The Sewers of Paris, Purification Service

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The Sewers of Paris, Purification Service


By: Roger Viollet

Date: January 1, 1900

Source: Getty Images

About the Photographer: This photograph was taken in 1900 in the sewers of Paris, which were world-famous for their extent and modernity. Today, tourists can take tours of the sewers.


This image gives some idea of the extent and complexity of the famous sewers of Paris, les egouts (pronounced lay-ZAY-goo), constructed mostly during the mid-to late-nineteenth century. Far more than a system of pipes through which waste could drain, the sewers of Paris were constructed as underground tunnels conveying runoff and sewage, fresh-water pipes, electrical and telephone cabling, and raised walkways for workers. In the 1890s, there were even boat trips through parts of the sewer system, attended by well-dressed ladies and gentlemen.

As with all European cities, the sewage system of Paris was originally no system at all. Human waste was collected in pots and thrown out of windows to drain down the middle of the street. Actually, chamber-pots were a relatively high standard: even the nobility sometimes relieved themselves indoors. In 1589, the court of England was served with the following notice: "Let no one, whoever he may be, before, at, or after meals, Early or late, foul the staircases, corridors, or closets with Urine or other filth." Disease, especially cholera, was the frequent result of such practices. Conditions were somewhat better in rural areas, where people were less crowded and could relieve themselves any-where in the landscape.

The first underground sewer in Paris was built in 1370, a simple drain that conveyed sewage to the river. More such drains were built over the next several centuries, but most dwellings voided their waste into cesspits, which drained into the soil. In the early 1800s, under Napoleon, a massive rebuilding of the under-ground sewers was performed. However, the isolation of drinking water from sewage remained poor, and the city was struck with severe cholera epidemics in the 1830s that killed thousands. Improved sewers were constructed starting in the 1840s—high-ceilinged, wide, walkway-flanked tunnels such as that shown in the photograph. The goal was a sewer under every major street, which was finally attained in the 1930s. Sewage was not treated before discharge until much more recently. Human health in the city was greatly improved, but the Seine River ran as a vast open sewer until sewage treatment, which removes sludge and at least some bacteria from water before discharging it, was instituted starting in the 1960s and 70s.



See primary source image.


Sewage has been a threat to human health and life ever since human communities have gathered. In ancient times, some cultures were aware that human waste should be separated from drinking water or that it was possible to make the environment more pleasant by covering or washing away human waste. The Biblical book of Deuteronomy (chapter twenty-three, verse thirteen) contains instructions for soldiers to bury their own waste. The Roman Empire had an extensive system of engineered water supply and sewage systems. With the fall of the Empire, sanitation became chaotic; many deaths resulted during the following centuries. The relationship of disease to microorganisms was not understood until the late 1600s.

Even after the development of efficient sewage removal systems, the development of sewage treatment systems was still far off. The former assure that waste is transported out of communities and into rivers, lakes, or oceans, but when human populations begin to number in the tens and hundreds of millions, this is inadequate to preserve the environment. Today, sewage treatment continues to slowly improve, for the most part, throughout the industrialized world, and sewage-related disease is rare.

For much of the world, however, the story is different. In 2000, according to the World Health Organization (an arm of the United Nations), about 1.1 billion people (a sixth of the world's population) had no access to safe water and 2.4 billion had no access to "excreta disposal facilities" (waste disposal). The consequences are severe, including approximately 4 billion cases of diarrhea every year, causing 2.2 million deaths, mostly among children below the age of five. This amounts to fifteen percent of all deaths in that age group in developing countries. Waterborne intestinal worms infect about a tenth of the developing world's population, and 200 million people are infected with schistosomiasis, a flatworm infection; 20 million are severely debilitated by schistosomiasis. Well-designed water supply and sewage disposal can reduce schistosomiasis infection rates by about eighty percent.


Web sites

"Global Water Supply and Sanitation Assessment 2000 Report." World Health Organization (United Nations). 〈〉 (accessed March 10, 2006).

Pitt, Rob. "Historical Review of Wet Weather Flow Management and Designs for the Future." University of Alabama, October 2005. 〈〉 (accessed March 10, 2006).