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A Brief History Of Public Toilets From Ancient Times To Today (And Beyond)

Updated September 23, 2021 2.2k views15 items

There’s been at least one time in your life when you’ve been out at a music festival and thought about whether or not you should miss your favorite band. After all, you'd rather drive home to use the facilities you know and love than use the coffins of crap that are located on the festival grounds. But when you gotta go, and you’ve got to do what it takes to make yourself pure again. Remember, it can always be worse. If you don’t think so, take a look at this primer on porta potty history and revel in your modern ability to not have to squat over a pit. 

Popular thought would tell you that folks were crapping in the streets, but that’s not so. It turns out that the historical impromptu dump methods were slightly more civilized that you might think. Most civilizations from history had a pot, cistern, or pit that was there for you whenever you had to take care of business. There were even (very smelly) men who cleaned up after you. Put a clothes pin on your nose and prepare to look fondly on these nasty-ass toilets of history.

  • Mohenjo-Daro Outdoor Toilets

    Developed in the 26th century BCE, Mohenjo-daro was one of the oldest and largest major urban settlements in history. It makes sense, then, that they would have an advanced (for the time) method of pooping in public. It was only the third millennium, but the people who lived in the area had "Western-style" toilets made out of bricks and wood built onto the outer walls of buildings where you could drop by and lighten your load, so to speak.

    Mohenjo-Daro was lost to the ages until it was rediscovered in 1920, and after one particularly fortuitous dig Sir Mortimer Wheeler, the director general of archaeology in India from 1944 to 1948, wrote, "The high quality of the sanitary arrangements could well be envied in many parts of the world today."

  • Photo: WIkimedia

    Chamber Pots

    Everyone more or less has an idea of what a chamber pot was, but if you've never thought about it here's the skinny. Chamber pots were used in ancient Greece since the 6th century BC and were known under a variety of names, but essentially they were a personal piece of clay pottery (clay because it was both cheap and waterproof) that could be easily carried around with you for a long journey or quiet night in. Also, once you were finished doing your business you could dispose of your disposal quickly and efficiently. 

  • Photo: Wikimedia

    Gongs And Their Gongmongers

    Everyone thinks they know how people in the Middle Ages went to the bathroom (just kind of anywhere), but it turns out that we were all using the wrong terminology, and also people have always been very gross. If you were lucky enough to have a bathroom near your home, say in your back yard - or whatever may have constituted a back yard back then - you essentially had a hole that emptied into a cesspit referred to as a "gong."

    There gongs were so popular, there was even a class of worker designated to empty out the gongs called "gongmongers," who very likely smelled atrocious by the end of the day. Were these men ever loved? Or did the gongmongers die out, smelly and alone? Certainly it was not the most pleasantly fragrant of professions. 

  • Photo: Wikimedia

    Close Stools

    Around the 13th century, people finally started to realize that squatting over a hole or a ceramic pot was an existential nightmare for the germaphobes of the Middle Ages. Thus, humanity's greatest scientists began experimenting with chair based portable bathrooms.

    Since people were either constantly on the move, or didn't have the space to dedicate a room to defecation, they came up with the close stool. The close stool was basically just a chair or a box (depending on which model you sprung for) that contained a chamber pot on the inside for collecting your leavings. People would used a version of the close stool until the flushable commode appeared many years in the future.