THE HISTORY OF
to the ancient plumber echo in the ruins of rudimentary drains, grandiose
palaces and bath houses, and in vast aqueducts and lesser water systems of
empires long buried. Close to 4,000 years ago, about 1700 B.C., the Minoan
Palace of Knossos on the isle of Crete featured four separate drainage
systems that emptied into the great sewers constructed of stone.
Terra cotta pipe was laid beneath the palace floor, hidden from view.
Each section was about 2.5' long, slightly tapered at one end, and nearly
1" in diameter. It provided 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. Not until the 16th Century would Sir
John Harrington invent a "washout" closet anew, similar in
principle. And it would take still another 200 years before another
Englishman, Alexander Cumming, would patent the forerunner of the
toilet used today. The luminous names of Doulton, Wedgwood, Shanks,
and Twyford would follow.
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, the water
supplied by aqueducts from sources miles away.
While early pipe and conduit was made from wood
or earthenware, later refinement to lead made skilled workers in lead
indispensable. The Latin term "plumbus" means "lead,"
as was also the weight at the end of a line for perpendicular alignment.
The plumber was a worker in lead who, in today's connotation, repairs or
fits the apparatus of water distribution in and to a building. The Roman
artisan plumbed pipe, soldered, installed and repaired; he worked on roofs
and gutters, down to sewers and drains; in essence, everything involving
supply and waste. In fact, this general job description of plumbers' work
lasted into the 20th century.
Hot and cold water systems were already developed by the Greeks, but to
the stalwart, individualistic Spartan, it was unmanly to use hot water. His
idea of the bath tub was a polished marble bowl about 30" in height.
He would stand in the tub, and have a slave douse him with water over his
head and his body. The sole purpose was a quick, functional, cold rinse-the
colder, the quicker! Thus Grecian bath houses never developed hot water
systems as extensively as the Romans.
Roman society, on the other hand, fostered a communal spirit, and
barracks camaraderie for its troops. The public baths were the city centers
of group enjoyment, places of gossip and contacts. To prolong their
pleasure and relaxation, they developed hot water and steam systems that
evolved to service colossal structures. Some would say that the Roman bath
houses by early A.D. would pale only next to those of King Minos.
The baths of the Emperor Caracalla, for example, covered nearly a 28
acre site. It contained more than 1,600 marble seats, and still fell short
of the baths of Diocletian, which seated over 3,000. "Stupendous
aqueducts," reported Gibbons in the Decline and Fall of the Roman
Empire, "replenished the Thermae, or baths, constructed with
Imperial magnificence...walls covered with mosaics; perpetual streams of
hot water poured into capacious basins through so many wide mouths of
bright and massy silver."
Miles from the source of supply, water flowed through a series of
aqueducts, streaming by gravity along the contours of land. The longest
overhead section was about 14 miles long, but by 52 A.D., channeling
covered a total of 220 miles all but 30 miles underground. At its peak
development, aqueducts carried about 300 gallons of water for every
At first, the Roman baths opened only during the daylight hours, which
allowed for the emptying and refilling of the water at least once a day.
This helped matters somewhat, in that hundreds would use the same pools of
stagnant, germ-ridden, unfiltered, fetid water. The dawn of scientific
discovery would not be for hundreds more years. Even the best and brightest
of the ancient Romans knew nothing about bacteria and the true causes of
The bath complex housed a succession of baths, with many entrances for
easy access. Surrounding the complex on at least three sides were houses
Warm air for the Thermae bath was supplied by furnaces heating hollow
bricks located under the entire floor. As the name suggests, the
Frigidarium was the cold water bath; it fed the hot water tanks and other
baths. The Tepidarium contained baths of moderate heat, and the Caldarium
There was also a separate steam bath, and a small circular chamber
covered by a high dome. An opening in the center of the dome provided
light; it also vented the chamber. As a rudimentary way of regulating the
heat, the vent could be raised or lowered.
One could take a hot bath in a tub or a plunge into cold water, but the
tub was soon supplanted by a larger unit.
The bath measured 10-12 ft. in diameter, and was about 3 ft. deep. One
stepped down into it on two marble steps. A circular seat about 10"
from the bottom allowed the bathers to sit and wash themselves.
It was customary to bathe after exercise, and before a meal to promote
digestion. As just one example of his fabled excesses, it was Nero's
pleasure to bathe, gorge himself with food and fancy, bathe, etc., in his
great catered affairs.
In the cold water bath of Pompeii, water was supplied through a bronze
spout, and wound its way through a conduit on the opposite side. It was
also equipped with a waste pipe which prevented the water from running
A marble platform surrounded the bath, with pedestals for statues. The
ceiling was vaulted and lighted by a window in the center.
By the 4th century A.D., Rome would have 11 public baths, 1,352 public
fountains and cisterns, and 856 private baths. In Pompeii, some homes had
As mentioned, the water supply was provided by aqueducts, the first one
built in 312 B.C. Named in honor of its originator, Appius Claudius, it
spanned a total of 11 miles. However, it marked a milestone as the previous
water supply was only from the immediacy of wells, cisterns, springs, or
the Tiber River itself. As the city became more populous, and the Roman
emperors more decadent and demanding, the engineering feats in water
systems became increasingly monumental.
An artificial lake created for Augustus measured 1,800' long x 1,200'
wide. One of his favorite spectator sports was watching actual battles
between opposing fleets of ships, manned by criminals and slaves of the
emperors. By Nero's time of 37-68 A.D., a "sea" fight for his
amusement would utilize 19,000 men on 100 ships. They fought in gladiator
fashion, i.e., until one was killed in combat, or spared by the emperor.
The English Connection:
At the height of its power the Roman
Empire had conquered most of Europe, including about 1,600 so. mi. of
Britain, its farthest outpost. And in the ruins of Aquae Sulis, the famed
spas of Bath, lay the vestige of the rise and fall, and redevelopment of
By the time the Romans reached Britain in 43 A.D., the curative powers
of the hot baths were already part of English legend. Back in 863 B.C., the
waters had supposedly healed the leprosy of its Celtic discoverer, Prince
Bladud (the father of King Lear, who was to be immortalized by
Shakespeare). Bladud founded the city of Bath, and dedicated the springs to
the goddess Minerva. The Roman name of Aquae Sulis means "Waters of
Aquae Sulis was at a strategic crossroads for the Roman troops, and the
natural hot springs made it a logical setting for the baths of the Emperor
Claudius. In addition, the springs produced a constant supply of soothing
mineral waters, heated by Nature to a temperature of 46.5 C. Important too
was that available sources of building stone and lead were close by.
Following Roman custom, Claudius developed Aquae Sulis in the image of
the great baths back home, but scaled in size to its smaller location. At
that, the complex must have comprised approximately 23 acres.
One monumental hall led into another as the floor plan radiated to
various heated rooms, steam rooms, baths and swimming pools, plus a
gymnasium and social rooms for eating and drinking. A play field was
attached to the complex as well.
The small, circular pool was probably built for women and children, who
at first used the pool only at stated hours and separate from the men. But
eventually regulations broke down and both sexes intermingled throughout
the pleasure complex.
The Romans controlled the site for about 500 years, but their influence
floundered, waned and just about expired in phase with the decline of the
Empire, whose ruination became complete by the sixth century A.D. By then
Roman garrisons in Britain had been invaded by hordes of Picts, Saxons,
Scots and Irish, and could count on no help from Rome, which was in trouble
itself. When the last Roman garrisons fled the isle of Britain, the secrets
of sanitary design went with them.
Replacing them were the Barbarians, leveling cities and decimating
populations as they hacked their way across the continent. Civilization
reeled and regressed. Sanitation technology reverted to its basest forms.
The early Christians rejected most anything Roman, including the value
of cleanliness. They considered it unsanitary to be clean, sinful to
display material wealth. "All is vanity," stated an early
Christian writer. St. Benedict pronounced that "to those that are
well, and especially for the young, bathing shall seldom be
permitted." A 4th century pilgrim to Jerusalem would brag that she had
not washed her face for 18 years so as "not to disturb the holy
water" used at her baptism.
By the Middle Ages, the "hot houses" or "stews" of
the Roman baths carried the stigma of debauchery and wild parties. During
the reign of Richard the Lionhearted, the little rooms or
"bordellos" of the baths became synonymous with brothels.
In 1348 the first wave of Black Plague entered England through the town
of Melcombe in Dorset County. One third of the population would be wiped
out, as rats and fleas thrived in the filth and garbage steeped in and
about and all around.
The Dark Ages had begun.
The spas of Aquae Sulis lay dormant, buried under
rubble and dirt, and unappreciated for centuries before being restored to
use. In the 16th century, the Cross Bath was "worthilie called the hot
bath, for at the first coming, men thinke that it would scale their flesh,
and lose it from it the bone, but after a season. . . more tolerable and
easier to be borne."
Cartloads of wood or coal provided the fuel for the warm-air furnaces,
especially for the hottest room with its sub-floor heating. The Great Bath,
which measured 80' long x 40' wide and 6' deep, was still supplied water
from the original conduit installed by the first Roman plumber in town. In
the last century it was the rage to drink copious glasses of water from
Bath s pump room, located next door to the bathing room. According to one
account, ladies of the Blunderhead family allowed their servant girl,
Tabitha Runt, to bathe in the waters next door while they drank their water
at the pump. In those days servants bathed even less than their masters,
who bathed hardly at all. Those were the days of perfume, powders and oil,
not of soap and clean water.
It was not until the activities, and public relations, of the dandy
Richard "Beau" Nash in the last century that Bath reclaimed its
Nash was a celebrity of his day, a nobleman gambler who set the rules of
behavior that proved fashionable for the era. The social whirl was
comparable perhaps to the "jet setters" of our current age who
seem to do nothing but get their pictures in magazines, and help sell
supermarket tabloids. The little town that had sprung up around the baths
became the "in" place of royalty and the upper class, sort of a
trendy "hangout" for Nash and his crowd. The Bath Address Book
listed such dignitaries as Queen Anne and Thomas Gainesborough, and the
showrooms of the great potter, Josiah Wedgwood.
In 1780-81, the future Admiral Lord Nelson spent some of his youth in
Bath, and later paid occasional visits. After one visit to recuperate from
battle wounds, he wrote: "My health, thank God, is very near perfectly
restored, and I have very near the perfect use of my limbs, except my left
The baths were back in business. When it happened, their reputation for
healing had been embellished beyond even Roman legend. The waters would be
touted as "good for obstructions, still more: ague, dropsy, black and
yellow jaundice, schirrus hints or hard swelling of the spleen, scurvy,
green sickness, whites in women, and defect and excess of their
Waste And Sewers:
Where and how to dispose of waste and sewage
have been the bane of Man since the beginnings of time.
While early on he recognized the value of camping downstream to let
"running water take its course," the problem of disposal became
acute as populations proliferated and banded together.
Aristotle instructed his prize pupil, Alexander the Great, to make sure
that dung from animals, human waste, etc., was disposed of far from camp.
Predating his words by about 3,000 years is the Old Testament injunction
that stated: Thou shalt have a place also without the camp, whither thou
shalt go forth abroad. And thou shalt have a paddle upon thy weapon; and it
shall be when though silt ease thyself abroad, thou shalt dig wherewith,
and shall turn back and cover that which comets from thee. (Deuteronomy
But for a workable, though odoriferous, plan on a grand scale, the
Western world will have to again look to the ancient Romans.
The first sewers of Rome were built between 800 B.C. and 735 B.C.,
preceding the first aqueduct by about 500 years. Called the Cloaca Maxima,
this sewer is one of the largest of the ancient sewers still in use. It was
designed to carry off the surface water, and otherwise provide drainage for
the entire city.
It was said that every street emptied into a channel of the sewer.
However, only a few privileged patricians or noblemen had outlets to their
houses. These were but extensions to their latrines located adjacent to
their kitchens. As the untrapped ends of the sewer were the only sources of
ventilation that the sewers had, noxious fumes expelled into the immediate
area and wafted about. One wonders what the "smell" of "good
cooking" really meant in those days.
By 14th century England, the problem was still unsolved. Culled from an
old record, one reads that "the refuse from the king's kitchen had
long run through the Great Hall in an open channel, to the serious injury
to health and danger to life of those congregated at court."
Further complications resulted from medieval privies or the euphemistic
"garde robes" (wardrobes for undressing) located in the
"Great House" or castle. The chamber would be in a small vaulted
room about 3' wide with a narrow window. The privy was built within the
wall, with a vertical shaft below a stone for a wooden seat. The waste
would discharge into the moat below. If there were no water, the receptacle
might be a barrel or a pit. In either case, it was a deadly chore to rake
the offal. The job paid top wages for brave but desperate men needing to
work. A crew of 13 men were paid three times the normal rate to clean the
pit at Newgate Jail in 1281. It took them five nights.
But pity the plight of one Richard the Raker. He fell through the planks
of a public latrine and drowned in the deep pit of excrement below.
Underground channeling was a haphazard arrangement as well. Drain tiles,
constructed from the "roughest brickwork" or masonry, were 12' in
cross section, made by laying flat stones to form the bottom of the din.
Then brick walls built up, and topped with flat stones.
The drains were built helter-skelter with no understanding of purpose.
Some would be too big or too small, or running uphill or at right angles,
The possibility of disease being transmitted through water and waste
began to chip through centuries of ignorance. Scientific discoveries began
to unfold. Some would even believe that an open cesspool was "the
probable cause of headache, sore throat and depressed health to many a
cook, kitchen maid and butler, and perhaps indirectly leads, in not a few
instances, to the use of those treacherous self-prescribed
medicines-spirits and beer."
Stinks, Pots & Loos:
The rivers of the Thames, Fleet and
Walbrook were open sewers, the Thames the most foul of all. The abominable
odors of the Fleet, complained the monks of the White Friars, "have
overcome the frankincense burnt at the altar" they claimed the fumes
caused the deaths of several brethren. Sherborne Lane, once a lovely stream
back in 1300, was to be more popularly known as Shiteburn Lane. However,
these were minor when compared to the state of the Thames.
No longer could a king's polar bear catch salmon in the Thomas River, as
did the pet of King Henry VIII. By the mid-1800s the by-products of the
Industrial Revolution were flowering, mixing, and foaming with the waste
and stench of nearly 3 million people in London. All sewers led to the
Thames, pouring through bulkheads along the shores.
For several sultry days in 1859, the Thames seethed, seeped, and nearly
boiled under the burning sun of an unusually hot season. Parliament was
suspended as window blinds saturated with lime chloride and other
disinfectants failed to subdue the odor and revulsion. It was so revolting
that one foreign newspaper bannered twin headlines to catch the calamities
of the day: "India Is In Revolt, and The Thames Stinks."
Personal hygiene fared no better under such a dead-end sanitary system.
Tenements swarmed with people, but there were no indoor
"necessaries" for them, not even running water.
Water was drawn from pumps stationed in streets throughout the city, the
water rationed and serving hundreds of people. The pumps were open only
during certain hours of certain days, the water to be carried home in pots
or jugs, or just tasted in a pittance of a sip.
The finer homes may have had a tin or copper bath tub. But in the early
1800s piping was still confined to the first floor, the water heated by
kettles over an open fire.
Tenements loomed several stories high as space was at a premium. The
buildings were erected in long rows, back to back, containing tiny-room
apartments with little or no ventilation (landlords were taxed for
windows). Dank and putrid latrines, if any, were on the ground floor.
Inside the house or apartment, waste was stored in a glass urinal or
metal chamber until filled. Tenants usually disposed of the contents by
tossing them out the doors or windows.
Injuries caused by the far-flung contents of the chamber pots, or
"missiles of mirth" as the ancient Greek dramatist, Aeschylus,
would call them, persisted through the ages. Early Roman law included the
Dejecti Effusive Act, which fined a person who threw or poured anything out
of an open window and hit someone. The law awarded damages to the injured
party. Strangely, the statute applied only during daytime hours.
The habits of people remained basically the same, and the problem
continued well after the Romans left England. King Richard II followed suit
with his writ of Statuto quo nut ject dung "A writ that no one
is to dump dung." This earliest of health laws was finally repealed in
Proper manners would prescribe warning unwary pedestrians that a shower
was on its way. Thus the cry of "Garden l'eau" (pronounced Gardy-loo,
and meaning "Watch out for the water!") would echo up and down
the streets. Over time it evolved into English slang for the toilet, or loo.
The chamber pots of the working class were usually made of copper,
although later ones might be of crockery. The chamber pots for the rich and
royalty were solid silver, the kings' ornate and pretentious. James I had a
portable "potty," which he used for traveling. All the chamber
pots, of course, were carried and emptied by servants.
Paranoid about being poisoned, James I had one encased in a leather box
and locked shut with a key. Edward Vl had a padded chamber pot, and the
"close stool" of Henry VIII was padded in black velvet, trimmed
with ribbons, fringes, and quilting, all tacked on with 2,000 gilt nails.
The Victorians of the last century, the "wizards of gadgetry"
invented a musical chamber pot that played when the hidden drawer in the
table or commode was opened.
But for sheer invention, there is the relic of Sir
John Harington's "Ajax" water closet, the first
"necessary" ever built in English history. He built the toilet in
1596 for his godmother, Queen Elizabeth I (immortalized as the queen who
took a bath once a month "whether she need it or no"), and
installed it for her use in Richmond Palace. Although the Queen did use it,
the toilet and Harington were subject to ridicule and derision. Harington
never made another. It would be another 200 years before the idea took hold
of ornate Victorian closets at the Gladstone museum.
Further reading: History of Toilet Habits
The first patent for a "modern" toilet belongs to Alexander
Cumming, who invented the "S" trap in 1775. It had a sliding
valve underneath to hold the water. Three years later, Joseph Bramah,
a locksmith and engineer, patented an improved version with two hinged
valves. An original is still used in the House of Lords. The "Bramah"
also became a prototype for closets on boats and ships.
The Good Life:
In 1848, England passed the national Public Health
Act, which would become a model plumbing code for the world to follow. It
mandated some kind of sanitary arrangement in every house, whether a
flushing toilet, or a privy, or an ash pit. The government also released 5
million British pounds for sanitary research and engineering, and began to
build a sound sewer system. Now that there would be outlets for toilet
systems, their manufacture made sense.
With this new incentive for invention, pottery makers including Josiah
Wedgwood, Thomas Twyford, and John Shanks began to team with the inventors
as they replaced brass and metal workings of Bramah's invention with all
By 1858, George Jennings had popularized public lavatories. He
had introduced the novelties by installing them in the Crystal Palace for
the Great Exhibition of 1851; over 827,000 people paid to use the
By 1870, Thomas Twyford's improved version of the Bramah contained no
metal parts, and Bramah fell out of production. And, although Jennings'
pedestal vase toilet of 1884 won the Gold Medal at the Health Exhibition,
it was Twyford who is credited with the revolutionary design of a one-piece
Before, a toilet was built in two parts: the top part a bowl, and the
bottom half holding a separate pan. To keep the two together, the entire
unit had to be contained within a wood box. The box would leak at the
joints, and the smell would be terrible.
In 1885, Twyford pioneered the first trapless toilet and built the
"Unites" as a one-piece, free-standing unit on a pedestal base.
This eliminated the problem of leaky joints and foul odor.
Tests for quality control were very basic: Jennings, whose toilet was
judged "as perfect a sanitary closet as can be made," tested his
unit by throwing in 10 apples 1-1/4" in size, one flat sponge and four
pieces of paper. If the items cleared, the unit was pronounced fit.
John Shanks devised a different test for his units. He would
throw a cap into the bowl and pull the chain. When the cap disappeared, he
would cry out, "It works!"
Acceptance of water closets came slowly at first. But as closets became
better made, and as proper connection eliminated disease, production grew.
But there were still sporadic cases of typhoid in the second half of the
19th century. One of the most notable cases affected the royal family.
Queen Victoria's husband, the popular Prince Albert, had died of typhoid in
1861, as almost did her son, the future Edward VII, ten years later.
In 1871, the Prince of Wales lost his groom, a friend, and almost his
life to an outbreak of typhoid in Londesborough Lodge where he and his
friends were staying. His groom died as well as his friend, the Earl of
Chesterfield. Investigation proved contamination in the plumbing lines, and
the problem was corrected and eliminated.
The craftsmanship of the 19th-century sanitary engineer had come almost
full cycle from the days of King Minos. In tribute, the Prince would be
quoted as saying, "If I could not be a prince, I would rather be a