The history of the bathroom and its components, in the form that we know them, is a relatively short one, but we are all subject to the same human needs as our predecessors and of course we have always had to attend to them. So how was this done in the distant past?
Firstly, how do we define a bathroom? It is commonly understood as a room that may contain a combination of a bath, shower, toilet, bidet and wash basin, or most commonly just some of these elements. But it was not always the case that the human requirements for cleaning, refreshment and defaecation have been combined into one space or carried out at the same time.
It is true that early bath and toilet history do both go back to around the third millennium BC. In what is now India, there have been found lavatories of that age on the outside walls of houses, made from bricks and capped with wood. Chutes took the waste into street drains or cess pits. The same advanced civilization had individual baths. This was quite unusual: elsewhere, in Greek and later Roman civilizations, bathing was a communal activity, unless you were very wealthy and could afford your own bath complex. Roman baths, heated by an underfloor hypocaust, comprised a hot bath, cold bath, steam room and resting rooms. Our word ‘plumbing’ is from the Latin ‘plumbum’ or lead. Fortunately we have stopped using that particular metal in our pipes.
One of the earliest dedicated individual baths was found at the Knossos palace, in Crete. It dates from around 1700BC. A later model in Thera has an alabaster tub and is fed by pipes with hot and cold water, a local hot spring supplying a handy source for the former.
The impetus for these baths was often religious, cleansing being prized as a virtue, more than for purely hygienic reasons.
The Bathing Tradition
Contrary to Western popular opinion, bathing did not completely die out with the fall of the Roman Empire, even if its opulent baths became a thing of the past. In other major civilizations it never went away. Japanese spa baths have enjoyed an uninterrupted history, as have the Islamic hammam public baths. In Europe by contrast the tradition of public bathing did decline and there was a tendency towards ascetic, Puritan living in a culture that regarded the idea of luxuriating in a bath as indulgent and sinful.
Toilet activities, meanwhile, have been largely private and they have involved squatting – the natural position and one which has been retained to this day in many parts of the world. In rural societies it has sufficed for there to be simple pits for disposal and for chamber pots to be used in bedrooms. In some cases outhouses would be built but they had no flushing arrangements. As urban life became more and more common it was common for there to be water drains but it became a serious problem to deal with the waste, which was collected as ‘night soil’. In China and Japan this was much prized for use as manure but elsewhere it was dumped in mounds or tipped into rivers and seas.
Out of sight…
Medieval castles and palaces, such as Henry III’s Westminster Palace, might be fitted with a bath-house complete with hot and cold running water. The toilet arrangements however would be rudimentary by our standards. Drainage was basic: garderobes were provided for squatting and to minimise smells they tended to be sited away from living spaces. Even as the ‘water closet’ became a feature of houses it was something hidden away under stairs or outside the main building.
Developments of the lavatory (from the Latin ‘lavatorium’, washing vessel) took a long time to come despite the extraordinary foresight of Sir John Harrington who in 1596 wrote about his concept of a flushing toilet. It was never introduced and widespread progress would have to await the growth of cities and the consequent need for mains water supply and mains drainage, which in the late 19th century finally brought about the sort of integral domestic bathroom arrangements that we take for granted today. More of that anon.