TRACKING DOWN THE ROOTS OF OUR SANITARY SEWERS
THE MIDDLE AGES "ROOTS"

[Essentially, very little progress was made from 100 BCE through the early nineteenth century.]

New Emphasis: "Make War, Not Civilization/Sanitation"
  • The Roman Empire fell in early CE along with the concepts of baths, basic sanitation, aqueducts, engineered water or sewage systems, etc.
  • Deuteronomic Code (Deut. 23:13) followed: "and you shall have a stick with your weapons; and when you sit down outside, you shall dig a hole with it, and turn back and cover up your excrement." This is thought by many to be the first recorded instruction to mankind regarding sanitation/hygiene.
  • Sanitation reverted back to the basics (at best) -- very primitive.
  • During the so-called "Dark Ages," there arose a brotherhood among men noted for skill in combat. There also evolved a creed that uncleanliness was next to godliness. As such, bathing/sanitation became quite uncommon; homes, towns, and streams became filthy.
  • Diseases were commonplace; epidemics decimated towns and villages. Twenty-five percent (or more) of the ancient European population died of disease (cholera, plague, etc.). The major transmitter of the plague was rats (actually bacteria conveyed from rats to people via flea bites). The rat population thrived amongst the mess and stench commonplace in medieval times.
  • The reawakening was slow.
  • During the 1500s, the Reformation slowed progress.

Bodily functions were performed anywhere/anytime! The British royal court posted a warning (1589):

"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."
  • Etiquette books (1530-1700s):
    Erasmus (1530): It is impolite to greet someone who is urinating or defecating.
    The Gallant Ethic (1700): If you see someone relieving themselves, you should act as if you had not seen them!
  • Larger European cities: dreadful filth and stench were evident almost everywhere.
  • Certain castles had garderobes (a.k.a. latrines, gongs, or jakes) installed; they drained into cesspits beneath the castle, or directly -- via "free-fall" or by masonry shafts -- into the moats.
  • Cesspools for human wastes were frequently placed under the floors (often made of wood) of castles. In 1183, when the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire held a Diet in the Palace of Efurt, the floor of the main hall broke; many of the dinner guests fell into the cesspool and drowned; luckily, the Emperor survived. A similar event occurred in England in 1326: Richard the Raker had just been seated for a meal when the wood floor gave way -- drowning him.
  • Certain more well-to-do people used chamber pots (a.k.a. jordans) and kept them in small cupboards (called close-stools) padded with velvet and/or decorated with gold/silver. Some people had servants (called "Grooms of the Stool") whose job was to clean/maintain the chamber pots.

Berlin, Germany
  • In the 1670s piles of garbage were accumulating -- a new law was enacted which required visiting peasants to take some garbage home with them!
  • Berlin's first central waterworks and transmission system was constructed in the mid-1800s (designed by English engineers); within 70 years the need for a sewer system became apparent. Early on, the sewage went to sewer farms.

Denmark
  • Hangmen also cleaned latrines ("job diversification"?!).

Paris
  • Paris was founded on the site of an early Roman city called Lutéce.
  • Early sewers were the natural washes/streams. As cities developed, these natural drains were structurally covered -- the earliest one in 1370. Early on, these sewers were used primarily for storm waters. The Menilmontant sewer, first noted in the early 1400s, was initially an open wash and later a closed conduit. It intercepted surface flows from Paris' north slope area (i.e., that area lying on the right bank of the Seine River). It was called the "Great Drain" (grand ègout or ègout de ceinture).
  • Chamber pots were emptied into streets.
  • New courtesies evolved: gentlemen, when escorting ladies, positioned themselves closest to the street! -- thereby positioning themselves (rather than the ladies) nearer to where the sewage would hit the ground after being thrown out of second-story windows.
  • Prior to the wide use of cesspools in Paris, cesspits (ones that percolate) were widely used. Their use in combination with the large growing population, however, resulted in the subsoil of Paris becoming putrid. Cesspools, instead, were then encouraged. However, they required periodic/routine cleaning, which the city couldn't adequately provide. Another stinky mess arose.
  • Privies were encouraged; poor maintenance resulted.
  • "Nite Soil" program started to facilitate the collection and disposal (elsewhere) of the wastes (in community cesspools, rivers, vegetable gardens). The problem was that all of the people could not afford the service.
  • Plumbing began reappearing, but not for sanitation; instead, it initially brought water (for example) to public fountains and the gardens of Versailles.
    ° 1583: Public gardens were being "fouled" by people relieving themselves -- so public latrines were built. People were charged for their use. Perhaps these were also the first "pay toilets" ... since the early "latrine" vendors in Rome.
  • 1739: Separate toilets for men and women first appeared at a restaurant in Paris.
  • 1830s: A series of cholera epidemics started; the reawakening began. New and bigger sewers (called "Les egouts" [pronounced lay-ZAY-goo]) began to be constructed in the 1840s-1890s. They became the pride of Paris. The design father of the complex system of sewers under Paris was Eugéne Belguard. The construction of this newer/larger system started in 1850, on borrowed money. By 1870, over 500 km of new sewers were either in service or under construction. By 1930, the entire system (a "combined" system) was finished: "One sewer for each street."
  • From these times, "Sewerman" became a profession. Tours of the sewers were given by the "sewermen" on weekends. Some of the sludge found in the sewers was removed through manholes. Most of it was moved downstream via boats (with "wings") to the discharge point of the sewer into the river -- where the sludge was pushed onto barges, from whence it was transported to various places of reuse or disposal.

Boat trip thru Paris sewers in 1896

A boat trip through the Paris sewer (1896)
Source: Paris Sewers and Sewermen by Donald Reid, 1991.
  • Cesspool solids were taken to farms; the liquids were taken to the sewers.
  • Beginning on/about 1835, new sewers were made 6 feet or more high -- to better allow people to walk the sewers standing up to clean them. These sewers were designed to convey everything (refuse, animal wastes, human wastes, etc.) from off the street.
  • Later, when it was found necessary to install water mains in the sewers, one side of the top of the sewer was widened out to provide a place for the water mains (i.e., like the letter "P" in shape). The water mains were placed in the sewer so leaks could easily be detected; they believed leaks couldn't happen if the main was buried in earth. Later on, gas mains were also installed in the sewers, until leaks (and the resulting explosions) changed that procedure!
  • As in any society, there were doubters: big sanitary sewers were feared by many of Paris' residents. There was a concern that the sewers might leak and foul the groundwater.
  • Again, the early sewers were created for storm water runoff; later on, sanitary sewage was added ... the result was a "combined" system.

London
  • In the early years (as early as 1290), running water was used to carry away wastes when it was available -- at castles or at a few public latrines -- but such instances were indeed in the minority.
  • The earliest recognized mention of English sewers comes from a 14th century record telling that the wastes from the King's kitchen had run in an open trough through the Great Hall; the odors were frightful. It was ordered that an underground conduit be built to convey the wastes to the Thames River.
  • London's early sewers were basically open ditches sloped to convey the wastes to the Thames River, thence out to the sea. These ditches received everything that people could throw into them. King Henry VIII decreed in the late 1500s that homeowners were responsible for cleaning that portion of the "sewer" on which their property fronted.

    He also created a Commission of Sewers to enforce these rules; however, it was not until 1622 that the Commission was seated.

Enactment of Henry VIII's Oath for Commissioners of Sewers
Grey's Inn, London
1622

Ye shall swear that you, to your cunning, will and power shall truly and indifferently execute the authority given you by this Commission of Sewers, without any favour, corruption, dread or malice to be borne to any manner of person or persons.

And as the case shall require, ye shall consent and endeavor yourself for your part to the best of your knowledge to the making of such wholesome, just equal and indifferent laws or ordinances as shall be made and devised by the most discreet and indifferent number of your fellows being in Commission with you for the due redress, reformation and amendment of all and every such things as are contained and specified in said Commission.

The same laws and ordinances to your cunning wit and power, ye shall cause, to be met to due execution without favour, need, dread, or malice of affection as God so help you and all Saints.

  • A law was passed during the reign of Henry VIII (in the mid to late1500s) that afforded the legal basis for almost all sanitary sewerage works well into the nineteenth century. For the next 300 years, the metropolitan area outgrew the city limits of London. By 1850, London contained only 5% of the metro area's homes. Each community evolved its own drainage system -- with no thought (physically or cooperatively) to interconnecting with an adjacent community's drainage system.
  • In 1596, Sir John Harrington invented a device for Queen Elizabeth (his Godmother) that released wastes into cesspools -- an early version of the modern-day toilet; poor seals caused odors to still be a problem. [NOTE: Modern-day flush toilets have three basic elements: a valve at the bottom of the water tank, a wash-down system, and a float valve to fill the tank in preparation for the next flush. Harrington invented the first two. It wasn't until the late 1800s that a plumber by the name of Thomas Crapper was able to enhance Harrington's idea -- and that of Alexander Cummings (1775) -- with the then-available industrial-age manufacturing technology to produce, on a wider scale, the forerunner of the modern-day toilet, all in an age (the late 1800s) when the connection between human wastes and disease finally began to be understood.]

    More on Mr. Thomas Crapper: He was the refiner of others' concepts (not the inventor). In 1880, he was commissioned to install bidets and urinals in the homes of the royal family. In 1891, he was granted a patent for a new idea: a seat-activated flushing device. His main business was the manufacturing of water closets; his name was embossed on each one. His name became synonymous with toilets ... our troops came home from World War I calling toilets "crappers."

  • A familiar rhyme -- "Ring a ring of rosy, a pocket full of posies. Atchoo, atchoo - all fall down" -- actually describes the symptoms of the Great Plague of 1665, which killed over 60,000 people in six months. "Ring of rosy" refers to red-ringed spots; "a pocket full of posies" describes the bouquets of herbs carried by people of that time to ward off bad air. Congestion/sneezing often preceded death. Most Londoners "fell down" from disease/sickness in the heat waves of 1665.
  • By the early 1700s, nearly every home in London had a cesspit beneath it -- and the commensurate foul (and often deadly) odors. The odors were especially bad during quiet nights.
  • The London Bridge was structurally so immense that houses were actually built (and occupied) upon the bridge; sanitary facilities were quite available: a straight drop into the Thames River!
  • Cholera epidemics (1830s, 1840s, and 1850s) awakened the need for sewers. London's oldest "sewer," known as the Ludgate Hill Sewer, was constructed in 1668. (Initially, it was an open channel fed by springs, big enough to be used by boats. It was covered in 1732.) Early sewers (initially, natural watercourses that had been covered) started in the London area in the 1730s -- primarily for storm water.
  • Privies/cesspools were used to collect home wastes; some of these facilities also "collected" the methane generated by the decaying waste. The result was often explosions/fires ... and death. In the 1840s it was learned that sewers must be cleaned continually; many of the early sewers were too small for people to enter to do the cleaning work. It was then decided that no new sewers should be constructed that would be so small as to not allow ordinary-sized people to enter and do the cleaning.
  • Early sewerage problems were compounded by a lack of authority to compel landlords/property owners to connect the building to the sewer. That changed in 1847 following several outbreaks of cholera. A well at 40 Broad Street was found to be contaminated with sewage from a nearby overloaded/flowing privy; the well was removed from service and the cholera outbreak ended.
  • The London area had a basic problem relative to sewering. Its elevation was 30 feet below the water surface of the Thames at high tide -- making drainage to the river difficult at best!
  • In 1854, Dr. Snow made the connection between human wastes (from over-loaded privies) and water supplies (wells) within the "Broad Street Neighborhood."
  • Also, Louis Pasteur in the mid-1800s proved disease could be caused by germs. Knowledge was building up, but it would still take time for society to mend its ways.
  • The link between bacteria and infectious diseases was beginning to be understood!
  • In 1775, Alexander Cummings (a watch maker and mathematician) made a version of a toilet that had a "trap" (utilizing water as the seal) for keeping odors from coming back into the house. Still, it would be another hundred years or more before the "toilet" would be widely used. In 1778, the Cummings model was improved by a cabinetmaker named Joseph Bramah. During this same time period, the "earth closet" was developed. Instead of water, earth was used as the "flushing" medium. Later "pan closets" came into being; they were operated like some cigarette ash trays -- the bottom had a trap door which was opened to allow the wastes to fall through into a cesspit or cesspools.
  • In 1847-48, Parliament adopted a sanitary code that applied to all of England and Wales -- but not including London. The sewer commissioners heard about attributes of the sewerage systems developed by their ancestors on the Isle of Crete and in Greece; those systems served as examples for the designers of the new sewers soon to come in the London area. In 1855, a nuisance-removal law was enacted for all of England. The series of cholera epidemics (which caused the deaths of tens of thousands of people) awakened the need for sanitation (and for the construction of good sewage conveyance systems).
  • 1858-59: years of the "Big Stink" in London. The Thames River received wastes of thousands of people who lived upstream of Parliament. Many of the sewers tributary to the Thames River could only physically drain during low tide. The problem was that at low tide, the river did not have enough flow to carry the waste downstream and out to sea. The incoming tide pushed the waste upstream. This cycle resulted in the river becoming virtually a wide-open-to-the-sunlight cesspool for the excrement of nearly three million people! Parliament had to shut down often in summer months. This situation created an even greater problem: the Thames was also the source of water for a large portion of London!
  • During these years, various ways to minimize sewer odors were tried, including the addition to the sewers (especially in warm weather) of large quantities of lime or chloride of lime. Sometimes this helped. At times the draperies in the Parliament Building were treated with chloride of lime to help filter out odors when odoriferous breezes came into the building through the open windows. That didn't work all that well either!
  • Large new sewers were installed to deliver wastes to the Thames River -- but this time, to a discharge point downstream of the Parliament Buildings! Queen Victoria was so excited about the new larger sewer tunnels that she ordered a small rail line to be installed therein to transport people through the sewer. Gas lights and walkways were installed along with booths to sell souvenirs to those who chose to walk (or ride) through the tunnel "under the river"!
  • For London's new sewers, egg-shaped (or oval) sewers were determined to be the best cross-section for the larger "combined" sewers, while clay pipe was deemed best for sanitary-sewage-only mains. It was realized that smooth interior surfaces in the pipe, and adequate gradient on the pipe, were essential to achieving good sewage flow (and velocity) through the pipe.
  • 1866 was the year of the last cholera epidemic in the London area.
  • Again, early sewers were created to convey storm runoff; later on sanitary sewage was added ... the result was a "combined" system.

Hamburg, Germany - The Change Begins
  • In the 1840s, the older half of the city burned. When that area was rebuilt, a totally new sewer system was designed (by W. Lindley, a distinguished English engineer) and built. It was vented to/through the roof drains of the connected buildings, and a flushing system was created (once per week utilizing tide water) to clean the new main line sewers. This new design philosophy for the sewering of a major metropolitan area was soon recognized as the model, and, thereafter, was utilized by other cities (in Europe and the United States). Construction/installation of the new system started in 1842. Twenty-five years after the new system was placed in service, the sewers were found to be clean and almost free of objectionable odors.
  • In hindsight, Hamburg's new system may not have been solely an indication of a new-found understanding of sanitation, but rather, was also an indication of the city/businesspeople's desire for ... by supporting (and funding) the development of a different type of drainage system ... taking advantage of a unique a more user-friendly (i.e., less odor, better drainage, etc.) sewage conveyance system.

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