Public baths are found quite often in the ancient world, with examples from the Indus Valley Civilization, the Minoan Civilization, and of course the Roman Empire. The Romans turned the public bath into an architectural marvel, with complex systems of plumbing and furnaces providing hot water. The bath was a large part of communal life in the Roman Empire, much like a community center. The public bath was largely abandoned in the Middle Ages, except for the communal “stew” for feasting and prostitution.
Public latrines are most associated with the Roman Empire, which introduced them throughout the Empire’s reaches. The Romans were proud of their “rooms of easement.” Public baths often included such rooms adjacent to gardens. Elongated rectangular platforms with several adjacent seats were utilized (some with privacy partitions, but most without). These latrine rooms were often co-ed, as were the baths. Water from the public baths or aqueduct system flowed continuously in troughs beneath the latrine seats; the sewage (along with waste bath water) was delivered to the sewers beneath the city, and eventually to the Tiber River. In 315 CE there were 144 public latrines in Rome (Source: BBC).
While public latrines were used by many people, human wastes were for the most part thrown into the street in Rome. The Dejecti: Effusive Act even covered damages to be paid by the throwers of wastes into the street — if the person hit was injured (no damages paid for clothing), and only if the incident happened in daytime hours.
The Roman Empire may claim the first port-a-potties (huge vases provided at the edges of towns) and pay toilets (pottery jars and “modesty capes” provided by vendors who worked the streets of Rome).
“Public Latrines in London,” Engineering News and American Railway Journal, 31 May 1894.
PDF version (printer-friendly).
For extensive information about Victorian London, see the comprehensive website at www.victorianlondon.org. There is a large section about Sewers and Sanitation under “Health and Hygiene.” Information on baths and bathing is also found under “Health and Hygiene.” A huge thanks goes to Lee Jackson, the creator of the website, for this impressive collection of original materials.