A Gross Realization: Historical Sanitation

Crowded tenement homes and backyards in the 19th century..
Backyard of tenements built in the shadow of other buildings.

The western world takes sanitation for granted, an inherent part of civilization. In truth, few places had anything even resembling sanitation until the 19th century.

The Problem of Population

Civilization is defined by urban living: large numbers of people living in relatively small spaces. As historical populations grew, cities grew up as much as out, as one needed to be able traverse the city on foot.  In Europe, this meant multi-story tenement buildings sitting close together on narrow streets with tiny yards and no grass.

Before the 19th century, cities were universal in death rates outstripping birth rates, and the cause was sanitation.  The simple fact is the more people you have in an area, the more waste they produce. There was barely enough room for the people, much less their, well, shit.

A yard examined.  Backyard sanitation
Typical backyard in the 19th century, shared by multiple tenants.

As an Aside: Besides death rates being high, birth rates were lower in cities. In rural areas, children contributed to the success of a farm from an early age. In a city, children spent many years primarily as a mouth to feed, so parents limited fertility.

So how did cities consistently grow? Immigration. If one was to improve their lot in life, it would be in a city. Unfortunately, most people did not have the skills to succeed in the city and joined the mass of unskilled poor.

The Great Smog of 1952, London.
The Great Smog of 1952, London. It killed several thousand people. (Nelson’s Column during the Great Smog of 1952” by N T Stobbs. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)


The greater London area was the first European city since ancient Rome to hold 1 million people, and, by 1900, its population had exploded to 6 million.  That’s six million people creating personal waste.  It also means the waste of all the animals living within the city, plus industrial waste, which was completely unregulated.  The infamous “London fog” was not fog at all, but smog.

As an Aside: Since 1900, the growth rate has slowed considerably.  Today’s population is only 2 million more than that of 1900.

Where the Waste Goes

There were no toilets; people would do their business in chamber pots, which then needed to be emptied.  For centuries, waste was meant to be deposited in cesspools, which were literally big pits into which you threw your shit. More often, people threw their waste out their doors and windows, and street sweepers would theoretically pick it up and dispose of it.

By the 19th century, the cesspools were overflowing. They simply could not create enough cesspools in the quickly growing and densely packed city. And it wasn’t just that people had nowhere to throw their shit. It was seeping into the soil.

19th century slum.Most of London lived in apartments, which often contained people of multiple social classes and professions. The most well-to-do lived on the first floor. The poorest either lived at the top, which required the most stairs, or the basement, which was bare earth rather than today’s basements of cinder block and concrete. And out of that bare earth seeped the waste of the city. Families in those basements were literally living in their own filth.

This same filth was in the groundwater as well, not to mention the Thames.  Not only did the Thames have to deal with runoff from the city, but there were homes and businesses on London Bridge, and their waste was dropped directly into the river.

As an Aside: Consider, just for a moment, the complications of boating in this scenario.

Sewer Systems

Despite repeated cholera outbreaks, a move toward proper sewer system didn’t gain real traction until 1858, after the attractively named “Great Stink.”  There were several rivers that flowed through London, and they had long been used as sewage run-off. Now, those rivers were encased in concrete and paved over. An expanded network of sewer lines could continue to dump contaminated water into the rivers, which would then drain into the Thames downstream of the city, without defiling the surrounding soil or the air.

Crossness Sewage Pumping Station
The Octagon, Crossness Pumping Station” by Steve Cadman – originally posted to Flickr as Crossness Pumping Station. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

As an Aside: In London, Fleet Street is to the newspaper industry as Wall Street is to the U.S. stock market. Fleet Street used to be Fleet River, before it was paved over. I guess now we know why newspapers are so full of crap.

They also drained the moat at the Tower of London.  Fed by the tidal movements of the Thames, sewage would wash in at high tide, then settle so it couldn’t be swept out again.  Today, the moat is an attractive strip of well-manicured grass.

In some areas, pumping stations were needed to control the flow of sewage.  And the Victorians, being Victorians, made some beautiful, overblown sewage buildings.

Top Image: Father Thames offering his children Cholera, Scrofula and Diphtheria to London.



1 Comment

  1. I wonder why the Pharmeceutical Industries and Public Schooling never teach us about the Sanitation Reform that happened and how much of the illness and disease died out afterwards… Maybe it’s because then people would realize these shots are NOT the primary reason for diseases dying out and keeping our personal hygiene and immune systems healthy are bigger reasons.

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