Men inquire, “Where can I wash my hands?” and women ask, “Is there a place to powder my nose?” Schoolchildren stammer, “May I be excused?” while travellers abroad beg for directions to the nearest “comfort station, the prissy Americans call it a “rest room” and the British call it a “WC.”
What everyone is really asking for is, of course, the location of the nearest…well, toilet.. The point being that we have developed scores of euphemisms for the toilet, as well as for bodily functions performed there. And the trend does not merely reflect modern civility. Even in less formally polite medieval times, castles and monasteries had their “necessaries.” Erasmus of Rotterdam, the sixteenth-century scholar and humanist, who wrote one of history’s early etiquette books, provides us with some of the first recorded rules of behaviour for the bathroom and bodily functions. He cautions that “It is impolite to greet someone who is urinating or defecating.” And on breaking wind, he advises the offender to “let a cough hide the explosive sound…. Follow the law: Replace farts with coughs.”
The history of the toilet itself begins in Scotland ten thousand years ago. Although early man, aware of the toxicity of his own wastes, settled himself near a natural source of moving water, it was the inhabitants of the Orkney Islands off Scotland who built the first latrine-like plumbing systems to carry wastes from the home. A series of crude drains led from stone huts to streams, enabling people to relieve themselves indoors instead of outside.
In Roman civilisation, toilets using flowing water were sometimes part of public bath houses. Roman toilets, like the ones pictured here, are commonly thought to have been used in the sitting position. The Roman toilets were probably elevated to raise them above open sewers which were periodically “flushed” with flowing water, rather than elevated for sitting. Romans and Greeks also used chamber pots, which they brought to meals and drinking sessions. The Roman writer and philosopher writes of large receptacles in the streets of cities such as Rome and Pompeii into which chamber pots of urine were emptied. The urine was then collected by fullers.who used it in the cleansing of cloth (particularly wool) to eliminate oils, dirt, and other impurities, and to make it thicker. Whilst in Han Dynasty China, they used something known as a pig toilet, which consists of a toilet linked to a pigsty by a chute.