I was traveling last week and missed World Toilet Day. You didn’t notice it either? Too bad. The toilet is a humble creation, one that we all take for granted. But it should be recognized as one of our greatest benefits, a splendid result of the creativity of the marketplace. Explains Margaret Wertheim:
As a thriving metropolis at the peak of an empire, London teemed with vitality. But all those productive citizens had to poop, and all that excrement had to go somewhere.
Where it went, generally, was into chamber pots and thence into the streets or one of the city’s 200,000 backyard cesspits, which overflowed into basements, neighbors’ yards and nearby streets. Most of it ended up in the River Thames as undiluted, putrid muck. The problem was perennial, but the summer of 1858 was unusually hot, causing bacteria in the pits and river to multiply. The stench was so appalling the House of Commons was overpowered. Parliamentarians soaked the curtains in chloride of lime to combat the smell and considered moving their business upriver to Hampton Court. Anyone who could leave town did.
The experience galvanized the Metropolitan Board of Works, which set about reforming the city’s sanitation infrastructure. The next year, the major elements of the London sewerage system were under construction, which in turn necessitated the evolution of the flush toilet. Though the first modern toilet is said to have been built for Elizabeth I, true flushable loos are an invention of the late 19th century.
From the Middle Ages on, most large cities were drowning in excrement, making urban spaces not just stinky but downright dangerous. In the London cholera epidemic of 1844 to 1855, 20,000 people died because of commingling of sewage and drinking water. New York City began comprehensively building sewers in 1849, after its own series of deadly cholera outbreaks.
Toilets became a key factor in metropolitan growth both laterally and vertically. In order to build up, you have to be able to flush down. (Imagine carrying a chamber pot down the 102 stories of the Empire State Building.)
But it’s not just toilets. It is even simpler things like toilet paper. When I visited the Soviet Union shortly before it dissolved, I was convinced that the Soviets must be recycling their old tanks into toilet paper. It turns out that the Evil Empire was incapable of making comfortable TP–forget computers and unimportant gadgets like that! The socialist defenders of the workers were incapable of tending to the workers’ most basic needs.
Indeed, the principal accomplishment of capitalism really is its ability to create and distribute “stuff” for common folk. Rich and powerful people manage to do okay whatever the system in which they live. But only free societies continually improve the lot of the poor and disadvantaged.
All hail the humble toilet!