When You’ve Gotta ‘Go’…in the 19th century

ToiletIt’s Thoughty Thursday and, thanks to my pal Kathy Owen, I’m thinking about the bathroom. Specifically about the toilet, or the potty, as we call it in my house with the toddler.

After reading this post, I love my 21st century toilet. I might have to go hug it (in a nice way) while Kathy gives y’all some groovy history on the potty.

I’ve left my comments throughout the post in hot pink. I’ll see you down at the bottom (Ha!) for the cool game Kathy’s got ready for you. 🙂


Hi, everyone!  Jenny has kindly offered to host me today.  Maybe the word “toilet” in my list of topic suggestions helped seal the deal…after all, Jenny is Queen of the Undie-verse here at More Cowbell.

And besides, it’s a fun topic, right?  It satisfies that little kid curiosity.  When I watched the Apollo launches on television as a child, I remember wondering how the astronauts went to the bathroom in space.

But that’s another blog post, LOL.  Back to the nineteenth century.  Let’s first look at the way things were before the toilet came into being.

Before the toilet:

Up until the invention of the flush toilet (the first American patent was granted in 1857, although there were other versions out there before that), there were two civilized options when you had to go:  the chamber pot (generally for middle-of-the-night and sickroom use) and the outdoor privy/outhouse.

As you might imagine, there were problems with both methods:  the chamber pot required emptying (usually into the street or outdoor drain – look out where you step!), and the privy was typically latrine-style, where a deep hole was dug, which would eventually fill up, and then a new one had to be dug.

Also with the privy, the noxious gas backed up and became quite unpleasant, despite the lime and other materials used to dissipate the odor.  In addition, substances could seep into the household’s well water if the placement was “ill-considered.”

*Jenny…thanking the ‘Powers that Be’ for making her a 21st century gal*

Toilets and the dreaded “sewer gas”:

The indoor flush toilet grew in popularity from the 1870s, when most cities had the sewer systems to support them.   The urban environment, in fact, is what created the necessity of the indoor toilet:  apartment dwellings and tenements were multi-storied, and new buildings were only getting taller.  Climbing down multiple flights of stairs to outhouses outside the buildings’ ground floor was highly impractical.

It was also easier from a waste water management point of view, so that slops and offal weren’t discarded in the street, to mix with rainwater and run into the rivers and streams and spread disease.

Note: See the photo of The Knickerbocker Avenue Extension Sewer, Brooklyn, N.Y. below.

Scientific American, Volume LIII, No. 24 (12 December 1885), cover

Scientific American, Volume LIII, No. 24 (12 December 1885), cover

However, some physicians and health officials worried about indoor toilets, specifically the problem of sewer gas, which could backup into the toilet’s drain pipe.   Here’s an excerpt from an 1898 article on “Home Sanitation” by Louise Harvey, M.D.:

“To the drainage of the house too much attention cannot be paid. The plumbing is best placed entirely outside of the main part of the house, and separated from it by an air space into which the sunshine and air have free access…. Many people are obliged to live in houses where the lavatories are enclosed in the main part of the house, or, as Dr Price puts it, “in enlarged water-closets.” To these people we would say that much may be done to obviate their contaminative influence, first by keeping the plumbing in perfect condition; second, by keeping the bowls and traps clean, and third, by ventilation….”  Western Journal of Medicine, “The Insidious Foe – sewer gas” 

Inventors fiddled with various designs to overcome the problem of sewer gas entering the home.  It was Thomas Crapper (I kid you not; you’ve probably heard of him) who finally solved the problem with the “U” shaped trap in 1880.  The water in the trap created a seal to keep the sewer gases out.   (You see, however, that the physician quoted above, writing in 1898, was still worried about it).

*Jenny…dying over here that Thomas Crapper is a real dude.*


Toilet Paper:

The prevalence of the flushable toilet brought about another phenomenon:  toilet paper.

In the old days, sitting on a seat connected to a hole in the ground in the backyard meant that leaves, corncobs, moss, newspaper, the Sears Roebuck catalog, etc, were good candidates for cleaning up.  The idea of paying for a product to wipe one’s bum and throw into a hole along with the rest of the mess seemed the height of absurdity.  After all, one can get old catalog pages for free.



*Jenny…delighted to avoid the dreaded 19th century “catalog-tushy”*

Folks quickly learned, however, that these substances don’t flush down the drain pipe very well.  Thus, toilet paper became a necessity not so much because it was cleaner to use on oneself (a claim the early manufacturers had tried to make without much success), but because it wouldn’t clog the pipes.

People listened to their plumber more than their doctor, apparently.

For more on the history of toilet paper, check out “Toilet Paper: how America Convinced the World to Wipe.”

Want more potty info?

Okay, bring on the potty humor!  I know this crowd, LOL.  Jenny and I want to snort over read your comments!

Thanks, Jenny, for having me on as your guest.  I’m flushed with excitement!  😉


Thanks, Kathy!! And people…there’s a GAME. I love games! Kathy has left a trail of clues on her blog hop. Let me explain…

Each stop in K.B. Owen’s book launch tour has a mystery question to answer. When you have them all, unscramble the answers to which ROOM, WEAPON, and SUSPECT, and email Kathy at kbowenwriter(at)gmail(dot)com. (Must email by April 1st!)

She’ll announce the winner (chosen from the correct entries) at Karen McFarland’s blog, the last stop of the tour.

What do you win? A free ebook copy of Dangerous and Unseemly, and a $25 gift card of your choice to either Starbucks, Amazon, or Barnes &Noble! (I’m so bummed I can’t participate…I am a Ho for Amazon cards!!)

If you run into a few stumpers – no problem! Check out her Mystery Quizzes page for links to the answers. Here’s where the trail of clues are strewn so far:

And now she’s moved to us! Our More Cowbell clue…

Agatha Christie’s detective, Hercule Poirot, favored this method of detection:

U) examining physical evidence, such as footprints and tobacco ash
V) using the little gray cells
W) beating a confession out of the murderer
X) relying on eyewitness testimony

D&U_cover2Kathy’s historical mystery “Dangerous and Unseemly,” just hit the shelves. I’m reading and loving it right now.

If you would also like to read it and love it, click the link of your choice below:

BUY FROM AMAZON – paperback

BUY FROM SMASHWORDS (versions readable on iPad, Nook, Kindle, computer, Sony, Palm devices, and more)


What people are saying about “Dangerous and Unseemly”:

Absorbing in its memorable characters, non-stop plot twists, and depiction of life in a late-nineteenth century women’s college, Dangerous and Unseemly is a suspenseful and engaging contribution to the cozy historical mystery genre. Fans of Harriet Vane and Maisie Dobbs will find in Concordia Wells a new heroine to fall in love with.

Are you as happy with your 21st century potty right now as I am with mine? Do you have any questions for Kathy? And what is the craziest place you ever tinkled? Enquiring minds LOVE to know these things here at More Cowbell!

~ Jenny

About K.B. Owen:

K_profile2012K.B. Owen taught college English for nearly two decades at universities in Connecticut and Washington, DC, and holds a doctorate in 19th century British literature. A mystery lover since she can remember, she drew upon her teaching experiences in creating her amateur sleuth, Professor Concordia Wells. Unlike the fictional Miss Wells, K.B. did not have to conduct lectures in a bustle and full skirts. No doubt many people are thankful about that.

She now resides in Virginia with her husband and three sons. She recently finished the second book in the series, and is busily planning Concordia’s next adventure. Check out her website for more historical mystery fun: kbowenmysteries.com

About Jenny Hansen

Avid seeker of "more"...More words, more creativity, More Cowbell! An extrovert who's terribly fond of silliness. Founding blogger at Writers In The Storm (http://writersinthestormblog.com). Write on!
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Thoughty Thursday and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

52 Responses to When You’ve Gotta ‘Go’…in the 19th century

  1. Pingback: Time to talk about toilets…at Jenny Hansen’s place!

  2. The craziest place I’ve ever gone? Does the woods along the highway count? Cause I had to do that once while waiting for help after a radiator hose blew…far, far away from any public restrooms. Given that it was the middle of summer, and I have a fear of snakes, it was a seriously quick trip.

    I’ve known about Thomas Crapper for sometime. While researching Enza, I needed to know if indoor bathrooms were all you could find in cities in 1918, or if it were possible that some people still had outhouses…thanks to a story my mom told me about involving a neighbor’s bad tempered horse chasing someone into an outhouse. I really wanted to use that for one of my characters. So I knew more about outhouses than anyone I know…and probably still do. 🙂

    I’ve always thought that being stuck with the name Crapper would be like….oh…hell on earth for his school-age kids. Because I don’t care what century you lived in….Crapper is NOT a good name to have. Talk about being the butt of too many jokes…

    And I’m with you. Having the lovely (NOT!) experience of using a couple of outhouses on road trips in areas to cheap to have real rest stops installed…I LOVE MY TOILET!!!! I hate my stupid, cursed septic tank, but I love my toilet.

    Congratulations on the book release, Kathy! Love the cover!!!


  3. K.B. Owen says:

    Thanks so much for having me, Jenny! I had a blast talking about toilets/toilet paper over here. I have to say, after researching this post, I wanted to hug my toilet, too. 😉

    By the way, just wanted to let y’all know that you don’t even need to collect all the clues to get into the contest. If you send me an email with at least one answer to a trivia question from the book tour, I’ll put you in the drawing for the ebook and gift card. Woot! This is all for fun, right?


  4. lol Well, that’s a primer I didn’t see coming (or going). 😀 I admit, I knew a lot of the back-in-the-day plumbing basics thanks to years of reading most every historical romance known to woman academic research. 😉
    Once upon a time, I stayed with a friend at her camp in Maine for a couple weeks. While there was electricity in the main and guest cabins and the bunkhouse, there were no bathrooms. (Oh, joy!) However, there was a two-seater outhouse that made going in the middle of the night a true adventure. Ah, memories… 🙂
    I think I’ll take a page from Jenny and hug my toilet today – in a good way. 😉


  5. OMG love the post!! And y’all know I have got some toilet adventures under my belt. How about the time I was crouching in the woods employing my pee-outside technique beautifully, minding my own business, not bothering anyone when an animal (either a bear or a moose) SNORTED at me….let me tell you how fast a girl can “finish up” and get out of dodge when need be…and didn’t splatter a drop! Yes…my talents are endless!
    FAB post guys…ROFL!!!


  6. Great post to start the day, especially since I don’t have to trot to an outhouse whenever nature calls! My daughter is traveling in Ukraine right now and texted me a photo of a public restroom there. It’s a nice, clean cubby with shining porcelain surrounding….a hole in the ground. There’s a handy-dandy little bar attached to the wall beside the hole, I’m guessing to assist the ladies in getting up and down since they have to literally sit on the floor to do their business. My daughter’s caption? “No, thanks. I’ll hold it.”


  7. Julie Glover says:

    You wouldn’t think I’d have so much to say on this topic, but I had to whittle down my response from all the things that passed through my brain.

    * Worst time to go? Evacuating for Hurricane Rita. 24 hours to get from Houston to Austin (regularly a 3-4 hour drive for us) meant that I had to go behind a held-up blanket on the side of a farm road. (There may have been mooing nearby.) I never envied guys more than that day, when they just carried a big apple juice plastic bottle in the car, whipped it out, and went.
    * Outhouses. My brother-in-law still has one on his farm, in case something goes wrong with the bathroom in the house. As he was building it, some relatives were saying they wouldn’t use it. I said I would: I’d be the first visitor, and thereafter never use it again. It was interesting to see how it was built and the hole they dug.
    * Crapper, Thomas. My son had to do a school report on an inventor. Of course, he chose Thomas Crapper. Potty humor never gets old, right?
    * Toilet paper. I gotta believe that having ink bum had to cause some issues. What were they thinking with newspapers and catalog pages? Gimme Charmin over that any day!

    Great post! Love the Whodunnit game too.


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Oh, but Julie…I WOULD think you’d have a lot to say on this topic as you’re a potty-humor gal after my own heart…And you have boys. 🙂


    • K.B. Owen says:

      The guy holding up the blanket for you – that’s LOVE! But yeah, with three boys of my own, I get jealous of their ability to make the world their toilet. I never worked up the nerve to get that “you go girl” product Natalie was telling us about!


      • Julie Glover says:

        The LOVE Kathy was my hubs winding down a farm-to-market road out of the way of our destination and then holding up the blanket because he knew his wife couldn’t go if anybody (other than the cows) was near. ❤ It probably cost us an additional 20 minutes of that 24-hour trip, but I was ever grateful.


  8. Pingback: So You’re Cleaning A Public Bathroom. | That Coffee Wench!

  9. LauraDrake says:

    Okay, I’m still stuck at ‘corncobs.’ I’ll wait to read the rest of the links until my ‘starfish’ stops puckering. Fascinating reading here – and It occurred to me that we’re lucky that TP was invented before the computer – think about it….no more catalogs. My cord for the computer screen won’t reach to my water closet.

    A dilemma, for sure.


  10. This was hilarious and informative, Kathy. Some toilets in Europe are still a little…rustic compared to here, especially in small villages. Like Jenny, I’m extremely thankful to have been born when I was!


    • K.B. Owen says:

      Marcy, thanks! The most rustic “experience” I had was a really long walk with no bathroom in sight. I found an area screened by a big fallen log – seemed like a perfect place. Unfortunately, a very large colony of ants thought so, too…and they were there first. Yikes.


  11. Having grown up literally “back in the bush”, the outdoor biffy was standard issue. I remember the need to move the outhouse when the hole filled to a certain point, the gawd awful smell, the catalog, and the rough edges on the seat. (My dad didn’t know how to make an oval opening so it was square.) When Dad got a transfer out of the bush to a warden’s station with the modern amenities, we thought we’d died and gone to heaven. OK at least toilet heaven.

    Great post.


  12. K.B. Owen says:

    Ahh, I was trying to be a good girl by staying off the blogosphere and working, but then I just couldn’t stay away! I particularly love the pee in the woods stories going on here. Keep them coming (and going, LOL)! 😀


  13. Phil says:

    I love posts like these. Informative and on a crappy subject! Har-har-har!

    Thanks goodness we live in the modern era of toilets and hygiene. There is nothing like a good clean crapper! Along with soft TP!

    Again, great post. I put up a post on my blog back on Feb 25 – Don’t Be A Turd Burglar – that some of your fans might like. Also, I added More Cowbell to my Blogroll.



  14. Sharla Rae says:

    Since I write historicals I have a couple books on the “throne.” I’m always interested in the simple everyday life stuff even I don’t use it in my books. I think toilet paper is seldom mentioned in most books so this blog was very interesting. 🙂 As a kid in Iowa, we’d visit my aunt who had an acreage and for many years they had an outhouse. I used to hate having to use it cuz it smelled so bad! I also remember tales told by my farming cousins of Halloween pranks of moving the outhouse in the middle of the night in hopes the owner would fall into the hole! Horrors! They also used to tip them over. I never had to use a catalog for toilet paper-thank God! Having a Sears ad on my butt would have been too much to bear! Or should I say–bare.? 🙂


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      My sister’s godfather grew up in Illinois and he said the teens did TONS of outhouse capers. His fave was swapping all the outhouses on one side of town with all the ones on the other side of town.

      It sounds like a smelly prank to me…


    • K.B. Owen says:

      Wow, Sharla, it’s wild that we’re still finding outhouse “experiences” in our time…it’s cool to hear these stories. 😀


  15. My great aunt and uncle had a shore place that still had an outhouse. I believe it too had a square hole, but my uncle had perched a toilet seat on top of it. The seat wasn’t fastened down so it was rather unstable when you sat on it. I remember as a small child being afraid I would somehow fall in when the damn thing wiggled under me.

    I also helped build an outhouse one time, for my brother’s cabin getaway up in the Pennsylvania mountains. We dug the hole in the ground, built a platform with a hole in it over top of it, then a box on the platform with a hole in it, then the walls and roof. It weren’t purty but it did the trick!

    Definitely made me grateful for Mr. Crapper’s invention however. And btw, I doubt he was teased as a kid because the name crapper for a toilet and crap for it’s contents came from his name, I do believe. But I always thought his name was “John” Crapper… Okay that was lame. Sorry.


  16. That was an awesome post Kathy and Jenny! I wasn’t quite sure where you were going when you said, “When You’ve Gotta Go.” He, he, he. Clever! Well girls, I did know about Thomas Crapper cause my hubby is a contractor and has done lots of plumbing. Thank you Mr. Crapper for the invention of the P-Trap! And toilet paper. Ah, Charmin, so nice and soft. Can you imagine wiping with the Sears and Robuck? Reminds me of that scene in the movie, “Dancing with Wolves” when the guy squats in the field and his friend hands him a page of the diary to wipe himself. Harsh! Fab job on the promo Jenny! I’ve slacked off a bit here on the Mistress of Ceremonies job. I think Kathy’s gonna fire me. I better get busy! Don’t go there! lol 🙂


  17. K.B. Owen says:

    Karen, you’re a fab Mistress of Ceremonies! Thanks for everything, girlie! 😀


  18. Jess Witkins says:

    What a fun idea for a book launch! Kathy, congrats on your release and book tour! Such fun! We should totally have a costume party around this idea – I have the perfect dress for Mrs. Peacock…with the wrench…in the conservatory.


  19. Pingback: The Two Videos That Started the Undie Chronicles… | Jenny Hansen's Blog

  20. Connie Crow says:

    If you take a step a little bit further back in history, you’ll see the special porcelain “catch basins” Limoge(?) made to accomodate “my lady”. Be very carefully buying that oversized gravy boat. If it doesn’t have a standing base, it probably didn’t hold gravy. It caught pee. Fancy castles had no guest bathrooms. That’s why ladies excused themselves to the ladies salon. Their maid carried the vessel. The duchess lifted her skirt, tucked the basin between her legs and relieved herself right there. The maid whisked the filled pot away and the lady went back to the dance. There are cartoons of the day showing the procedure. Privacy evidently was not an issue either. I’ll take today’s facilities, thank you very much.


  21. kellwillknit says:

    This post was so interesting. Love the “medicated paper” ad!

    In 2000, my husband and I vacationed in London and Scotland. I noted in our travel journal that the handle on the toilets had to be pushed down 90 degrees. And all of them, even the ones in people’s homes, had a “power flush action”. There were dispensers in the public toilets that would spray a disinfectant on your bit of TP to prepare the seat before you sat down. Even then, I was fascinated by this stuff.

    Last summer, my family went to Hawaii and stayed in a treehouse. We used their compostable toilet. It was a huge thing! We had to use a step stool (sorry about that one!) to get up there. After going, we had to sprinkle a scoop of what looked like finely shredded cedar chips into the toilet. Surprisingly, there was no awful odor. And everything eventually decomposed to dirt.

    At Girl Scout camp, the forest ranger would always threaten us with the “La La Ladle” if we put anything down the latrine that wasn’t supposed to be down there. He claimed that the ladle had a long handle and the guilty Girl Scout would be lowered down to fetch out the rogue item! Needless to say, we followed his rules.


  22. K.B. Owen says:

    LOL, Kell, I LOVE that you guys got to stay in a treehouse in Hawaii, even if a compostable toilet was involved. And we’re making bad bathroom puns all over the place, aren’t we, missy? 😉 You’ve got some fab toilet stories here – thanks for stopping by!


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