06 November 2013
A Few of My Favorite Things: I is for #IndoorPlumbing
No, seriously. Have you any idea how much for granted we take this most basic of “modern” conveniences? As recently as the early 20th century, pit toilets (a hole in the ground) located away from the living quarters due to their foul odor, were still the most common form of waste management in large rural swathes of the United States, and are still the most common form of self-contained toilets at campgrounds. The “indoor” toilet, however, is not a modern invention at all.
The most common form of waste removal in the modern American home is the flush toilet. This involves a gravity tank storing a measured amount of water from a household water supply in a tank above the business end of the (usually) porcelain receptacle. Water is released on command, either manually or automatically, to flow over the waste to be removed, pushing it by force of gravity down a pipe that removes it from the dwelling, either into a system of drainage pipes or into a “septic tank.” In America, these contraptions are filled from the same water supply you drink from. That’s right, if not for the germs associated with the bowl itself, the water in your toilet is just as potable as the water that comes out of your kitchen faucet. The World Health Organization estimates three quarters of a billion people do not have access to clean drinking water, while we in America have so much we… er… “do our business” in it.
Incidentally, ever wonder what that little “squiggle” behind the bowl is there for? It’s to cause water to collect in the bottom of the “s” shape, preventing sewage gases (most notably flammable methane, but also foul smelling hydrogen sulphide and ammonia) from backing up into the bathroom.
But “indoor” plumbing is much, much older than the modern flush toilet. The Indus Valley Civilization, which flourished in what is now northern Pakistan, India and Afghanistan around 3,000 BC, shows evidence of the systematic distribution of water, including sewage removal. Medieval castles had rooms called “garderobes,” essentially a toilet seat built out over the edge of a wall where waste dropped into a cesspit or the castle moat, or directly into a river or stream running beside or beneath the castle.
Improved sanitation http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanitation is a major factor in the average life span in America rising from 31 in the early 20th century to 78 in 2011. In areas without access to clean water and good sanitation, such as central Africa, life expectance plummets to the upper 40s. One of the most notorious (but certainly not the only, north or south) examples of the devastating effect of poor sanitation during the Civil War is Andersonville prison, the site of a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp, which relied on a pitiful little stream to supply both drinking water and hygiene to an estimated 45,000 Union prisoners, of which almost a third would die, mainly due to disease and starvation. In places, the mud and raw sewage was said to run knee deep.
So thank God for modern plumbing, still a luxury for over half the world’s population. Think about that next time you have to get up and 3 AM, and imagine what it would be like to have to traipse a hundred yards or so in the dark to an outhouse, which would still put you in the “upper crust” in many parts of the world