"A Peep Into the Bathroom"

By Kathleen Haley


Clean and Decent: The Fascinating History of the Bathroom and the Water-Closet
By Lawrence Wright
Penguin, 2005
"Cleanness of body was ever deemed to proceed from a due reverence to God."
- Francis Bacon, Advancement of Learning, Book II (1605)


To review Lawrence Wright’s book Clean and Decent: The Fascinating History of the Bathroom and the Water-Closet (Penguin, 2005) is to revitalize an element of parody in the title itself—“clean and decent, that phrase routinely used in reviews of hotels and public facilities. Yet critics apply the expression almost as frequently to moral or aesthetic categories of culture as to the physical conditions of places. Many forms of entertainment (movies, comedic acts), social organizations and movements, and geographic and ethnic communities continue to be judged by a time-worn standard in the words “clean and decent.” The phrase distills the major theme haunting Wright’s straightforward history of the bathroom like a ghost—a theme to engage academic and average reader alike: the deep entanglement of moral sensibilities with aesthetic and material concerns, throughout history, when it is a question of regular necessities of the body.

Wright does not need to articulate explicitly this node of conflicting moral, aesthetic, and material cultures that his truly fascinating history records. The carefully chosen, wide-ranging series of bathroom artefacts in part speak for themselves. Tubs, plugs, razors, privy holes, lavers, commodes, bidets, cabinets, conduits, sewage plans, pumps, douches, and jerries are only a few of the indexes of toilet habits past and present that he shares with us and entertainingly expounds. Wright manages to sort them according to thematic trends that transcend strict chronology without, however, jostling the reader’s sense of following a smooth, cohesive storyline. Confessing up front that he is “neither plumber nor social historian,” Wright bases his book on research done while organizing an exhibit covering the history of the bathroom at Olympia Exhibition Hall in London (ix). The showcase inevitably weighs more heavily toward the latter end of the historical spectrum, and focusses on European facilities. None the less, what artefacts the comparatively silent, earlier eras and more far-flung cultures do yield reveal, in many respects, higher standards of hygiene.

In fact, a reader expecting this book to reinforce his or her own sense of good fortune at living in the modern era, on account of sound lavatories, will be startled to discover the exceptional facilities offered in ancient Rome, Egypt, Minos, early Britain, and the medieval cloisters. The ingenious, often luxurious aspects of “primitive” bathrooms include running hot and cold water taps, tapered pipelines for sifting sediment, filter systems, flush toilets, and hypocausts (in-floor heating). Wright dubs the “dirty days” in England that period from the dissolution of the extremely clean monasteries in the first half of the sixteenth century, to the end of the eighteenth century, when advanced designs for the water-closet realized working prototypes of the modern-day toilet. Indeed, few readers would wish to inhabit the exponentially growing cities of that time anywhere in Europe, partly from the threat that sewage disposal (or lack thereof) poses to health. Just a few of the dangers caused by bad water, bad pipes, filthy fumes, and infrequent bathing are the Black Death, cholera, and parasites. These conditions only worsen with certain well-intended improvements to the water-closet and domestic waterpipes in the nineteenth century. In 1865, Joseph Bazalgette, Chief Engineer to the Board of Works in London, supervises a complete overhauling of the cisterns, cesspits, and foul drainpipes of the city. “Not until the 1870’s was the London death-rate to fall decisively: it could hardly be by coincidence that this fall came within five years of the opening of the new drainage system” (156).

Wright’s chronicle has deservedly gone into a third edition (first published by Routledge in 1960, it was revised in 1980), now joining the ranks of the Penguin Classic History series. Far from appealing merely to antiquarians, the book addresses the general lay public, largely because of the tangential nature of its subject. The instruments and practices used for bodily maintenance and health involve the fields of economics, medicine, physics, chemistry, architecture and urban planning, and psychology. “Sanitas,” Wright notes, “meant health, not the removal of dirt” for ancient Greeks or Romans, as for European bathers through 1880 (2). At this late date “a new school of thought” finally began to speak of baths primarily in the context of cleansing (176).

Everywhere people associate ablutions and purgation with ritual and religion (56). Rites for removal of sacred or profane filth are highly organized and ceremonious at all levels in ancient societies. The waters at Bath, Wells, and Buxton are believed to have a sacred healing force seen as “miraculous rather than medicinal,” such that squeamishness over their unhygienic crowding, refuse, and filth is the exception (83). Thus, when Samuel Pepys remarks of Bath, in the latter half of the seventeenth century, “Methinks it cannot be clean to go so many bodies together into the same water,” his uncharacteristically modern sentiment places him in a small minority (82).

Beyond facilitating numerous cures, baths until the late nineteenth century served as places for social gathering, based on the Persian and Turkish models. Wright treats at length the public aspects of bathing and relieving oneself that have been the norm during various periods. European monarchs of the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries hold audience on the most important matters while sitting on their other “throne,” whose festive embellishment contributes to the sense of honor felt by those attending the stool (102). Whether boldly displayed at the foot of the bed or ornately decorated in silver, gems, and velour, the chamber pot drew attention and care, rather than occasioning shame, through the end of the eighteenth century (122-3). The prudish covering of close stools and water closets that occurs in nineteenth-century buildings paradoxically calls attention to what lies beneath, displaying enormous wealth and status through the elaborate furniture (218-33).

It was not, however, because of squeamishness that Sir John Harington’s invention of the water closet in 1596 failed to catch on for almost 200 years. (The title of the book in which Harington expounded his contrivance to Queen Elizabeth, Metamorphosis of Ajax: A Cloacinean Satire, contains a pun which “will escape those who do not know what ‘a jakes’ was” [71].) Like Leonardo da Vinci’s many inventions, a delay was needed until historical circumstances enabled widespread production and use of the flush toilet (75). Once Alexander Cummings patented his valve closet in 1775 a series of gradually improving toilets developed through to the end of the nineteenth century. Dozens of inventors contributed small improvements as displays of the utmost effort in human ingenuity (and here the illustrations Wright offers are worth more than a thousand words) in order to generate the final version of the flush toilet as we know it today (106-8). The most essential attributes proved to be the washdown pipe design, a siphon attached to the bowl (in order to keep foul odors from issuing out of the sewer), and a reliable valve or siphon in the tank so as to enable a rapid first flush followed by a slower after-flush (201-9).

The evolution of baths from a plethora of forms, sizes, uses, and portable to monumental versions, culminates in the development of the standard, five-and-a-half-foot parallel-sided fixed bath with a roll rim that we have today. The discovery of cast-iron enabled mass production of high-quality, single-shelled tubs (222). Around 1910 “porcelain enamels” made it possible to coat the bathtubs with durable, smooth, easy-to-clean finish which would expand and contract with the iron tub itself (237).

Despite the excitement felt by the reader, who anticipates each outcome of much labor and hard experience in the forms of modern toilets, basins, bathtubs, showers, and sewage systems, the final product provides only part of our satisfaction. The reader is even more absorbed in the painful journey to that relatively advanced stage of civilization. Wright manages to condense his narrative and preserve it from excessive detail that might overload his readers with information. His thorough, well-organized index allows for easy reference to specific points covered in the history. The chronicle provokes curiosity on a wide range of matters related directly and indirectly to bathrooms while remaining, above all, a highly enjoyable story.


Kathleen Haley is a doctoral student at Harvard University.