toilet practices

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toilet practices In contemporary Western society going to the toilet is generally viewed as a somewhat shameful necessity. A whole series of euphemisms exists covering both the technology and architecture of sanitation as well as the process and products. We talk of the ‘smallest room’, the ‘loo’, ‘spending a penny’, ‘number ones’, and ‘number twos’. Obscenity is the reverse of the scatological medal, the corollary of the power associated with these functions and products. Like sex, the excretory bodily functions provide us with some of our most basic symbolic language; when wishing to express ourselves strongly it is to words like ‘shit’ and ‘piss’ which we resort.

It seems that in modern Western societies urine and faeces are simply shameful waste matter — pollutants to be flushed from our bodies and our homes as swiftly as possible — but this has not always been the case. In Europe a more practical attitude to body products existed for many centuries. Human as well as animal dung has been an important form of fertilizer probably since the beginning of agriculture. With the development of towns a symbiotic relationship developed — the countryside produced food for the townspeople, who gratefully sent their soil-enriching waste products out in return. In the nineteenth century a global dung trade developed, as English farmers began to import guano from Argentina. Alongside its use as fertilizer, dung has been valued as a form of fuel in many peasant economies. William Buchan, the eighteenth-century Scottish physician, praised the folk tradition of using cow dung as a poultice.

Urine too has had a number of practical applications. Stale urine contains ammonia; in ancient Rome fullers used it in the cleaning and dyeing of clothes; in Britain it was known as lye and was the choice of poor housewives well into the nineteenth century. In Scotland it was called ‘strang’ and kept in buckets for use in a variety of herbal remedies — even in the twentieth century rural GPs have reported its use by farm labourers to treat burns.

In a period before the advent of X-rays and stethoscopes, faeces and urine offered a rare insight into what was going on inside the body. Excreta thus have a long history as diagnostic tools; indeed, during the medieval period the mantula, or urine flask, was the trademark of the medical profession. However, in the sixteenth century the Royal College of Physicians discouraged the use of uroscopy as a sole diagnostic technique, and by the eighteenth century the ‘pisse-prophet’ was a marginal figure, attacked by regular practitioners as a quack. Urine and stool samples still remain important in diagnosis of many conditions, but they are now more likely to be subject to chemical analysis — for the twentieth-century doctor smelling and tasting urine was no longer a routine.

However, orthodox medicine's interest in excreta has been more than diagnostic. In the eighteenth century, the physician George Cheyne exemplified contemporary attitudes when he advised one patient on the importance of bowel movements: ‘Nothing will do but to keep your body open.’ Since at least the days of Hippocratic hygiene, and until at least the mid nineteenth century, the Western medical profession urged the regular prophylactic use of emetics and clysters. Regardless of the particular medical theory invoked it was generally believed to be essential to purge regularly. Similar concerns have been present in Asian and African medical systems. Whilst gastroenterologists may bemoan an obsession with laxatives, the historical fascination with autointoxication and ‘staying regular’ has persisted to the present day. In Britain colonic irrigation has gained publicity if not popularity from royal patronage, although proper contemporary concern focuses on the positive effects of a high-fibre diet, which has been linked to a decreased incidence of colon cancer.

In the eighteenth century the emphasis on regularity led the philosopher John Locke to advocate a strict regime of early potty training. In the first few months babies were to be encouraged to evacuate each morning. This kind of regime found increasing favour in the nineteenth century and by the 1920s a highly regimented approach to infant care was being mass-marketed by figures like Frederick Truby King. Under such systems cleanliness took precedence over affection, and all aspects of child-rearing, including potty-training, were subject to strict timetables. Potty-training was to begin at around 2 months and the baby was encouraged to perform regular bowel evacuations at the same time each day, aided by a salt-water enema if necessary. However, by the 1940s a more relaxed, child-centred approach was finding favour, epitomized by the work of Benjamin Spock. In his early work Spock advocated that the child rather than the parent was to initiate training but by the 1960s he was more prescriptive and recommended that training should commence at 18 months.

A cross-cultural study of child training in the 1950s showed a wide divergence of attitudes and approaches. The Tanala of Madagascar, where babies did not wear nappies, would slap their infants for wetting the mother as early as 6 months, whereas the Siriono of South America only began toilet training when the child was old enough to walk and would not expect full independence in toilet practices until around the age of 6. Amongst the Kwoma people of New Guinea the process did not commence until the child possessed verbal communication skills strong enough to make the process relatively straightforward: ‘You just tell the child what to do and he does it,’ reported one villager.

For some young children bladder control is more difficult to achieve at night — enuresis, commonly known as bed-wetting, has been discussed by physicians since the days of Galen and Hippocrates. The ancient physicians generally blamed the problem on defects in the kidneys, bladder, or testicles, their remedies, involving extracts from the same organs in animals, persisted until the eighteenth century. By the late eighteenth century William Heberden was recommending cold baths and blisters ‘applied to the loins’ and belladonna was later used as a cure. Folk wisdom has ascribed the problem to children sleeping too deeply, and children were therefore forced to sleep on hard beds, but now technology has taken over in the shape of the enuresis alarm — two detector mats on a bed connected to a buzzer, which wakes the child when wetting occurs. Nowadays some doctors prescribe drugs, but behavioural training is the most common treatment.

The shame and anxiety aroused in both parents and children by potty training and bed-wetting demonstrates the importance attached to mastery of bodily functions. Since Freud we have seen toilet training as a battle between infant and mother fraught with danger — the anal personality, characterized by orderliness, obstinacy, and parsimony, stemmed from this confrontation. The development of excremental taboos seems to be fundamental to socialization in modern Western society. It may not always have been thus. Until recently, European society appears to have had a more robust attitude to waste products.

In early modern Europe the ritual power of body products was displayed during carnivals. In the mock mass, incense was replaced by excrement, whilst in processions the festive clergy were paraded in carts filled with dung, which they threw at onlookers. In Georgian London it was an accepted dinner-party custom that once the ladies had retired the men would be free to relieve themselves in chamberpots. ‘The operation is performed very deliberately and undisguisedly … and occasions no interruption of conversation,’ observed a visitor in 1810. In the same period people commonly relieved themselves publicly on the city streets. In art and literature too, scatology was an important and widely accepted form of humour. Eighteenth-century satirists like Swift raised the tradition to new literary heights.

This more open attitude partly reflected the technology of the period. As long as they relied on domestic servants to empty their chamberpots it was difficult for the upper and middle classes to deny faecal reality. Even privies were not necessarily private — many had more than one seat. The modern water-closet had its precedents in ancient civilizations, but for many centuries Europe lacked the kind of water supply systems needed for the easy use of such technology. Wastes were either collected above ground in dung-heaps and then periodically removed by street-cleaners, or collected underground in cess-pits, which were periodically emptied by nightsoil-men (so-called from the hours when they were permitted to perform their duties). Ironically, when the water-closet was popularized in the late eighteenth century it made cities dirtier rather than cleaner — connected to sewers built only for draining storm water from the streets, human wastes flowed into rivers which were often major supplies of drinking water.

However, the evidence of etiquette manuals dating back to the Renaissance suggests that this easygoing attitude was challenged. Bodily behaviour, from spitting to nose-blowing, was subject to increasing restraint. Historians may now have exonerated the Victorians of the charge of sexual prudery, but in the nineteenth century excremental taboos flourished. The water-closet encouraged the privacy: kept in a room of its own and with only one seat, solitude was guaranteed, and you disposed of the waste yourself — a pull on a chain now summoned the flushing water rather than a maid to empty your pot. The great sewer systems built by sanitary reformers thus represented much more than simply a response to the period's deadly cholera epidemics: the water-closet became not only convenient and hygienic but also a weapon of moral reform. Sanitation had become a fundamental aspect of Western civilization. As Somerset Maugham suggested: ‘the cesspool is more necessary to democracy than parliamentary institutions.’

S. Hogarth

See also body contact; hygeine.