5 Of The Weirdest Ways Toilets Shaped History

Everybody poops, and everybody needs to know these stories.
5 Of The Weirdest Ways Toilets Shaped History

Toilets aren't the most exciting thing in the world. On a scale of 1 to 10, they're a number 1. Number 2 at most. 

But if you look deep into the annals of toilet history, you'll find that it's flush with ... some other toilet pun? Look, the point is, for centuries, the toilet has been the scene of some really weird shit (oh, there you go), like how ...

In Ancient Rome, Piss Was Big Business

To Ancient Romans, urine was basically liquid gold. Not because of the color -- this was before antibiotics, and they had lead poisoning, so their pee was probably like ... 60% blood -- but because it was the basis of their entire local economy.

In olden times, Rome set up public urinal pots all over the city for citizens to relieve themselves into, in between graffitiing their walls with stuff seemingly straight off Twitter. This did keep the city slightly cleaner, but that was more of a side-effect. The real purpose of these pots was to gather as much urine as possible, specifically the precious ammonia within it. Tanners used the ammonia-rich piss to soften leather and remove hair from their hides. Cleaners used it to, ironically, remove grease and grime off togas, farmers used it as fertilizer (especially for fruit trees), and garment makers needed it to make their dyes more durable. Every one of them was willing to pay big sestertii for kegs of ancient warm Budweiser, meaning that every time a Roman citizen used a public urinal, he was pissing away a fortune.

Kind of loses some of the regal aura when you find out he smelled like a truck stop men's room.

That's not an exaggeration. You heard the term "piss poor"? Well, this whole scheme made so many merchants so "piss rich" that the government eventually decided to tax them. Emperor Vespasian apparently earned a pretty penny from getting a taste of all that sweet urine trade (which, according to some sources, is the origin of the expression "money doesn't stink."). And, yes, there probably was a less disgusting way of phrasing that, but if it bothered you, just wait until you hear about how some Romans apparently also used urine to whiten their teeth. It's kind of brilliant, though, because either it works or you'll have a pretty good excuse for why your teeth are so yellow.

Some Early Toilet Paper Alternatives Were Yikes

When you think about it, toilet paper is a bit of a dumb idea, because if you got some poop on, say, your finger, would you just wipe it with a dry tissue and then went back to eating chicken wings with your hands? Of course not. But when compared to the stuff that humans used to clean up in the olden days, toilet paper starts to sound a whole lot more enticing.

For example, China and Japan had a stick up their asses when it came to toilet hygiene. Literally. China used something called "hygiene sticks," which were pieces of wood wrapped in cloth that you used to wipe yourself. They did eliminate the possibility of your finger breaking through the paper and giving you an impromptu colon exam, but also introduced the danger of ass splinters. On the other hand, Japan had "chugi," a similar concept to the hygiene sticks, only without the cloth. They were more curved and used primarily for scrapping because back before the era of nacho cheese, people basically pooped sawdust and sadness.

We'd be derelict in our duties if we didn't mention that looking those up on Wikipedia links to the entry "Shit stick."

Interestingly, Ancient Romans also had a toilet stick of their own called the xylospongium or tersorium, which was topped with a sponge dipped in vinegar or salt water -- though some researchers think it was used to clean the toilet instead of your ass. If it was used for wiping, it's believed it was shared between all public toilet users. And even with such terrifying weapons at their disposal, the Romans were still defeated by Visigoths?

Another great reason why it's good that the Roman Empire crumbled was the fact that some Romans wiped themselves with pieces of pottery. Initially found in West Sussex, England, these round pieces of pottery were first thought to be game pieces, and in a way, they were, only for a game called Poop Chutes and Ladders. After additional evidence floated to the surface, the scientists handling these weird disks realized they were used for scraping poo, much like the three seashells from Demolition Man.

Things didn't get much better in the 17th century, especially on ships. Now, disposing of waste on a ship was super easy as you're basically swimming atop a giant toilet. Cleaning up, though, was another thing. British ships preferred the tow-rag, a frayed piece of rope or a rag at the end of the rope that was submerged in water. Once you've done your business, you just pulled it up, wiped yourself off, and dropped it back into the ocean to "clean" it for the next guy. In other words, if any of us were stranded on a 17th-century ship in the middle of the ocean, we'd probably explode from constipation.

Medieval Toilets Were Also Their Dry Cleaners

During the 11th century's castle-building boom, architects started trying out new things, especially in the area of toilets. They had bold new ideas like front wall fresh-air orifices combined with a wide capacity gutter installation below. Which is to say you basically crapped out of the window. This form of toilet, known as the garderobe, started out as a little room that protruded outside the castle walls with a hole in the floor.

Mikhail Novokreshchenov/Shutterstock
Meaning if you dropped your medieval phone in the toilet (an early Nokia, we assume), it was falling 30 feet into a moat.

Then someone realized you could easily catch an arrow in your bullseye from that, so the garderobe was eventually connected to a complex system of shafts that collected the waste and redirected it outside. This also proved useful because it allowed castle dwellers to finally clean their clothes.

See, the word "garderobe" literally means "guard robes" because starting from around the 11th century, people were hanging their threads in garderobe shafts to kill the fleas living in their clothes. It's not that the fleas hated the smell of eau de toilette (it was either this or a cologne/colon joke.) Instead, it was the ammonia vapors from the urine that killed them. Yeah, it probably made the wearer smell like they pissed themselves a little bit but seeing as it was actually the fleas that spread the goddamn Plague, this was probably an acceptable tradeoff.

We Only Have Gendered Bathrooms Because of Weird Old-Timey Sexism

To men in Victorian England, women were like limited-edition figurines of their favorite anime heroines: beautiful but fragile and in need of their constant protection (and the occasional recipient of their boners.) The 19th-century woman was, on the whole, considered a delicate creature that couldn't handle a lot of things. Oh, women-folk did okay in the safety of their homes, but the outside world had more than three people at once, and a weird, super-high ceiling painted blue and white.

You couldn't expect them to deal with that for too long, which is why women's restrooms were first invented. Not for pooping and peeing, God no. ("Good lord, man! Do women even do that?!") They were literally rooms in public places where a woman could go to sit down on chairs or couches and rest up from the stress of human interaction. These rooms predated indoor plumbing by many decades, and they were the symptom of a push to separate the genders just as women were starting to make their own way in the world. Then, once public toilets became a thing, Victorian England just decided to continue this trend, separating the genders by adding toilets to existing women's restrooms. It's why some of them today still look like a club's VIP section, while the design of men's washrooms was apparently given over to Pinhead.

It's a mystery/Shutterstock
Though, in fairness, a couch left in a men's room would have a lifespan measured in hours.

Of course, it was easier to add toilets to existing structures, but that's not why separate toilets were created. The idea, which quickly spread to America, was to create an isolated "home-like" environment for the women, to protect them from the world and make sure they don't worry their pretty little heads. So even though some people act like separate bathrooms have been mandated by the Bible, the idea is less than 200 years old and goes back to a bunch of weirdos believing that women needed to catch their breath after being asked a question that wasn't about cooking or cleaning.

Gong-Farming Was the Shittiest Job Ever

Okay, time to dive straight into an ocean of horribleness that was the old-timey profession of "gong-farming." Quick spoiler: "gong" used to mean "shit."

This is actually related closely to the garderobe entry from before. Once all the waste left a medieval castle, going past some nobleman's coat or whatever, it landed in a cesspit below. Then, it was the job of a gong-farmer to go clean it out. Often this involved jumping into the pit, wading waist-deep in human waste, and filling up a bucket that was pulled up by a man on the surface. We imagine there was A LOT of competition for the position of Bucket Man. Once they'd filled their buckets and wheelbarrows with shit, the gong farmers would take it somewhere far far away (preferably downwind), so it could be made into fertilizer.

Via Wikimedia Commons
Ideally, for crops that someone else had to eat.

Over time, gong-farmers started working with city latrine pits and other privies, literally being paid to take everyone's shit. And paid a lot. The job was actually quite lucrative, but it came with a few rules. You had to live far away from "normal" people, and you could only work at night, giving the gong-farmers the much cooler but also somehow misleading name of the "Nightmen." They were, on the whole, treated as necessary parts of society (without proper maintenance, privies and cesspits could overflow into the streets and get into the drinking water), but they weren't invited to a lot of parties. Still, with all that money they were earning, they could buy themselves a cape and pretend they were a vigilante or something: living in isolation, going out after dark, protecting the city one filth-covered bucket at a time as the Nightman.

And just like a vigilante, there was a high probability they would die young. Disease was the most common cause of death for gong farmers, but due to poor ventilation, it wasn't weird for them to asphyxiate down in the cesspit and fall into a world of shit. There is also the story of one Richard the Raker who, in 1325, tragically fell into a cesspit and drowned. Rest in Poo.

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Top image: Mikhail Novokreshchenov/Shutterstock

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