The History of Bathrooms and Toilets
In this first carefully researched instalment, we look at the provision of bathing facilities and lavatories from ancient times through to the Renaissance, stopping by in the Middle Ages.
Have you ever wondered when the first flushable loo was made, or how your ancestors kept clean? These and other fun facts await if you venture onward!
Ancient Baths and Toilets
Baths are recorded as having been in use in three major continents as early as 3000 BCE: cold baths in Asia, and steam baths in Europe and North America.
Communal baths set apart from living quarters were a common feature of early settlements.
Washing was religiously associated with purification, and often required before entry to sacred spaces.
By 2800 BCE, toilets with wooden seats, and bathing rooms with brick baths, both served by drains, had been introduced to some houses in Mohenjo-Daro (ancient bathing room there pictured above), which is located in modern-day Pakistan.
Flush toilets connected to sophisticated underground sewerage systems were commonly found in urban areas of the Indus Valley Civilisation by about 2000 BCE. More primitive flush toilet technology has also been found in older Neolithic settlements such as Skara Brae, Orkney, which dates from about 3100-2500 BCE.
Ceramic bathtubs and plumbing had been introduced to Greek islands by 1700 BCE, with alabaster tubs and separate hot and cold water supplies found from 1500 BCE.
Squat toilets were found in Asia from at least 1500 BCE.
The ancient Greeks introduced communal shower rooms served by pumped water.
The ancient Romans constructed thermal baths both for public use (such as the ones conserved at Bath) and for the private homes of the wealthy. Public bathing was valued as a social activity, but was kept strictly single-sex, with men and women bathing separately. Public Roman baths (example pictured above) often featured hot, warm and cold rooms, with some also containing steam rooms.
The use of public toilets was commonplace among all but the wealthiest classes in the Roman Empire (contemporaneous example from ancient Carthage pictured above). Portable chamber pots were also in use at communal gatherings such as dinners.
Medieval Baths and Toilets
By medieval times, the practice of public bathing had largely disappeared in the west, but continued to thrive in the middle-east, where Roman-style public bath-houses were known as ‘hammans’ (as pictured above). One of the earliest surviving hammans, dating from the 12th century, is situated in modern-day Syria; but Baghdad alone is said to have housed tens of thousands of bathhouses in its prime.
In medieval Japan, natural hot springs, rock baths and clay oven baths were used for therapeutic purposes, a tradition that continues to this day (modern Japanese family bathing in a hot spring shown above).
In the late middle-ages, Roman-style public baths were reintroduced to Europe by crusaders and other travellers to the middle-east who had discovered some of those there.
Public steam baths known as ‘stews’ were popular as a social meeting place in medieval England, after ‘stewhouses’ (more formally known as ‘bagnios’) were first established on the south bank of the River Thames in the mid-late 12th century. Mixed-sex bathing was commonplace at them. Eating facilities were sometimes provided. In the 15th century, Henry VI ordered the closure of England’s stewhouses after they had become used as brothels. Pubic uproar caused him to change heart, but he only allowed twelve to reopen.
Medieval castles in Europe were fitted with private toilets known as ‘garderobes’ (example pictured above), typically featuring stone seats above tall holes draining into moats.
Communal latrines with many seats were installed in medieval British abbeys.
Renaissance Baths and Toilets
The waves of bubonic plague that blighted Europe repeatedly during the middle ages contributed to suspicion that bathing might expose the body to disease, and this fear culminated in England’s remaining public bath-houses being closed by Royal decree of King Henry VIII in 1546.
By the late 16th century, public bathing was consequently no longer widely practised in England. It also declined in other western countries from the 16th to 18th centuries.
Public toilets remained in use by the English lower classes, and were often situated in bridges over rivers.
Privies, consisting of rows of seats over an earth closet or a cesspit, were commonly found in the countryside, and sometimes in urban private homes. They were often set in outside sheds, but sometimes in cellars.
Portable chamber pots (modern example shown above) were usually preferred by the urban middle and upper classes. They would often be emptied into the street.
The first modern flushing toilet was introduced in Britain in 1596 by Sir John Harrington, a godson of Queen Elizabeth I, and was installed in the Queen’s castle, but proved unpopular with the royals of the day, who preferred their accustomed chamber pot service. Flush toilet technology was not widely adopted until the mid-19th century.