History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

31 March 2011

Guest Post:: Monica Burns

Our previous attempt to bring Monica Burns to you was countermanded by forces beyond our control. We therefore bring back Ms. Burns and her insightful prose, in hopes of smooth skies and a wider audience.

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 My interest in plumbing began with my first time travel (unpublished and buried in my files somewhere).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 Mary Preston said...

I loved the history on plumbing thank you. We didn't have an indoor toilet until I was 12. You did not want to find yourself in need at night. You had to walk forever in the dark with a torch to the outhouse.
I would miss electricity. If we lose power because of a storm, the world practically just stops around here. Reading by candlelight is not romantic just a strain.


4:57 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I've lived with a composting toilet (hello, hippie parents). It really wasn't that big a deal IMO. And I’ve done enough re-enactment events to know that I could survive just fine without most modern conveniences (though I really wouldn’t want to be poor, because everything is sooooooo much work). The thing that would frighten me most about being suddenly transported back in time is the lack of things like antibiotics and anesthesia.

10:17 AM  
Blogger Monica Burns said...

Marybelle, glad you enjoyed the topic. Camping has taught me to appreciate modern conveniences.

Isobel, I confess to want my creature comforts on a daily basis. I hate when our plumbing is messed up or the electricity is off. I don't mind reading by candlelight, but it's a hassle going through the house and resetting all the clocks!!! OL

5:39 PM  
Blogger shethra77 said...

Monica, the S trap is what keeps the clean water in the bowl which keeps the fumes and smells from coming up. The sliding (or flapping) valve is the part in the top that lets the fresh water down. I have (sigh) repaired a heck of a lot of toilets.

Fresh clean running hot and cold water is something I regard as one of the greatest gifts of life, and right next to that is a good sewage handling system. Did you know that supposedly, black widow spiders bites on humans decreased significantly when people quit using outhouses? Apparently the little buggers adored the spaces created by those structures.

The things I love best about the modern world are our water handling systems, toilets, washing machines, and antibiotics. I would miss all of them severely if they were not here!

7:04 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Fascinating post, Monica! I have lived in some fairly primitive places and my grandmother didn't have indoor plumbing in her house until I was about twelve.

I can start a fire from scratch and read by candlelight. I've washed clothes by hand and hung them on a line to dry. I've cooked and brewed tea in a fireplace. I think I could handle some fairly primitive living.

Like Isobel, however, I know way too much about pre-20th century medicine to ever want to live without it!

1:48 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great and informative post, Monica! I love writing about the past, but I know I wouldn't. I wouldn't even want to go back to my childhood and not have a computer (for that matter I wouldn't want to go back to last summer and not have an iPad :-).

4:44 PM  
Blogger krazymama_98 said...

Air conditioning! Especially if I were living here in Phoenix in the past.
The other mentions here are just as relevent as well.
Modern medicine and plumbing are wonderful too.

11:24 PM  
Blogger Carol L. said...

Hi Monica,
I enjoyed your post. I saw a documentary on Roman inventions and creations once and they were so advanced..It was said that our Military still uses a lot of the engineering the Romans used.
I don't think I could live without electricity and heat. I hate the cold :)And not having antibiotics would be a scary thought.
Carol L

7:09 AM  

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