History of Hygiene, Waste Management & Sanitation

Oct 2017
America ??
Can anyone provide a concise description of the history of hygiene & waste management, of all forms; organic (like human & animal excrement, food waste, etc.) as well as inorganic, throughout history. As usual for good historians, we should rely on sources as well as descriptions, so sources would be appreciated.

Waste is a fundamental biological property for all organisms, & humans as well as most animals; certainly domestic animals, urinate & defecate on a daily basis, so this factor has always needed to be taken into account for just about any decision & activity throughout history really.

Solutions are much easier to imagine for rural areas, but much less so for high density & developed areas like cities, forts/castles, transportation vessels like ships/trains/air-spacecraft, or really anywhere where there doesn’t appear to be solutions for easy & immediate waste disposal.

Is the stereotype that pre-industrial societies disposed of waste out of their windows & within cities accurate? I would imagine that urban centers & communities would have long died off if it were, & it should have been obvious to even our earliest ancestors that waste is unhygienic & unhealthy, so I imagine it must have been better thought out than just that throughout history.

It was really the invention of both the microscope (first record circa 1590) & telescope (first record circa 1608), or if their origins are really disputed; in any case the Renaissance or Scientific Revolution, that enabled humanity to escape our perceptual & sensory limits & thus sensory world, & it seems that prior to those two inventions, humanity & history was exclusively centered on what could be observed with our senses, & that all observations & phenomena that couldn’t be explained sensory wise or through basic physics & mathematics were either left as mysteries, or attributed to the supernatural, typically spiritual. So all hygiene & medicine prior to those two inventions must have been based on generational superficial observation & experimentation. Indeed, those two inventions seemed to have served as the initial “red pill” for humanity’s progress in escaping the matrix of our sensory limitations, while all other animals still seem to be stuck in theirs.

Kind regards,

Nov 2019
United States
Truthfully a better question for archaeologists than for historians. An interesting book below.

A number of years ago my wife an I visited a site in North Carolina that was the first settlement in that state. The US Parks Service person who happened to be on duty there was intrigued by a question I raised about the settlement, and after finding that my wife's family was one of those original settlers, gave us a grand, and truly informative ad hoc tour. He as it turned out was an archaeologist, and we spent some grand time discussing the importance of refuse sites within the community in gaining insight into the lives of the people who settled there. This isn't of course news, as an archaeologist will probably tell you, you can learn a very great deal about people by what and where they throw things away, going back to Babylonian societies, or even Egyptian. Such interesting things as what they ate, and even the art, are quite often found in these locations.

As to hygiene; you might be intrigued to find how sometimes advanced even ancient societies were in treating sewage. Even Wikipedia can give you a fair (and surprising) tour:

Where things became pretty sketchy was in smaller and poorer locations of the pre-modern world. Rome actually had a pretty evolved system, including the Roman Aqueducts which carried water sometimes 100 of miles. The problem of course was that not everyone used them, thus causing a city that approached 1 million people to be the common source of plagues, and disease.
Mar 2017
There's a reason that most major cities are built on water courses: the Nile, the Thames, the Mississippi ... they carry things away. The concept of "germs" and contamination is actually quite recent. Checkout John Snow 1854 cholera epidemic in London: "Drinking water can be contaminated by sewage? Surely you jest!"

The earliest flushing toilet we know about was in Crete ... but that doesn't mean they worried about where it went after it left the palace.

Bilharzia/Schistosomiasis is a water borne disease. The microscopic parasite looks like a cork-screw and bores its way into human skin, and after reproducing in millions, leaves with feces to complete its life cycle in snails. It was a problem in ancient Egypt as evidenced in mummies. With the Aswan dam creating much more still water, it's more of a problem NOW than it's ever been. There's schisto in the Ganges ... there's schisto in Puerto Rico (and two other Caribbean islands). "WHAT?!! Puerto Rico?!!" Yeah, don't be so keen on swimming in El Yunque.

"Pre-modern" just doesn't apply. Sanitation is a problem *NOW*. Typhus has appeared in Los Angeles ... and there are some indications plague might return. Typhus is particularly nasty because the disease causes diarhea specifically to spread itself around more easily (literally, I guess). Plague uses a flea vector (until it gets to the pneumonic phase where a cough could give it to you), but you've got to have enough rat food/filth around. Rats don't eat poop, but lack of garbage collection is all they need.

Remember the earthquake in Haiti? I was surprised when they said there was a cholera epidemic. Cholera just doesn't "appear". It came from UN workers from Tibet.

So, a brief history of waste management is that it has always been a problem and it's worse now than it's ever been, simply because there are more people contributing to it. If you live in NY city, you have good water. What happens to all their black water? 8.6 million people flushing several times a day. Do you think it *ALL* gets treated? Especially when there's a handy ocean close by that was suitable for garbage scows until quite recently. Would you drink water from the East River?

If you fall in the water in Venice, your first response should be a doctor visit for shots ... and pray you get nothing worse than tetanus. The marvelous floating boat city in Shanghai? Where do THEY flush, exactly?

Big first world cities have fancy sewage treatment plants that at least turn most black water grey (I hope). I would guess that most cities of the 2nd & 3rd worlds have at least one hidden pipe leaking raw effluent into a local water source.

When it rains hard in Los Angeles, there are warnings to stay out of the ocean: hepatitis. I don't understand how this actually works. There are signs. It's on the news. Maybe it's just all the dirty needles being washed out of the drainage canals? I have no idea.

Looking at the last post: The Romans were VERY good at getting human waste out of the city. Pure water came, as pointed out, across 100's of miles of aqueducts. Private and public privies emptied into a massive sewage system (a goldmine for forensic archaeologists) that emptied directly into the Tiber. Claudius was given credit for building a bridge across the Tiber: one wonders if you could just walk across it around that time.

Human excrement in water brings the three sisters (typhus, cholera, hepatitis) with anyone who lives close to it. Romans had three kinds of malaria ("rage of the dog star"). Tapeworm was VERY common. Influenza swept through the population from time to time. Plague has been mentioned. All that Bachanalia/Saturnalia wild sexy life-style? They had STD's too. ... and cancer, and leprosy ... nothing new under the Sun.

Julius Caesar caught malaria at 17: he lived to 66 and it wsn't malaria that killed him. People of the time were made of pretty stern stuff and probably carried one or two diseases all their lives. Plutarch lived to be 74. Philotas of Amphissa made 83 (an exemplary case of "doctor, heal thyself").
I just looked it up. NY claims to treat 467 million gallons a day. If 8.6 million flushed 10 times a day (watch out for spicy food) with low capacity 1.6 gallon toilets, that's only 137.6 million gallons of black water. Average shower is 17.2 gallons, so if 1/2 the population take showers every day that's only another 74 million gallons.

I retract my statements about NY. It's kind of unbelievable looking at 8.6 million people, but they appear to be handling it.

Oh jeeze! Unless it rains, of course: When It Rains, It Pours Raw Sewage into New York City’s Waterways
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Oct 2017
America ??
Where things became pretty sketchy was in smaller and poorer locations of the pre-modern world.
Is that because of lack of records & documentation?

I think I notice that hygiene & sanitation seem to be very underlooked & mentioned/recorded in significance & importance throughout history! Since so little information seems to be available about it online apart from the grand extensive sewer systems of major ancient cities. Seems like it must have been largely viewed as trivial issue throughout history. Seems like human & animal waste was largely viewed as a rubbish rather than health issue throughout history. After all knowledge of cells is only a few centuries old, knowledge that they cause illness even newer.

By smaller do you mean in terms of area or population? By poorer I assume you mean less or under developed? & by pre-modern I assume you mean pre mid-millennium(1500.A.D)? Smaller & poorer locations have always been poorly documented & recorded haven’t they, much less so than larger & more developed locations?

But of course smaller & poorer locations would have much less quantity, distance & difficulty disposing waste wouldn’t they?

Based on the limited information available online, I can only assume that in urban centers, forts, castles & other places where easy marginal waste disposal was significantly distant, people would have relied on outhouses, cesspits & other storage tanks & chambers to store excrement & rubbish throughout their settlements, which in some big cities they would have been washed to drain into sewer systems, but in most cases before being gathered by collectors like nightsoil men to cart out of the city to dispose in mounds & sell as fertiliser. I can only assume that animal waste in cities would have been collected into cesspit chambers or barrels to be carted away.

How fascinating. Thanks for sharing your experience! I thought archaeologists can trace rubbish back to the earliest known cities, or even back to prehistoric times. Could you share what you recall learning about the importance’s of refuse sites from the discussion with that archeologists? Have settlements always had distinctive refuse sites throughout history?
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Mar 2017
As a general rule, refuse sights are a godsend to archaeologists.

Deir el Medina is where the tomb artisans for the Valley of the Kings in Egypt lived. It's about an hour's walk from the Nile, in dry, inhospitable desert ... so they tried to dig a well. They dug it quite deep, without success, then used it as a landfill after that point. Amongst the normal refuse, they also threw bits of pottery that they used as scrap paper. Their lives have been reconstructed from this: who bought what from whom, where they got supplies, where they scheduled their time ... little bits of artwork ... and lots of love poetry.

Schlieman who thought he discovered Troy, basically dug through the refuse heaps of seven cities, built one on top of the other (some decaying and falling apart in between city construction). The organic refuse doesn't survive, but the broken pots and hard remains like shells, pits, seeds, and bones tell a lot about the level of technology and diets.

Most of what we know about the Native Americans in the Mesa Verde area, come from their refuse heaps. The Winter can be bitter cold, so their refuse heaps were located in a corner of their cliff dwellings. What would have be worn away by the elements outside was semi-preserved. Again, archaeologists piece together their lives from tidbits: fabrics, hides, ceramics ... and burials (the outside ground was too frozen to dig).

My recollection is that MOST archaeology of villages (not so much built up cities) is in refuse heaps and burial grounds. If they find a "house", it very rarely contains anything. When the occupants left, they took their stuff. It's only rare catastrophes like Pompeii that leave things "as they were." Refuse heaps contain artifacts of every day life. They're all broken, but they were things that were actually used ... as opposed to sitting on a shelf or being made special for a grave.

There's a YouTube on archaeologist literally digging into 2000 yr old human waste in the "Cloaca Magnus" ... the sewer system of Rome. They were directly under an ancient public restroom of some sort. After 2000 yrs, it's not as bad as it sounds ... but the IDEA of digging into it is still unpleasant. They were extracting diet and health information ... like the high frequency of tapeworms.

If you think about it, archaeologist don't really find random things. "Oh look! An Alexandrian gold coin!!" They find things that were intentionally PUT in the ground: either burials, or garbage buried under layers of garbage. If you Wiki Caligula and scroll down, you will see a picture of a Roman army boot (a "caligula") ... found in ancient garbage dump ... (Britain? don't remember)

I once saw a modern day archaeologist on Discover or something. Every archaeologist picks a "people" to specialize in. His "people" were US. He excavated in modern garbage dumps and landfills. He actually earned a "beyond archaeology" living because many environmental companies want to know how things decay. One of his findings: "People imagine that garbage dumps are overflowing with disgusting used disposable baby diapers. That's not really the case. The most common element I see is 'paper'. All kinds of paper. It doesn't degrade at all. This phone book has been underground for at least 30 yrs ... it's still usable."