History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

20 January 2011

Guest Post: Monica Burns

Before I even attempt to discuss history, I’d like to thank Diane and the Hoydens for hosting me here today. I confess intense intimidation when it comes to these knowledgeable women. Seriously, I know next to nothing about history. I really don’t. I’m a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to history and what I know. I just seem to have this knack for picking up the flavor of a location or time period and making it sound like I know the history.

Although my knowledge is fairly limited, I’ve a passion for history just like the Hoydens, and it’s wonderful to visit a blog where other history lovers reside. One of the things I love the most about history is the adventure of it all. By adventure, I mean flushing out new information when writing a book. Almost inevitably when I’m working on a book, I’ll write a line that has me thinking, hmm, better check this out so I don’t wind up with an anachronism in the story. Immediately, I’m off on a new adventure as I search for that tiny little bit of minutia that makes a difference in my story. Or at least it does for me.

I’ve found it’s the tiny pieces of historical data a writer adds in here and there that makes for a more flavorful story. It’s sort of like throwing in a pinch of cayenne or garlic to give the book atmosphere. So let’s talk a little plumbing, and not the female or male kind, but the household variety. My interest in plumbing began with my first time travel (unpublished and buried in my files somewhere). Naturally since my heroine went back in time, the past had few of the modern conveniences we enjoy today. Although I only included a couple of lines in the book about plumbing, I searched for as much legitimate info I could find to make those sentences sound as authentic as possible.

Plumbing has been around for several thousand years in number of forms. Not necessarily as sophisticated or convenient as ours, but it’s been there. One of the earliest civilizations that had a drainage system was the Minoans. Archaeologists have found evidence that they built plumbing in their buildings. As an avid camper, and with great-grandparents who didn’t have plumbing, I can assure you that having an outhouse “indoors” is infinitely preferable.

The Minoan knowledge and concept of drainage systems was lost at the time of the society’s collapse, but the ancient Romans and their incredible engineering feats gave us the foundation of our current plumbing and drainage systems. It’s amazing how much the Roman civilization has contributed the modern Western world from political systems to sewer systems…umm, why do I have this odd feeling those two were meant for each other even back then. *grin*

One of the truly amazing feats the ancient Romans did was the construction of the massive aqueduct system that transported water to the city from as far away as fifty-seven miles. Pretty amazing given we’re talking physical labor versus today’s machines doing the more labor intensive work. Granted these projects took years to complete, but then look how long it takes us to build an interstate highway WITH machines to help us.

The aqueducts provided water for all the ancient Romans needs. The Romans are renowned for their bathhouses and public latrines where the aqueduct water was used for hot water bathing, steam rooms (think sauna), and cold baths as well as public and private uses. For private homes, unless one was excessively wealthy, the toilet facilities were more than likely a cess pit (that indoors outhouse I mentioned above). Those in the upper echelon of the wealthy might actually have a bathroom with flowing water to remove waste. It wouldn’t be like modern day bathrooms, but more like a flowing stream of water that washed away human waste.The more prestigious Roman bathhouses had marble latrines for their patrons. Not only did the waste disposal system in the bathhouse involve running water for waste removal, I’ve read where some of these latrines had a trough of running water at the foot of each toilet seat with sponges resting in the water people to use after they’d finished their business. Essentially the sponges were the forerunners of today’s toilet paper. A factoid (whether true or not) makes me shudder.

Coming forward a few years, we find that the first patented toilet was by Alexander Cummings in 1775. He developed the “S trap,” which is still in use today. It’s that curved section of the pipe under the toilet (sinks have “S traps” too). The trap consists of a sliding valve that allows for disposal of the waste while keeping fresh water in the toilet bowl. The sliding valve traps sewage smells in the pipe and keeps them from permeating the room. Piping materials have changed, but it’s a pretty amazing invention, especially since it’s still in use today.

Modern conveniences have come a long way in more than two-hundred and thirty years, for which I’m extremely grateful. My great-grandparents farm didn’t have modern plumbing. I remember visiting and trying to avoid drinking anything the whole time I was there. I was willing to do just about anything to avoid using the wooden shack sitting over the cess pit in the far reaches of the backyard. *shudder* The only running water in the house was a pump at the sink that was connected to a water well. Truly rustic and not EVEN romantic. I can honestly say that I’m thrilled with the way I can turn the handle on my sink faucet and clean water comes out.

It’s a convenience that’s sadly in jeopardy. The US’s current wastewater and storm drainage systems are in a major state of crisis. Sewers haven’t been replaced or updated in years. Some systems predate the civil war. In many cities across the eastern seaboard, water mains have been in use for more than a hundred years. Here in Richmond (Virginia), our sewer pipes have been in use since the Civil War. It’s not unusual for I-95 or other city street traffic to be slowed, diverted or stopped by a large sink hole in the road as the result of a broken water main.

I find it interesting to consider whether or not history is repeating itself in terms of our most important infrastructures and their viability. Without a strong wastewater infrastructure (along with roads and clean water processes) there is a serious threat to our environment, health and overall economy. Perhaps one day we’ll be the Romans revered for our ingenuity and lack of using it.

For a report on basic infrastructures (not just wastewater or storm drainage) you can visit the American Society of Civil Engineers

You can also get a basic layman’s picture here

More on sinkholes here.

Plumbing isn’t our only form of modern convenience. What other convenience would you miss if you were in the past?


An award-winning author of erotic romance, Monica Burns penned her first short romance story at the age of nine when she selected the pseudonym she uses today. From the days when she hid her stories from her sisters to her first completed full-length manuscript, she always believed in her dream despite rejections and setbacks. A workaholic wife and mother, Monica believes it’s possible for the good guy to win if they work hard enough.

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Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Hi, Monica! So glad to have you join us here at History Hoydens.

The modern convenience I'd most miss in the past (other than flush toilets) is central heating. I've camped and I've spent time in 17th century buildings heated only by fireplaces. Oh, how I enjoy walking across a room without shivering the moment I'm two steps from those burning logs.

6:26 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Hi Monica, welcome, and thanks for the fascinating post. I love sexy bathtub scenes -- even in the Regency -- and when I worry too much about anachronism, I comfort myself with this description of a dandy's bathroom from an 1835 novel, Bulwer's PELHAM:

"The decorations of this room were of a delicate rose color; the bath, which was of the most elaborate workmanship, represented, in the whitest marble, a shell, supported by two Tritons. There was ... a machine in this room, which kept up a faint but perpetual breeze, and the light curtains... scattered about perfumes of the most exquisite odour."

6:35 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks for visiting us, Monica! Great post. In addition to plumbing and heating, I'd so miss my computer. The thought of writing a book by hand and copying it out again with each revision...

11:57 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Thanks for the great info on the history of plumbing. Really helpful stuff! I would definitely miss indoor plumbing if I traveled back in time.

And I have to agree with Tracy that life without my laptop would be miserable. It took a while for me to convert to writing on a computer, but now I just don't know if I could do it any other way.

Having spent some time in houses in England, German and Austria with little to no central heating I can definitely say I would miss it! In Germany my heat only came on from 8 PM to 8 AM. And trust me, winters in Germany got VERY cold!

5:42 PM  

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