I always enjoy when History presents us with unexpected curveballs. Blindsided, our perceptions get challenged and the present, as well as the past, can be illumined even by so-called unimportant aspects of civilization.
One of those unusual bits of flotsam for me are toilets.
Anyone who studies History will ruminate on the question, “What part of the past would you like to live in?” It usually draws interesting responses from students. But mention the lack of indoor plumbing and most anyone gets drawn right back into the present.
Flush toilets have a longer history than we might assume. Their mass production took until the late 19th or early 20th century. When we consider the infrastructure needed, like piping, drainage systems, and so on, this should not surprise us. But the flush toilet existed long before in limited use, possibly even in ancient Minoan civilization. In the modern era, we know that Tudor England developed the flush toilet, and Eilzabeth I had the chance of using a private one herself.
But she didn’t want to.
According to curator and author Lucy Worsley, Elizabeth’s preference for the chamber pot had to do with her concept of royalty. She would not flee like some subject to the almighty toilet, the toilet would answer to her — in the form of a servant or two carrying the appropriate accoutrements. To go “to” the bathroom offended her sense of royal dignity.
Who today would choose a chamber pot while others hovered nearby over a private flush toilet? Had I heard half of the story without the ending, I would assume that Elizabeth would have claimed the new invention as an “executive privilege,” much like some Executive Washrooms today.
Elizabeth’s actions have echoes in Lyndon Johnson, who according to Robert Caro, used to make his aides follow him to the bathroom when he became a congressman. This likely had little to do with his desire to continue to conduct their business (no matter the nature of his business in the john), and served more as a way to demonstrate his power and provide a loyalty test.
But most of the time, I’m sure Johnson chose to be by himself.
Not all societies insisted even on relative privacy when it came to bodily functions. The Romans, for example, had no qualms about sharing space in what we would consider to be an intimate moment, as this public restroom makes clear:
I believe strongly in the uniformity of human nature. History makes no sense without this bedrock truth applied to it. However, I do think that a study of bathrooms reveals in a small way how the “geography” of a time and place and its context relative to other priorities, impacts other values we may have. Human nature has an unalterable core but our values may be fungible at the periphery.
We need not think that Queen Elizabeth or the Romans placed no value on privacy. Rather, in their hierarchy of values, privacy did not occupy the pride of place it does for many Americans today. Queen Elizabeth valued her sense of royal imperium more than privacy. The Romans valued community more than privacy. They could easily have erected barriers in their mini-stalls of they wanted to.
For the record — I have no problem serving as an apologist for the “Privacy” camp and advocating for indoor plumbing.