With special thanks to Bill Bryson
Europeans, historically, were always curiously ill at ease with cleanliness and early on developed an odd tradition of equating holiness with dirtiness. When St Thomas à Becket died in 1170, those who laid him out noted approvingly that his undergarments were ‘seething with lice’. Throughout the medieval period, an almost sure-fire way to earn lasting honour was to take a vow not to wash. Many people walked from England to the Holy Land, but when a monk named Godric did it without getting wet even once he became, all but inevitably, St Godric.
Then in the Middle Ages the spread of plague made people consider more closely their attitude to hygiene and what they might do to modify their own susceptibility to outbreaks. Unfortunately, people everywhere came to exactly the wrong conclusion. All the best minds agreed that bathing opened the epidermal pores and encouraged deathly vapours to invade the body. The best policy was to plug the pores with dirt. For the next six hundred years (until the mid 19th century) most people didn’t wash, or even get wet, if they could help it – and in consequence they paid an uncomfortable price. Infections became part of everyday life. Boils grew commonplace. Rashes and blotches were routine. Nearly everyone itched nearly all the time. Discomfort was constant, serious illness accepted with resignation.
Devastating diseases arose, killed millions and then, often, mysteriously vanished. The most notorious was plague, but there were many others. The English sweating sickness, a disease about which we still know almost nothing, had epidemics in 1485, 1508, 1517 and 1528, killing thousands as it went, before disappearing, never to return (or at least not yet). It was followed in the 1550s by another strange fever, “the new sickness”, which “raged horribly throughout the realm and killed an exceeding great number of all sorts of men, but especially gentlemen and men of great wealth”, as one contemporary noted. In between and sometimes alongside were outbreaks of ergotism, which came from a fungal infection of rye grain. People who ingested poisoned grain suffered delirium, seizures, fever, loss of consciousness and eventually, in many cases, death. A curious aspect of ergotism is that it came with a cough very like a dog’s bark, which is thought to be the source of the expression ‘barking mad’.
Clearly not all of these dreadful maladies were directly related to washing, but people didn’t necessarily know that or even care. Although everyone knew that syphilis was spread through sexual contact, which could of course take place anywhere, it became indelibly associated with bathhouses. Prostitutes generally were banned from coming within a hundred paces of a bathhouse and eventually Europe’s bathhouses were closed altogether. With the bathhouses gone, most people got out of the habit of washing – not that many of them were entirely in it to begin with. Washing wasn’t unknown, just a little selective. “Wash your hands often, your feet seldom, and your head never” was a common English proverb. Queen Elizabeth, in a much-cited quote, faithfully bathed once a month “whether she needs it or no”. In 1653, John Evelyn, the diarist, noted a tentative decision to wash his hair annually. Robert Hooke, the scientist, washed his feet often (because he found it soothing), but appears not to have spent much time damp above the ankles. Samuel Pepys mentions his wife’s bathing only once in the diary he kept for nine and a half years. In France, King Louis XIII went unbathed until almost his seventh birthday, in 1608.
By the time Europeans began to visit the New World in large numbers they had grown so habitually malodorous that the Indians nearly always remarked at how bad they smelled. Nothing, however, bemused the Indians more than the European habit of blowing their noses into a fine handkerchief, folding it carefully and placing it back in their pockets as if it were a treasured memento.
There is no doubt that some standards of cleanliness were expected. When an observer of the court of King James I noted that the king never went near water except to daub his fingertips with a moist napkin, he was writing in a tone of disgust. And it is notable that people who were really grubby were generally famous for it, among whom we might include the eleventh Duke of Norfolk, who was so violently opposed to soap and water that his servants had to wait till he was dead drunk to scrub him clean; Thomas Paine, the pamphleteer, whose surface was an uninterrupted accretion of dirt; and even the refined James Boswell, whose body odour was a wonder to many in an age when that was assuredly saying something. But even Boswell was left in awe by his contemporary the Marquis d’Argens, who wore the same undershirt for so many years that when at last he was persuaded to take it off, it had so fixed itself upon him ‘that pieces of his skin came away with it’. For some, however, filthiness became a kind of boast. The aristocratic Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who was one of the first great female travellers, was so grubby that after shaking her hand a new acquaintance blurted out in amazement how dirty. ‘What would you say if you saw my feet?’ Lady Mary responded brightly. Many people grew so unused to being exposed to water in quantity that the very prospect of it left them genuinely fearful. When Henry Drinker, a prominent Philadelphian, installed a shower in his garden as late as 1798, his wife Elizabeth put off trying it out for over a year, “not having been wett all over at once, for 28 years past”, she explained.
By the eighteenth century the most reliable way to get a bath was to be insane. Then they could hardly soak you enough. In 1701 Sir John Floyer began to make a case for cold bathing as a cure for any number of maladies. His theory was that plunging a body into chilly water produced a sensation of ‘Terror and Surprize’ which invigorated dulled and jaded senses.
Benjamin Franklin tried another tack. During his years in London, he developed the custom of taking “air baths”, basking naked in front of an open upstairs window. This can’t have got him any cleaner, but it seems to have done him no harm and it must at least have given the neighbours something to talk about. Also strangely popular was “dry washing” – rubbing oneself with a brush to open the pores and possibly dislodge lice. Many people believed that linen had special qualities that absorbed dirt from the skin. As Katherine Ashenburg has put it, “they ‘washed’ by changing their shirts”. Most, however, fought dirt and odour by either covering it with cosmetics and perfumes or just ignoring it. Where everyone stinks no one stinks.
What really got the Victorians to turn to bathing, however, was the realization that it could be gloriously punishing. The Victorians had a kind of instinct for self-torment, and water became a perfect way to make that manifest. Many diaries record how people had to break the ice in their washbasins in order to ablute in the morning, and the Reverend Francis Kilvert noted with pleasure how jagged ice clung to the side of his bath and pricked his skin as he merrily bathed on Christmas morning in 1870. Showers, too, offered great scope for punishment, and were often designed to be as powerful as possible. One early type of shower was so ferocious that users had to don protective headgear before stepping in lest they be beaten senseless by their own plumbing.
Assuming that most fantasy games are set in the equivalent of the Pre-Victorian era (since Victorian is usually associated with “Steam Punk”), it should be assumed that standards of cleanliness similar to those above were followed. Asking for a “Hot Bath” to be drawn when staying at an inn should be a completely alien concept to most characters (indeed very few homes, let alone an inn should have anything resembling bathing facilities). PCs that insist on dousing or submerging themselves in water on a regular basis are likely viewed as insane by their neighbors and should be treated as such.
The English for a long time were particularly noted for their unconcern about lavatorial privacy. Giacomo Casanova, the Italian adventurer, remarked on a visit to London how frequently he saw someone “ease his sluices” in full public view along roadsides or against buildings. Pepys notes in his diary how his wife squatted in the road “to do her business”.
‘Water closet’ dates from 1755 and originally signified the place where royal enemas were administered. At Monticello, Thomas Jefferson installed three indoor privies, probably the first in America. which incorporated air vents to take the odour away. By Jeffersonian standards (or actually any standards) they weren’t technologically advanced: the waste simply fell into a collecting pot, which was emptied by slaves. However, at the White House Jefferson in 1801 in stalled three of the first flushing toilets in the world. They were powered by rain-water cisterns installed in the attic.
Most people continued to use chamber pots which they kept in a cupboard in their bedrooms or closet, and which were known (for entirely obscure reasons) as “jordans”. Foreign visitors were frequently appalled by the English habit of keeping chamber pots in cupboards or sideboards in the dining room, which the men would pull out and use as soon as the women had withdrawn. Some rooms came supplied with a “necessary chair” in the corner as well. A French visitor to Philadelphia, Moreau de Saint-Méry, noted with astonishment how one man removed the flowers from a vase and peed in it. Another French visitor at about the same time reported asking for a chamber pot for his bedroom and being told “just to go out the window like everyone else”. When he insisted upon being provided with something in which to do his business, his bemused host brought him a kettle, but firmly reminded him that she would need it back in the morning in time for breakfast.
The most notable feature about anecdotes involving toilet practices is that they always involve people from one country being appalled by the habits of those from another. There were as many complaints about the lavatorial customs of the French as the French made of others. One that had been around for centuries was that in France there was “much pissing in chimnies” there. The French were also commonly accused of relieving themselves on staircases, ‘a practice which was still to be found at Versailles in the eighteenth century’, writes Mark Girouard in . It was the boast of Versailles that it had one hundred bathrooms and three hundred commodes, but they were oddly underused, and in 1715 an edict reassured residents and visitors that henceforth the corridors would be cleared of faeces weekly.
Most sewage went into cesspits, but these were commonly neglected and the contents often seeped into neighbouring water supplies. In the worst cases they overflowed. Samuel Pepys recorded one such occasion in his diary: “Going down into my cellar…I put my foot into a great heap of turds…by which I found that Mr Turner’s house of office is full and comes into my cellar, which doth trouble me.”
The people who cleaned cesspits were known as nightsoil men, and if there has ever been a less enviable way to make a living I believe it has yet to be described. They worked in teams of three or four. One man, the most junior, was lowered into the pit itself to scoop waste into buckets. A second stood by the pit to raise and lower the buckets, and the third and fourth carried the buckets to a waiting cart. Nightsoil work was dangerous as well as disagreeable. Workers ran the risk of asphyxiation and even of explosions since they worked by the light of a lantern in powerfully gaseous environments. The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1753 related the case of one nightsoil man who went into a privy vault in a London tavern and was overcome almost at once by the foul air. “He call’d out for help, and immediately fell down on his face,” one witness reported. A colleague who rushed to the man’s aid was similarly overcome. Two more men went to the vault, but could not get in because of the foul air, though they did manage to open the door a little, releasing the worst of the gases. By the time rescuers were able to haul the two men out, one was dead and the other was beyond help.
Because nightsoil men charged hefty fees, cesspits in poorer districts were seldom emptied and frequently overflowed, not surprisingly given the pressures put on the average inner-city cesspit. Crowding in many London districts was almost unimaginable. In 1851 in St Giles, the worst of London’s rookeries, 54,000 people were crowded into just a few streets. By one count, eleven hundred people lived in twenty-seven houses along one alley; that is more than forty people per dwelling. In Spitalfields, further east, inspectors found sixty-three people living in a single house. The house had nine beds, one for every seven occupants.
Such masses of humanity naturally produced enormous volumes of waste, far more than any system of cesspits could cope with. In one fairly typical report an inspector recorded visiting two houses in St Giles where the cellars were filled with human waste to a depth of three feet. Outside, the inspector continued, the yard was six inches deep in excrement. Bricks had been stacked like stepping stones to let the occupants cross the yard.
At Leeds in the 1830s, a survey of the poorer districts found that many streets were “floating with sewage”; one street, housing 176 families, had not been cleaned for fifteen years. In Liverpool, as many as one-sixth of the populace lived in dark cellars, where wastes could all too easily seep in. And of course human waste was only a small part of the enormous heaps of filth that were generated in the crowded and rapidly industrializing cities. In London, the Thames absorbed anything that wasn’t wanted: condemned meat, offal, dead cats and dogs, food waste, industrial waste, human faeces and much more. Animals were marched daily to Smithfield Market to be turned into beefsteaks and mutton chops; they deposited 40,000 tons of dung en route in a typical year. That was, of course, on top of all the waste of dogs, horses, geese, ducks, chickens and rutting pigs that were kept domestically. Gluemakers, tanners, dyers, tallow chandlers, chemical enterprises of all sorts, all added their by-products to the sea of daily sludge. Much of this rotting detritus ultimately found its way into the Thames, where the hope was that the tide would carry it out to sea. But of course tides run in both directions, and the tide that carried waste out towards the sea brought a good deal of it back when it turned. The river was a perpetual “flood of liquid manure”, as one observer put it. Smollett said that “human excrement is the least offensive part”, for the river also contained “all the drugs, minerals and poisons, used in mechanics and manufacture, enriched with the putrefying carcases of beasts and men; and mixed with the scourings of all the wash-tubs, kennels, and common sewers”. The Thames grew so noxious that when a tunnel being dug at Rotherhithe sprang a leak the first matter through the breach was not river water but concentrated gases, which were ignited by the miners’ lamps, putting them in the absurdly desperate position of trying to outrun incoming waters and clouds of burning air.
Into this morass came something that proved, unexpectedly, to be a disaster: the flush toilet. Flush toilets of a type had been around for some time. Early toilets often didn’t work well. Sometimes they backfired, filling the room with even more of what the horrified owner had very much hoped to be rid of. Until the development of the U-bend (in 1880) and water trap every toilet bowl acted as a conduit to the smells of cesspit and sewer. The backwaft of odours, particularly in hot weather, could be unbearable.
The bigger problem was that London’s sewers were designed only to drain off rainwater and couldn’t cope with a steady deluge of solid waste. The sewers filled up with a dense, gloopy sludge that wouldn’t wash away. People known as “flushermen” were employed to find blockages and clear them. Other sewery professions included “toshers” and “mudlarks” who delved through muck, in sewers and along fetid riverbanks, for lost jewellery or the odd silver spoon. Toshers made a good living, all things considered, but it was dangerous. The air in the sewers could be lethal. Since the sewer network was vast and unrecorded, there were many reports of toshers getting lost and failing to find their way out. Many were at least rumoured to have been attacked and devoured by rats.
Keep in mind that most of the documented cases below (including ones of people shitting on the floor of their own homes) are from the 18th century or later…it took a long time for people to start caring about disposing of waste. Even in a “Steampunk” game (perhaps especially in such settings), a general sense of horrifically poor hygiene should be conveyed (see above statements about “floods of liquid manure” in 19th century London).