act was passed mandating some kind of arrangement for every house whether it be a flush toilet, a privy or an ash pit. The Act did little to solve the problem for soon after the streets were cleaned up, the rivers started to reek. The Thames quickly gained a reputation as a “cesspool” and in the hot summer of 1859, the smell from the river was so pungent that Parliament had to be suspended. Disease, and cholera in particular, was a problem.  

Things weren’t any better in the colonies.  Cholera spread through the immigrants from infected European countries. Irishmen, fleeing the poverty of the potato famine and able to scrape together three pounds for passage, carried chamber pots on their journey to North America. The crowded conditions created by greedy ship owners who forced as many as 500 passengers in space intended for 150 resulted in dangerous conditions.  Passengers shared slop buckets and rancid water.  

earth-closet-1881.jpgAt Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate, visitors can still see his indoor privy with a system of pulleys for servants to empty the pots from his earth closet. In another display of American ingenuity, William Campbell and James T. Henry received the first American patent for a toilet called a plunger closet, granted in 1857.  Largely unsuccessful improvements continued to be made in the 1870s to 1890s in the search for sanitary water closet.  American designs were generally inferior to English ones and most water closets of this period were imported.  A wide variety of products was offered including those with decorative bowls, glazed underneath with artistic designs, some even stamped with the names of well known pottery manufacturers. Engineer Julius W. Adams provided the framework upon which modem sewerage is based.

In 1857, Adams was commissioned to sewer the city of Brooklyn, which then covered 20 square miles. There was no data available in proportioning sewers for the needs of the people. Yet, working from scratch, Adams developed guidelines and designs that made modern sanitary engineering possible. More importantly, he published the results. By the end of the century, his how to textbooks would be available for towns and cities across the country.  

victorian-water-closets.jpgThe pieces to the puzzle of good plumbing had finally come together: Proper venting, waterworks and sewers brought the closet indoors to stay.  American potters duplicated the successes of their English predecessors, and then some.  Finally, the mass production line brought down the cost of production of fixtures, fittings and valves, making them affordable and available from the rich on down.  With the final correlation between disease and water borne bacteria the impetus to plumbing was complete. 

Chicago is credited with having the first comprehensive sewerage project in the country, designed by E. S. Chesbrough in 1885, but it was the city of New York that provided the model for the development of water supply and sewage disposal systems across the country.  

wash-out-water-closet-twyford.jpgThomas Twyford revolutionized the water closet when he built the first trapless toilet in a one-piece, all china design. A preeminent potter, Twyford competed against other notable business including Wedgwood and Moulton. Twyford’s design was unique in that it was of china, rather than the more common metal and wood contraptions. The internal workings of his water closet were the work of one the first pioneers of the sanitary science.  It was a design the Twyford would refine and promote for the rest of the decade. 

thunder-mug.jpgArchaeological evidence shows most 19th century dwellings did not have indoor plumbing, though occasionally a property for which no outdoor privy can be located is discovered.  Beginning around the mid-1850s, a few finer homes had built in bathrooms. 

Around the turn of the century brought flushers, outdoor toilets with clay or iron drain pipes leading into an underground vault, an underground brick structure plastered on the inside and having a exit drain tile near the top.  Sometimes flushers were built right on top of older holes, the older hole serving as the septic tank. 

commode.jpgOur language is full of euphemisms to describe waste management.  Look at the silly things we teach our kids. Potty?  We have the restroom, the washroom and the bathroom as though we were going for a rest or a bath when we excuse ourselves.  Everyone knows what we’re doing.  The word toilet, which is less acceptable than any of the above, is derived from a French word meaning shaving cloth.  

outhouse.jpgOur ancestors had euphemisms for the “necessaries” as they called them: The outhouse, or the privy.  When no plumbing was available, they used containers which they labeled chamber pots, thunder pots or, less often, thunder mug.  No Victorian bedroom would have been complete without the necessaries either tucked under the bed or beside it in the commode.  A commode was a low cabinet sometimes fitted with top with a hole in it. 

For hundreds of years the privy provided not only a place for elimination of wastes, but also a convenient place to deposit trash.  Across the nation the pattern is ubiquitous.  In the early privies, those dating before 1840, very little in the way of artifacts have been found; usually only kitchen scraps, bones and seeds, window glass, and shards of pottery or porcelain are discovered. Containers were valuable.  Glass was reused or sent back to factory for cullet, broken glass used by the glass factories to start a new batch.  

chamber-pot-2.jpgWholesale dumping of household trash, based on archaeological evidence, began increasing around the 1840s – 1850s, matching the rise in industry.  As people began to accumulate greater and greater quantities of refuse, greater quantities of outhouse artifacts are available.  With the rise in the incidence of indoor plumbing, other places had to be found for dumping; hence the increase in the number of town and city dumps.   

bottles-from-civil-war-era-privy.jpgThere are websites devoted to the artifacts found in old privies!  No wonder it’s so easy to get caught up in a subject when the Internet has put all this information at our fingertips.  So, did I use any of that information in my book?  Not a bit of it. 

I’m sure I’m not the only one who gets caught up in research, but this is probably one of the strangest subjects that has interested me.  Do you think you’ll take your “powder room” for granted the rest of the day?      

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33 thoughts on “The Necessary, or Excuse Me, I Have to Powder My Nose”

  1. Good morning Cheryl, enjoyed your post I make a comment yesterday on Linda’s post about the outhouse. I am 43 so it wasn’t that terribly long ago when i was young that i remember these and the pictures really brought back memories of that old outhouse at my Grandpaents house. They were the kind that slowly eased into modern changes I was so proud of them when they got their in-door bathroom and phone. I can say one thing when you say authors love their research you ladies always bring the info. Have a wonderful day.

  2. This one’s a keeper, Cheryl. I’ve noticed that in most romance novels, including mine, the characters rarely need to go to the bathroom. You can do that in fiction, I guess, but it had to be one of the reasons women on the plains wore long skirts. And like Lori, I remember grandparents with an outhouse. It was a scary place, dark with a few (?) spiders. They had a little “potty” in the house for us youngsters. Thanks for the great start to my day.

  3. wow Cheryl! how ironic that you’d blog about this topic…as it has been an interest to me for a while now

    usually a novel…bodily functions such as these are just skirted around anyway..however, every now and then you find a mention of it

    I just read a novel where the hero and heroine were out to see…she was posing as a cabin boy..however, the hero of the story already knew she was a woman and took all advantages of the fact that the knowledge was his alone! He walked into the cabin one morning to find her sitting on the chamber pot…she was very embarrassed and put her head down onto her legs to hide her face..

    all this being said …so that I can say…WOW… how mortified would any of us be if caught in such a exposing, private moment…having to sit on a chamber pot…

    I thank God for indoor plumbing and privacy

    I do have a question though….

    what did people use to wipe? did they have “bathroom tissue” type things..or did they have to use pieces of cloth?

    sort of morbid…but, anyway..I am curious

  4. Hi Lori! My grandparents had an outhouse, too. There is a tale of one Halloween when youngsters pulled a prank and moved the outhouse back behind the hole. My great-grandma went out that night in the dark, fell into the hole and broke her arm!

    Thanks, Elizabeth! I know, it’s something we tend to gloss over. The function’s not that glamorous, but we all know it’s happening sometime or another.

    Melissa, there were dried corncobs (OW!) and catalogues in outhouses. Before that — I guess we’ll have to let the other time-period authors tell us.

  5. LOL Cheryl!

    I was born in 1975, but my grandparents on my mom’s side didn’t have indoor plumbing when I was kid. The men folk used an outhouse down at the back of their property in my grandfather’s junkyard.

    The women and girls used a empty 5 gallon drywall bucket with a hole cut in the lid for the seat. That was tucked away in my aunt’s bedroom in a small “closet” with a curtain hung over it. For years we used old newspapers and magazines to wipe with until my grandparents started investing in toilet paper.

    This topic brings to mind Bill Engvall’s stand-up routine where he talks about accidently seeing his wife on the commode and always feeling “confused” because she looked so helpless sitting there because he’s not sure what she’s doing. LOL

  6. First, I am not a writer, but really enjoy reading the articles you ladies all post. I have learned a lot and laughed a lot reading them.

    Our family didn’t have an indoor bathroom until I was about 13. In the winter we had a porcelain pot that we could use at night if needed. Our baths were taken in a galvanized tub in the kitchen. Hair was washed in the kitchen sink. Going to the privy at night was kind of scary and we always checked to see if anyone else had to “go” so we didn’t have to brave the dark by ourselves.
    These are some things that are not so good about the “good old days.”

  7. When I lived on the sheep ranch in South Dakota (I was 7) we had NO plumbing–not even a pump for water. So, outhouse or bucket it was. My little one room school house had outhouses, too. Hmm, wonder if the teacher had a toi-toi in her trailer… We’d go to town on dad’s day off and stay in a hotel.

    Needless to say, I don’t remember ever going to the bathroom on the ranch. I must have blocked it out. LOL

    I have a traveling friend who has visited a multitude of what we consider ‘third world’ countries. He says one of the best things about coming home is the modern toilet. I agree and will proudly claim to be a creature of comfort.

  8. One of the things that I recall about Arbor Lodge in Nebraska City, (built by J. Sterling Morton, founder of Arbor Day) is that every bedroom had a chamber pot painted to match the decor of the room. How is that for classy?

  9. Cheryl that is one of the reasons I don’t want to live in the country. When I was a kid we didn’t have a bathroom in any of the houses we lived in and I hated going out in the night to go potty I was the only kid so I was usually stuck by myself. I never want to go back to any of those days I also had to take a bath in the kitchen in a tub and warm the water up on the wood burner (so it took forever to get a bath) I love my showers now. And as far as washing my hair I did it outside under the pump oh my goodness it was so cold I am not sure how I did it. Thank goodness I grew up and got married I told my hubby I don’t care where we live as long as I have indoor plumbing.

  10. Hi Cheryl,
    You have made me appreciate my bathrooms. When I was growing up our house only had one bathroom which seemed like such a problem at the time.

  11. This is too funny Cheryl! My grandmother didn’t have indoor plumbing either. We kids were too scared to go outside in the dark so we were allowed to use the “chair”. I’ll never forget the sound!

    When you think about it, the internal workings of the toilet really haven’t changed in the last 100 years.

  12. What a terrific post and replies. I’ve learned a lot. Thanks everyone. And like everyone else, these posts really, really make me appreciate my bathrooms.

  13. Amazing information here, Cheryl! And to think I thought I had a hardluck childhood with only one bathroom! The weirdest one I ever saw (used) was in Greece years ago…it was ceramic like a regular shower floor, with two footprints for your feet, and just a hole to squat over. It even had a flushing mechanism though. Whew.

    I always think it would be fun to travel back in time…except I’d need flush toilets and antiobiotics.

  14. Cheryl, wonderful interesting facts! Research is so fascinating to me. I always uncover these little nuggets everytime I start digging. I’m so glad I don’t have to use an outhouse or a bucket. I can’t think of anything worse than needing to go in the middle of night and having to trek outdoors or use a chamber pot. And what about when you’re sick? Yikes! No, I want my indoor, clean and sanitary bathroom, thank you very much. I’m so thankful to live in these modern times.

    Thanks for sharing and posting such an interesting blog! 🙂

  15. And this is why historical novels for all the romance of the era, are fiction. NO ONE wants to go back there, not REALLY.

    Not just the outhouse situation. I don’t think cowboys bathed very much. Cowgirls neither!!!

    My sister lived in Africa for a year and the women she lived with, missionaries, had an outhouse. The locals though it was just sick, like they wanted to KEEP the human waste.

    They just waded into the river–the river they got their drinking water out of.

  16. You have really taken me back into the past,
    to days that I don’t EVER want to live through
    again! We lived outside the city limits of our
    city (Houston), in the county. The county did
    not have the sewer system put in as yet. All of
    the descriptions of the tub baths and outhouses
    bring those years back to me! What’s the phrase?
    Been there, done that, don’t ever want to do that
    again!! It was bad enough, making a daytime visit
    to the “casita” (little house). Thoughts of the
    nightime ventures still give me the shivers! I
    think I’ll go into our bathroom and tell the room
    how much I appreciate it!!!

    Pat Cochran

  17. Wow, Cheryl–I’ve always wondered but never taken the time to research! Thanks for doing it for me 😉 And yow, I’m SO thankful for indoor plumbing and TP!

  18. Oh, the memories this post brings back. Count me as one of the outhouse and galvanized tub set. I can remember the excitement when my Dad turned a small backroom into the bathroom.

    Dad had an uncle who REFUSED modern plumbing. He said it just wasn’t sanitary to eat and, ahem I’ll change his wording, relieve yourself in the same house.

  19. Great information! I grew up in the country a long time ago. We had a 3 hole outhouse. Did not get indoor plumbing til I married and moved to town.

  20. We had an outhouse when I was a little girl. It was always so dark and scary. We use a “slop jar” in the house. Nannie always refered to it as a “Slop Jar”.

    We had a goat get in the outhouse one time and he used it for the right reason but wrong place.
    Boy that was a nasty job cleaning that up

  21. Found some interesting info on Toilet Paper.

    1391 Toilet paper first produced in China (for the Emperor’s use). Each sheet 2′ by 3′
    1857 Joseph Gayetty sells first factory-made toilet paper These were loose, flat, sheets of paper
    1871 Zeth Wheeler patents rolled and perforated wrapping paper

  22. This is a fascinating subject. I own a small collection of related antiques which I have used to decorate my bathroom. I have a couple of ceramic chamber pots which are quite lovely and an old French wood and marble cabinet which was used by the lady of the house to store her soiled chamber pot until her house staff could collect it for disposal. I’m sure the marble was to protect the wood from rotting. It makes a nice little cabinet to hold toilet paper and air freshener in the 21st century!

    I wonder if our toilets will ever be collectible. Maybe someday scientists will figure out how to feed us so we don’t produce waste products and people will look back on our commodes and say, “My God look at what they needed to get rid of the stuff that came out of their bodies.It must have been aweful!”

    In my novel Endings, I have a cute segment where my heroine and hero have to deal with the issue of going to the bathroom while the other one can hear. How many of us have been through that? Have you ever scooted to the edge of the toilet so your urine stream wouldn’t make a lot of noise? Tell the truth…

    Barbara Bergin
    author of “Endings”

  23. Great information, Cheryl.

    I’m not the norm, I guess. Nearly every western I’ve written has a scene with an outhouse or someone going to the bathroom in it. Guess I get too “real” with my fictional characters! LOL

    Thanks for all the great info everyone!

  24. I am writing to you from the Billy Bishop Home and Museum – A National Historic Site. We are a not-for-profit community museum based in Owen Sound, Ontario, Canada.

    I would like to obtain your permission to use an image posted on your webpage: .
    The specific image is a china toilet bowl, located next to an explanation about Thomas Twyford.
    The image would be used on display for educational purposes. For the use of this work, we would credit you and your website in the manner you choose.

    For more information on the museum, please visit:


    Allison Brown

    Accessibility Coordinator
    Billy Bishop Home & Museum – A National Historic Site

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