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The latrines was the name given to trench toilets. They were usually pits, 4 ft. to 5 ft. deep, dug at the end of a short sap. Each company had two sanitary personnel whose job it was to keep the latrines in good condition. In many units, officers gave out sanitary duty as a punishment for breaking army regulations. Before a change-over in the trenches, the out-going unit was supposed to fill in its latrines and dig a new one for the new arrivals.

The smell was a compound of stagnant mud, latrine buckets, chloride of lime, unburied and half-buried corpses, rotting sandbags, stale human sweat, fumes of cordite and lyddite. Sometimes it was sweetened by cigarette smoke and the scent of bacon frying over wood fires, sometimes made sinister by the lingering odour of poison gas.

The sanitary arrangements usually consisted of a pit, or series of pits, perhaps approached by a short trench and equipped with buckets or large biscuit tins which were emptied at night by the company 'pioneer'. The whole place was liberally treated with chloride of lime which provided a never-to-be-forgotten smell associated with trench life.

Latrines were always dangerous places because of the regularity with which they had to be used. Jerry soon came to spot such places, and, believe me, they were not places to linger.

What Ancient Toilets Reveal About the History of the Human Gut

According to Piers Mitchell, a paleopathologist from the University of Cambridge, scientists have been extracting data from ancient poop for over a century. “In the past, we’ve been able to look at a single coprolite from a single person”—that is to say, a preserved turd—“and study the microbiome of that one individual.” (The microbiome is the complex collection of microbes living in every animal’s digestive tract.) Now, in a newly released paper in Philosophical Transactions B, Mitchell and co-authors Susanna Sabin and Kirsten I. Bos have blown the lid off of single-turd analysis: by analyzing two medieval latrines’ worth of number two.

After receiving samples from a 15th-century latrine in the Christian quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem, as well as a 14th-century latrine in Riga, Latvia, the team was able to successfully separate fecal material from environmental contaminants in the soil. “By looking at the mixed fecal material in these communal latrines, we’ve been able to [study] whole population groups all at once,” Mitchell says. “And what it shows is that the modern, industrialized lifestyle is changing the microbes living in our intestines.”

Co-author Dr. Susanna Sabin at work decoding ancient latrine samples. Courtesy of Zandra Fagernäs

Mitchell knows his shit. As the director of Cambridge’s Ancient Parasites Laboratory, he’s studied storied stools across Europe, Asia, and Africa, some more than 9,000 years old, and when it comes to ancient piles, Mitchell keeps his finger on the pulse. “Whenever [an archaeologist] finds a latrine or coprolites in a part of the world where no one’s done any intestinal fecal analysis, I send them an email.”

According to Mitchell, our intestinal microbiome isn’t keeping up with the rapid pace of globalization. “Things are changing incredibly quickly,” he says, “but our genetics are still pre-industrial.” He associates modern ills such as high rates of allergies, obesity, and inflammatory bowel disease with modern substances that affect the gut, from antibiotics to fast food. “Parts of us are coping, but other parts are suffering,” Mitchell says.

By mapping the pre-industrial microbiome, archaeologists hope to understand how we developed the internal ecosystems that contribute to our digestion and health. Stephanie Schnorr, a biological anthropologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who was not affiliated with the new study, says these particular latrines led to a great leap forward. “These data are a great contribution to helping us better resolve our reference taxa for ancient specimens,” she writes, “and they hint at a vast trove of yet unseen microbial diversity hiding in the past.”

The team’s work could be applied to other historical latrines, like this one in Ostia, Italy, to build a better understanding of the ancient microbiome. Fubar Obfusco

“These ancient populations had a broader range of microbes than we have now, and they have some types of microbes that seem to be rare or have disappeared in modern people,” Mitchell says. Only hunter-gatherer communities seem to have microbiomes that roughly match those of pre-industrial people.

With a clearer picture of ancient and modern microbiomes, Mitchell hopes we can develop treatments that get our guts to a more pre-industrial place. “We’re not trying to give everyone cholera and typhoid again,” he says, “we’re just thinking which are the healthy bits to put back while leaving out the scary nasty diseases.” He imagines treatment could look something like a pill, for example, that would reintroduce or rebalance our inner microbes. Whatever it looks like, the key to a healthy gut-scape may lie within ancient toilets, and Mitchell and his cohort intend to find out.

PHOTOS: Peep At The Toilets Of 7 Families Around The World

This toilet, says Jennifer Foster from PATH, looks like a pour-flush toilet. That means a user manually pours in water to flush down waste. It's from the Salhi family's two-bedroom home in Tunisia, where Mabrouk and his wife, Jamila, live with their four children and have a monthly income of $209. Zoriah Miller for Dollar Street hide caption

This toilet, says Jennifer Foster from PATH, looks like a pour-flush toilet. That means a user manually pours in water to flush down waste. It's from the Salhi family's two-bedroom home in Tunisia, where Mabrouk and his wife, Jamila, live with their four children and have a monthly income of $209.

Zoriah Miller for Dollar Street

If you search for images of "toilet" on Google, you'll get a page of sparkling white ceramic toilets.

That's the typical toilet for people in a high-income country. But not every toilet looks like that.

Goats and Soda

A Toilet Is The Star Of India's Hit Rom-Com

To get a better idea of the range of toilets around the world, take a look at Dollar Street. It's a project that catalogs everyday objects — like toys, soap, stoves and of course, toilets — to provide a snapshot of life at different income levels across the globe.

The project was created by Anna Rosling Ronnlund, the co-founder of Gapminder, a group that uses infographics to explain the world. In 2016, she commissioned photographers to take photos of objects in over 264 homes in 50 countries.

Goats and Soda

Politician's Public Peeing Puts Spotlight On Need For Public Toilets

Here is a selection of toilet photos from Dollar Street. Jennifer Foster, a technical officer for PATH's WASH portfolio, a global health nonprofit, provided insights into the different types of toilets. Foster works on public health issues — primarily water, waste treatment and sanitation projects.

This is likely a pit toilet. The idea is that there's a giant hole underneath the toilet. It's from Revben and Havenes Banda's home in a rural village in Malawi. They live with their five children and five grandchildren their monthly income is $50. Zoriah Miller for Dollar Street hide caption

This is likely a pit toilet. The idea is that there's a giant hole underneath the toilet. It's from Revben and Havenes Banda's home in a rural village in Malawi. They live with their five children and five grandchildren their monthly income is $50.

Zoriah Miller for Dollar Street

This is also a pit latrine, according to toilet specialist Jennifer Foster: "Odds are [the waste] is going straight down into a pit." It belongs to Sabatrirani Bishash, a businesswoman living in Kahana, Bangladesh. She lives with her three children and has a monthly income of $125. Gmb Akash for Dollar Street hide caption

This toilet is in the home of the Bui family in Hoi An, Vietnam. Thái, a tailor, and Gần, a fruit vendor, live with their two children and a grandmother. Their monthly income is $383. Victrixia Montes for Dollar Street hide caption

This toilet belongs to the Singh family in Gurgaon, India. Shyam, a driver, and his wife Renuka, a nurse, live with their three children and have a monthly income of $369. The family has access to a water source in the bathroom for cleaning and hand-washing. Zoriah Miller for Dollar Street hide caption

This toilet is in the home of the Tamang family in Kathmandu, Nepal. Shyam, a laborer, and his wife Minu, a farmer, live with their five children and have a monthly income of $121. Luc Forsyth for Dollar Street hide caption

This toilet belongs to the Legarda family in the Philippines. Judith and her husband, Joel, live with their four children and have a monthly income of $865. Victrixia Montes for Dollar Street hide caption

(Com)Modes of Intervention

Although colonial medicine initially focused on protecting white enclaves, the development of the germ theory of disease in the late nineteenth century convinced colonial health officials, albeit slowly and unevenly, that colonizers would remain vulnerable unless medical interventions also targeted potentially diseased “natives.” Footnote 10 The shift away from theories of miasma and purely environmental explanations of disease to a focus instead on germs facilitated the rise of modern public health, requiring emphases on health education and the targeting of microbes and vectors of disease. During the early twentieth century, the more self-consciously “progressive” colonial powers such as the United States and Japan therefore instituted hygienic reform campaigns in their colonies. Seeing the apparent filth of the colonized as a racial deficiency, divorced from social or economic context, colonial officials began instructing subjects about good hygienic habits, including the use of sanitary latrines. Protecting the health of local labor would allow colonial powers to better exploit the resources of empire, but officials also used the image of the unsanitary “native” to justify the continuation of colonial rule. If these people could not govern their own personal hygiene, colonial authorities and intellectuals reasoned, they very well could not govern their own nations. In contrast with earlier visions of imperial medicine, colonial officials now saw these subjects as capable of change. But only through a process of reform could they become ready for independence. Applying this logic, colonial powers could defer independence indefinitely. Footnote 11

In the occupied Philippines, in a bid to protect the white population and to pacify colonial subjects, U.S. officers extended the logic of military sanitation to the population at large, conducting street cleaning and vaccination campaigns and deploying teams of inspectors to enforce sanitary regulations. As Warwick Anderson notes, Americans became obsessed with the presumed “promiscuous defecation” of Filipinos and demanded that they embrace sanitary reform. Americans aspired to construct toilets throughout the archipelago, but they began by installing permanent sanitary exhibits in many towns. Colonial officials even introduced “privy day,” during which Filipinos were expected to build or repair their toilets. Footnote 12 The United States was not unique among the colonial powers in this regard. In colonized Korea, Japanese popular writings about Korean hygienic habits established difference between colonizers and the colonized, while military-trained “hygiene police” launched aggressive public health campaigns, including home inspections. Failing to reform Korean behavior within their private dwellings, Japanese colonial officials built a network of public toilets in Seoul. But Korean treatment of these public facilities failed to live up to Japanese expectations. Footnote 13 Such reforms may have been intrusive, but they were nonetheless extremely limited in scope. Colonial powers could be more easily condemned for neglecting the health of their colonial subjects than for imposing biomedical interventions. Footnote 14

Such programs in the colonial periphery often shaped projects targeting the urban or rural poor in the metropole. The presence of tropical diseases in the U.S. South, for example, made it easier for U.S. reformers to conceptualize the South, along with the colonies, as a problem area, distinct from the rest of the country. Footnote 15 Reformers in the South were able to draw on the work of army surgeon Bailey K. Ashford, who had uncovered the link between hookworm disease and anemia during the military occupation of Puerto Rico in the wake of the Spanish-American War. After examining ill peasants’ feces, Ashford concluded that anemia was not the product of a poor diet, but instead caused by conditions on the island's coffee plantations in which the hookworm parasite thrived. Lacking toilets, workers practiced open defecation and could ill afford shoes. The hookworm parasite travelled through the soft skin between the toes of barefoot people who encountered the “polluted” soil. Although many peasants embraced the subsequent eradication program, an emphasis on medical treatment rather than sanitary improvements led to high reinfection rates. Footnote 16

Domestic programs similarly served to reinforce hierarchies of race and citizenship. Drawing on Ashford's work, zoologist Charles Wardell Stiles set out to investigate hookworm disease in the American South. Although the disease affected as much as 40 percent of the southern population across all social groups, the prevalence of the disease among poor whites, many of whom practiced open defecation, preoccupied Stiles the most. The pale and bony appearance of sufferers seemed to confirm eugenicists’ suspicions of white racial degeneration, but reformers like Stiles believed eradication would secure poor whites’ racial fitness, transforming them into productive workers who could attract northern investment. For these reasons, the idea that poor whites shared a common “germ of laziness” with colonized peasants did not last long, because it threatened the racial hierarchies upon which colonialism and Jim Crow rested. Footnote 17

Stiles found a sponsor in the Rockefeller Foundation's Sanitary Commission on the Eradication of Hookworm Disease (RSC), launched in 1909. The RSC posed the problem as one of individual responsibility, rather than social inequities, and aimed to end soil pollution through hygiene education and the construction and proper use of sanitary latrines. Schoolhouses, deemed centers of infection, became “models of modern hygiene” for the surrounding community through the construction of sanitary privies and health education. Reformers faced resistance to sanitary engineering from some local communities and health professionals, but the program significantly reduced infection rates and led to corresponding increases in school attendance, literacy, and income. Stories of recovery invariably pointed to increased earnings and improved living standards. Footnote 18 Narratives of productivity and efficiency also animated the Rockefeller Foundation's International Health Division (IHD), which by the mid-1920s was active throughout Latin America and the British empire. The IHD focused primarily on areas of economic production, dedicating substantial energy to persuading plantation owners to invest in latrines. By the late 1920s, however, the division increasingly shifted its focus away from sanitation toward laboratory research on the etiology of yellow fever and malaria, paving the way for the technologically driven campaigns of the postwar years. Footnote 19

After 1945 Americans continued to form judgments about peoples’ fitness for self-rule based on their adherence to sanitary norms. In occupied Korea, Americans were unimpressed by forty years of Japanese reforms. Public defecation, the absence of sanitary facilities, and continued use of night soil convinced many Americans that Koreans were not ready for independence. Footnote 20 And Americans continued to build toilets to address these shortcomings. The Institute for Inter-American Affairs (IIAA), a U.S. government agency established as a bulwark against Nazi influence in Latin America but acquiring an anti-Communist rationale after the war, carried out sanitation and disease eradication programs targeting U.S. military bases and workers in raw material–producing areas. By 1953, the institute estimated it had assisted in the construction of almost 40,000 outdoor toilets in rural areas of Latin America. Footnote 21 It is hardly a surprise that Che Guevara identified this phenomenon as the central plank of U.S.-sponsored development in the western hemisphere.

Toilets were also a common product of postwar community development projects. Theoretically, this approach empowered local communities to select their own development schemes by consensus and then carry out the projects with the assistance of government workers, using their own labor and funds. Footnote 22 But a gap often existed between theory and practice. In model villages in the heartland of the communist insurgency in northeast Thailand, for example, Thai Community Development workers built “shiny new toilets” along main roads without consulting the villagers about their preferences. The toilets provided physical evidence of progress for visiting dignitaries from Bangkok but went entirely unused because they were too far from villagers’ homes. Footnote 23 Further evidence from Thailand indicated that the message of health education may have been getting through, but it appears that, for at least some peasants, toilets remained a manifestly American product. Resistance to sanitary engineering also developed for practical reasons. Sometimes, a verdant rice paddy simply offered more aesthetically pleasing surroundings. As one Thai farmer told an American doctor:

You Americans are strange. Before you came here, if I felt like relieving myself, I found a quiet spot in the open with gentle breezes and often a pleasant vista. Then you came along and convinced me that this material that comes from me is one of the most dangerous things with which people can have contact…. Then the next thing you told me was that I should dig a hole, and not only I, but many other people should concentrate this dangerous material in that hole. So now I have even closer contact with not only my own but everyone else's, and in a dark, smelly place with no view at that. Footnote 24

Although occurring in dramatically differing contexts, American toilet-building performed some similar functions at home and abroad from the early twentieth century to the height of the Cold War. The absence of sanitary facilities among certain populations allowed American reformers to establish or reinforce hierarchies of race and citizenship. The solution, toilet-building, was supposed to serve military, political, and economic goals, pacifying the targets of reform and mobilizing resources. Sanitary models served as exemplars for replication by surrounding communities. Reformers hoped that such models would encourage the targets of reform to govern themselves in the field of public health, though they were frequently disappointed by their subjects’ inability to overcome their unsanitary habits. The American War in Vietnam might seem to offer the least likely setting for such a project of biopolitical reform. And yet, during its final years, American development officials and their South Vietnamese allies attempted ambitious programs that followed the same logic that had inspired efforts from turn-of-the-century colonial Philippines to Cold War Latin America.

Pringle’s Legacy

Although his suggestions were simple, and at times arrived at for the wrong scientific reasons, they were effective in combating dysentery. Despite this good advice, until the appearance of antibiotics in the 20th Century, the disease continued to ravage armies where soldiers carelessly refused to use the latrines.

In modern times, dysentery continues to infect soldiers in distant regions where sanitation is poor, but not with the high mortality rates witnessed during the 18th Century. This success today would not have been possible without the pioneering work of Pringle.

Dr. George Yagi Jr. is a historian at California’s University of the Pacific. To learn more of Sir John Pringle and his contributions to the field of military medicine, see his latest book, The Struggle for North America, 1754-1758: Britannia’s Tarnished Laurels. Follow him on Twitter @gyagi_jr

DNA From Ancient Latrines Reveal What People Ate Centuries Ago

There's treasure to be found in mining excrement. At least, it's treasure to scientists studying the diets, habits and health of people who lived centuries ago.

In a new study, Danish researchers dug up old latrines and sequenced the DNA they found in the ancient poop. The results paint a picture of diets and parasites spanning times and places that range from an ancient fort Qala'at al-Bahrain, near the capital Bahrain in 500 B.C.E. to the river-ringed city of Zwolle in the Netherlands in 1850. The researchers published their results in the journal PLOS One.

The team collected samples of old latrines and soil deposits at eight different archeological sites. They screened the samples for the eggs of parasites, which can last for centuries, and analyzed the DNA in each sample to determine species. They also gleaned the DNA of plants and animals from the samples to determine what people ate.

In some ways, the team found that life centuries ago was unhygienic as might be imagined. Most people probably dealt with intestinal parasites at least once in their life, veterinary scientist and paper co-author Martin Søe, with the University of Copenhagen, tells Angus Chen at NPR. "I think it's fair to say it was very, very common," he says. "In places with low hygienic standards, you still have a lot of whipworm and round worm."

Søe explains that the types of parasites they found could also give insight into the animals people consumed. Parasites that live in fish and pigs but that can also infect humans were a common find, indicating that undercooked or raw pork and fish was a diet staple.

The analysis also identified a handful of parasites that only infect humans such as the giant roundworm (Ascaris lumbricoides) and the whipworm (Trichuris trichiura).

By sequencing the mitochondrial DNA of the parasite eggs, the researchers found that Northern European whipworms from 1000 C.E. to 1700 C.E. were more closely related to worms found in present-day Uganda than to those in present-day China. Findings like this offer "hints about ancient patterns of travel and trade," writes Charles Choi for a blog post at Discover magazine.

Researchers also found parasites that don’t infect human but are more commonly found in sheep, horses, dogs, pigs and rats. This suggests the critters all likely lived near the latrines, leading people to dispose of the animal waste in the ancient toilets, Søe tells Choi.

The menagerie of ancient DNA helps paint a picture of life at some of the sites. For example, samples from Gammel Strand—a site in Copenhagen’s old harbor—include DNA from herring and cod, horses, cats and rats. The harbor was "[l]ikely a very dirty place by our standards, with a lot of activity from humans and animals," Søe says.

The findings also reveal information about ancient diets. DNA in Danish samples shows that the people probably ate fin whales, roe deer and hares, writes Sarah Sloat for Inverse. The study also delves into the analysis of plant DNA, which included cherries, pears, cabbages, buckwheat and other edible plants. The ancient Danes' waste had an abundance of DNA from hops, showing the people's fondness for beer, whereas the samples from the Netherlands showed people there had a preference for wine.

This isn't the first time that scientists have looked to unappetizing leavings to learn more about the past. Researchers have traced the path of explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark by looking for traces of mercury in the soil. The metallic element was in pills the men took to treat constipation and its presence indicates where the expedition dug latrines and camped. And parasites in a castle latrine in Cyprus attest to the poor health endured by crusaders. But the DNA analysis of the new study offers a uniquely detailed picture of the past.

Together, the new findings offer intriguing hints about ancient life. Following up on some of these leads could lead future researchers to tell us more about ancient people's health and the migrations of our ancestors. As Maanasa Raghavan, a zoologist at Cambridge University who wasn't part of the new study, tells NPR: "Having these datasets will help us look further at how these pathogens evolved over time or how people moved around."

About Marissa Fessenden

Marissa Fessenden is a freelance science writer and artist who appreciates small things and wide open spaces.

What toilets and sewers tell us about ancient Roman sanitation

Ruin of a second-century public toilet in Roman Ostia. Credit: Fr Lawrence Lew, OP, CC BY-NC-ND

I've spent an awful lot of time in Roman sewers – enough to earn me the nickname "Queen of Latrines" from my friends. The Etruscans laid the first underground sewers in the city of Rome around 500 BC. These cavernous tunnels below the city's streets were built of finely carved stones, and the Romans were happy to utilize them when they took over the city. Such structures then became the norm in many cities throughout the Roman world.

Focusing on life in ancient Rome, Pompeii, Herculaneum and Ostia, I'm deeply impressed by the brilliant engineers who designed these underground marvels and the magnificent architecture that masks their functional purpose. Sewer galleries didn't run under every street, nor service every area. But in some cities, including Rome itself, the length and breadth of the main sewer, the Cloaca Maxima, rivals the extent of the main sewer lines in many of today's cities. We shouldn't assume, though, that Roman toilets, sewers and water systems were constructed with our same modern sanitary goals in mind.

The streets of a Roman city would have been cluttered with dung, vomit, pee, shit, garbage, filthy water, rotting vegetables, animal skins and guts, and other refuse from various shops that lined the sidewalks. We moderns think of urban sewers as the means to remove such filth from streets – and of course flush away human waste that goes down our toilets.

Researching Roman urban infrastructure for my new book The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy made me question whether the Romans shared the same vision. The archaeological evidence suggests that their finely constructed sewer systems were more about drainage of standing water than the removal of dirty debris. And Romans' sense of cleanliness and privacy around bathroom matters was quite different from our tender modern sensibilities.

Sewers managed excess water more than waste

The Cloaca Maxima in Rome was not part of a master plan to sanitize the city. Its purpose was removing water that pooled on the city's uneven streets and draining water from low-lying areas when the adjacent Tiber River flooded, which happened quite frequently. Its main function was drainage – and what it drained ran right back into Rome's major drinking supply before the aqueducts, the Tiber.

Roman sewers moved filthy water away from where it hindered cleanliness, economic growth, urban development and even industry. My work in the sewers of Herculaneum and Pompeii – both buried by the pyroclastic flow caused by Mount Vesuvius' volcanic eruption in AD 79 – has brought me to the same conclusion.

At the bottom of one sewer under a street in Herculaneum, the first excavators found an ancient deposit of hardened sludge measuring about 1.35 meters high. No amount of water, however fast-flowing, would have been able to remove that. Several ancient sources state that Roman sewers needed manual cleaning from time to time, a job often done by city slaves or prisoners. I'd argue these urban sewer systems provided minimal sanitary benefits overall.

Plenty of toilets, few sewer hookups

Public and private toilets were sprinkled throughout the city of Pompeii. But despite the city's sewer infrastructure, virtually none of these toilets had sewer connections. We have similar evidence for ancient Herculaneum.

Inside a tunnel of Rome’s sewer, the Cloaca Maxima. Credit: Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, CC BY-ND

In fact, almost every private house in these cities, and many apartment houses in Ostia, had private, usually one-seater, toilets not connected to the main sewer lines.

And these cesspit toilets were often situated in the kitchen, where food was prepared! The comforting smells from a hearty stew would have mingled with the gross odors from the nearby open cesspit. Collected waste was either sold to farmers for fertilizer or used in household gardens – which must have made for some pretty stinky garden parties from time to time.

According to Ulpian's Digest, written between AD 211 and 222, connections to the sewers from private dwellings certainly were legal. So why didn't property owners hook up to the public sewer lines?

One reason may be tied to that fact that Roman sewer openings had no traps. One never could be sure what might climb out of an open sewer pipe and into your house.

We have at least one dramatic ancient story that illustrates the danger of hooking your house up to a public sewer in the first or second century AD. The author Aelian tells us about a wealthy Iberian merchant in the city of Puteoli every night a giant octopus swam into the sewer from the sea and proceeded up through the house drain in the toilet to eat all the pickled fish stored in his well-stocked pantry.

Adding to the stench of Roman life, my close examination of ancient plumbing found that many downpipes from house toilets on upper floors would have suffered serious leakage inside the walls as well as oozing onto the outside of the walls too. The fittings of these terracotta downpipes loosened over time, and their contents would have caused stink everywhere.

I was able to identify at least 15 upper-story toilets at Pompeii and others at Herculaneum and elsewhere. In some cases, I obtained proof through scientific testing for urine and/or excrement that the spillage was indeed human waste from these pipes.

Public toilets held their own hazards

Even public latrines – multi-seater toilets that were almost always connected to the main sewer lines of a city – posed serious threats to users. Don't be fooled by the clean white marble and open-air sunniness of the reconstructed ruins we can see today most Roman public toilets were dark, dank and dirty, and often situated in small spaces. Those who could "hold it" long enough to return to their own houses with their own cesspit toilets certainly would have done so.

Map of Pompeii showing public and private toilets. Credit: Gemma C M Jansen

One public toilet at Ostia, with its revolving doors for access and fountain basin for cleaning up, could handle more than 20 clients at a time. I have found no evidence that Romans had to pay to use public toilets, and we really don't know who managed or cleaned them, apart from the possibility of public slaves. To our modern eyes there was almost a complete lack of privacy in such facilities but bear in mind that Roman men would have been wearing tunics or togas, which would have provided more screening than a modern man would enjoy with pants that have to be pulled down. Perhaps a bigger problem for today's standards of cleanliness: the Roman version of toilet paper in many cases was a communal sponge on a stick.

Even worse, these public latrines were notorious for terrifying customers when flames exploded from their seat openings. These were caused by gas explosions of hydrogen sulphide (H2S) and methane (CH4) that were rank as well as frightening. Customers also had to worry about rats and other small vermin threatening to bite their bottoms. And then there was the perceived threat of demons that the Romans believed inhabited these black holes leading to the mysterious underbelly of the city.

One late Roman writer tells a particularly exciting story about such a demon. A certain Dexianos was sitting on the privy in the middle of the night, the text tells us, when a demon raised itself in front of him with savage ferocity. As soon as Dexianos saw the "hellish and insane" demon, he "became stunned, seized with fear and trembling, and covered with sweat." Such superstition would provide another good reason for avoiding sewer connections in private house toilets.

Going to a public toilet was definitely a dangerous business, so it is no wonder that the Goddess Fortuna often appears as a kind of "guardian angel" on the walls of toilets. We don't tend to put religious shrines in our toilets, but we find them again and again in both public and private toilets in the Roman world.

Artist’s imagining of a typical Roman kitchen, with toilet featured to the right of the cooking area. Credit: Connolly and Dodge, The Ancient City, p 148 AKG Images

One graffito on a side street in Pompeii directs a warning at a toilet-user himself: "Crapper Beware the Evil"… of crapping on the street? Of putting your bare bottom on an open toilet hole for fear of biting demons? Of the ill health you will feel if you do not move your bowels well? We'll never know for sure, but these are likely possibilities, I think.

When we look at the evidence for Roman sanitary practices, both textual and archaeological, it becomes obvious that their perspectives were quite different from ours. Gaining a better understanding of Roman life on their streets, in their public spaces, and in their private dwellings shows us that they were in the early stages of developing systems that we've adopted – with upgrades – for our own problems with sanitation and clean water today.

  • A private toilet under the stairs in Herculaneum’s Casa del Gran Portale. Credit: Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, CC BY-ND
  • Broken connections in a Herculaneum house’s terracotta downspout within the wall would have caused stinky leaks. Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, CC BY-ND

This story is published courtesy of The Conversation (under Creative Commons-Attribution/No derivatives).

Campu: Episode 5“Latrines”

VO: Hey, this is Hana. If you like what we’re doing, subscribe, share, leave us a review on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you’re listening to this. It really does help us out. Thanks so much.

VO: This is a story about the lavatory. That’s how Marian Asao Kurosu, an Issei woman, begins the tale.

MARIAN ASAO KUROSU: [in Japanese] This is a story about the lavatory. There was a huge hole below you. A big one. Then a two-by-four was placed between that side and this side. As you know, you lower your hips. [Laughs] It was like that at first when we entered the camp.

VO: The lack of privacy profoundly shaped the day to day experience of the camps. In the barracks, mess halls, classrooms, laundry rooms, latrines—everywhere, really.

ROKURO KURIHARA: We ate together. Showered together.

VO: In the barracks at the assembly centers, the walls didn’t go all the way up to the ceiling. Sounds carried, to say the least.

GEORGE AZUMANO: Each family was assigned one room with partition room but no ceiling, so you can hear the neighbors talking

FRANK YAMASAKI: Somebody letting a fart on one end, you could hear all the way across.

VO: The communal latrines and showers only amplified these problems.

AZUMANO: There were only I think two latrines in the whole area. Three thousand people were there… There were several showers in the room, but there’s only one shower room as I recall.

Original caption: “San Bruno, California. In this scene are shown sanitary facilities campaign poster (5 Councilmen to be elected at general election) and a row of barracks beyond.” Photo by Dorothea Lange, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

VO: In this episode, we’re going to talk about everything you never wanted to know about the latrines and … what goes on inside them. And it’s not all about poop, I promise.

VO: From Densho, I’m Hana Maruyama and this is Campu.

VO: Before we get started, I want to give you a heads up: this episode will contain discussions of sexual violence and murder.

VO: When incarcerees first arrived at the assembly centers, the lack of privacy was extremely jarring.

MIKA HIUGA: When we went to camp, we’re used to privacy.

AKIKO KUROSE: We never even undressed in front of our sisters, you know.

HOPE OMACHI KAWASHIMA: I remember I hated to go to the bathroom because—

JIM KAJIWARA: going into those johns where—

SACHI KANESHIRO: the toilet side was just one wooden plank with holes in it.

ETSUKO ICHIKAWA OSAKI: You’re just sitting on these holes.

ISAO KIKUCHI: —maybe two feet apart, so if you’re going, you’re sittin’ there rubbin’ elbows.

CHERRY KINOSHITA: and then a gush of water every once in a while coming through to clear it.

BETTY FUJIMOTO KASHIWAGI: My mother kept saying “either wear a skirt or take a magazine.”

GEORGE ISERI: we call them eight passenger coupes.

DOROTHY KUWAYE: there were no shower curtains—

CHORUS: No stalls. No partitions. No privacy.

TAYLOR TOMITA: —nothing, just all wide open.

Shower facilities at Poston. May 3, 1942. Photo by Fred Clark, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

KASHIWAGI: There was just one partition. Women were on the other side of the partition and we were on this side.

LUCY KIRIHARA: People could be walking above on a little catwalk so you had to take a shower in your bathing suit.

MIKA HIUGA: At first, it was very hard for us and especially the Issei women—

GRACE WATANABE KIMURA: some of the older women who were very modest—

MAS OKUI: She would go really late at night—

EMBREY: would stay up late hoping to take a shower when her neighbors weren’t around—

GRACE WATANABE KIMURA: —during the midnight hours so that nobody could see them.

KEIKO KAGEYAMA: I went when nobody else was taking a shower.

KANESHIRO: First thing in the morning before anybody got up. I mean it was still dark—

EMBREY: but they all stayed up late. They all wanted to take their shower in privacy.

KANESHIRO: And wouldn’t you know, there was a whole bunch of people already there thinking the same thing.

Drawing by Mine Okubo of women showering in the latrines at Tanforan Assembly Center. Courtesy of the Japanese American National Museum (Gift of Mine Okubo Estate, 2007.62.77).

DOROTHY KUWAYE: I wasn’t used to all that public display.

AKIKO KUROSE: Taking a shower with multiple groups of people was very—

JIM KAJIWARA: I felt like a criminal at that time—

HENRY SAKAMOTO: particularly if you were modest and shy—

DOROTHY H. SATO: That was very hard to accept—the invasion.

VO: And that wasn’t the worst of it.

KASHINO: —the kind in the cans. They gave it to us for several days in a row.

VO: Everybody ate the same food in the same mess halls. And used the same latrines. Maybe you see where we’re going with this.

FRANK KITAMOTO: First week there, everyone got—

KIKUCHI: —the runs, that was very common in camp.

Drawing by Kenneth Nobuji Iyeki. Caption reads: “This is a scene on the south side of Tanforan. The eucalyptus trees were always green, a factor which helped to keep our morale up. The green houses in the background were the better stables, on the opposite side of the track from the ‘common’ planked horse shelters. These that were assigned to live in these green stables promptly tacked up signs above their doors such as ‘Come Inn,’ ‘Hated St. Francis,’ ‘The Mark,’ etc. The building in the foreground is a latrine building. The children would have climbed the trees but were afraid of getting shot at by the guards close by. One could easily have followed a great limb out over and beyond the fence.” August 9, 1942. Courtesy of the Kenneth Nobuji Ikeki Collection, Densho.

VO: With inadequate refrigeration in the middle of summer and untrained chefs suddenly tasked with preparing food for hundreds of people, food poisoning ran rampant in the assembly centers. Whole blocks of people—200 plus—could come down with food poisoning in a moment.

ISAO KIKUCHI: I was walking across the camp and I just jumped into every can I came by—

VO: Long lines would form outside the latrines, but when you’ve got the runs, waiting in line isn’t really an option.

KIKUCHI: You look up and you see this gal mopping the floor. By now we’re getting used to anything, since, she said, “Lift your feet.”

KIKUCHI: And guy’s standing there jumping up and down and he just can’t wait, so he just walked into the shower and turned it on. [Laughs] Nobody had any, anything to say ’cause we’re all in the same, got the runs.

KIKUCHI: That kept that camp half alive.

VO: It might sound funny, but remember this was the 1940s in a concentration camp.

FRANK KITAMOTO: This elderly Issei, first-generation woman came up to her and said, “they’re gonna poison us and we’re all gonna die. And we’ll never leave this place.”

VO: There were only two doctors in Fresno Assembly Center and the “hospital”—if it could even be called that—only had castor oil and rubbing alcohol for supplies. No antibiotics—which weren’t available to civilians anyways—or IV bags. Dr. Kikuo H. Taira had placed an order for additional supplies weeks ago but the administration told him that they needed six months to complete his order.

VO: The culprit on this particular occasion was a bad batch of macaroni salad. Dr. Taira later said, “that’s deadly stuff in the summer.”

VO: Finally, the social welfare chairman went into town on an emergency basis to buy IV kits. Dr. Taira later said in an oral history that people quote “were falling down here and there, and so they were brought to the hospital by the stretcher boys.” At one point, he “thought some were going to die.” Fortunately, none did.

VO: Fresno wasn’t the only assembly center to struggle with food poisoning. At Puyallup, a guard became increasingly alarmed when he saw crowds of people hurrying to the latrines one night.

VICTOR IKEDA: In the middle of the night you had the runs so you had people running to the latrine—

LOUISE KASHINO: everybody was rushing to the bathroom—

FRANK YAMASAKI: simultaneously they all went toward the toilet—

KASHINO: Sometimes you had to go two or three blocks to get to the bathroom.

IKEDA: and the guards got kind of frantic—

KASHINO: and I remember the guards on top of the grandstand turned the floodlights on—

KASHINO: and their guns down at us—

YAMASAKI: and the guard on the tower thought there was going to be a riot.

IKEDA: ‘cause everybody was heading for the latrine.

KASHINO: It wasn’t a stampede, but it was just everybody had a problem.

YAMASAKI: —and he swung around and… as you go up the ladder to this platform, there’s a hole there, and I understood he fell down. Fell through there. [Laughs]

VO: Some got used to the latrines.

Original caption: “Shower rooms were provided in all areas of the various centers. Photo shows a shower room scene on a hot day at Fresno (California) Assembly Center.” Courtesy of CSU Dominguez Hills, Archives and Special Collections.

MIKA HIUGA: Pretty soon, you just think, well, we’re all the same so let it all hang out. [Laughs] What else could we do if you have to go?

VO: Other incarcerees found ways to cope with the lack of privacy.

MIN TONAI: There was one enterprising girl who somehow found a large cardboard box, and when she had to go to the bathroom she would carry that, put it around her.

HIKOJI TAKEUCHI: We found cardboard, pick it up, and we store it in a certain part of the latrine, and when we get enough … made stalls for the women.

FRED ODA: Lot of the ladies, they got cardboard and they made their own partition.

LILY KAJIWARA: I think some enterprising person put up some partitions, but it was wide open.

Caption written by Kenneth Iyeki: “These two buildings are the latrines. There were so many people in ration to the facilities that we often was obliged to try and reach another area’s latrine ‘in time.’ The one to the left is the women’s and that to the right is the men’s. The women, being women put up a cloth covering over the screen door, and later built large wooden semi-walls to obscure the doorway. The men, being men, did nothing. Life became rather an imprisoned thing.” Courtesy of the Kenneth Nobuji Iyeki Collection, Densho.

HELEN TANIGAWA TSUCHIYA: When we had our period, you know, what are you going to do? So we told my brother, I said, “You have to help us. At least find something that we could put at the last stall and then we will watch.” So he looked around and he found a cardboard. And he put it up, every time anyone was like that we said, “Go in there. We will watch you.” And that really helped. That really helped. Otherwise it was just gruesome.

VO: The facilities eventually got better when the incarcerees got to the more permanent WRA concentration camps—but not immediately. The WRA had to build ten cities from the ground up. Here’s Dr. Connie Chiang, author of Nature Behind Barbed Wire: An Environmental History of the Japanese American Incarceration:

CHIANG: These camps were sort of, for the most part built from scratch. And so the WRA was looking at housing 8000 to as many as 18,000 people in these camps.

GEORGE KATAGIRI: It’s composed of hundreds of barracks, hundreds of barracks, and they were divided into blocks, and each block had two rows of about seven barracks. And in the center of those rows were the latrine and the showers and the laundry and things of this type.

CHIANG: And obviously, there, there was a great deal of infrastructure that was necessary. So not just sanitation and sewage systems, but water supply, electricity, plumbing, all of those things needed to be developed.

VO: One of the first things the Army Corps of Engineers had to do when it was evaluating potential sites was figure out where all that waste was going to go.

CHIANG: In general, there would be some method of taking the waste from the latrines elsewhere in the camp to some sort of centralized sewage treatment plant. And then from there, the sewage would be treated. Sometimes it’s chlorinated, then from there discharged onto the land in some way or into some sort of water source.

Toilet sewer holes in Tule Lake restroom and shower building. Photo taken c. 1983 by Harry Gamble and his team to lobby for Tule Lake to be designated a National Historic Landmark. Courtesy of the Frank Sato Collection, Densho.

VO: Sanitation is a major concern in an ordinary city, but when one pops up almost overnight? It was a nightmare.

CHIANG: Simply the camps were built very fast. And sometimes the quality of materials they used was not top notch, given that there are many material shortages during the war. And so that created problems, there is simply the fact that, you know, you’re thousands of people living in these camps, so that created problems as well.

VO: The latrines often weren’t finished when the incarcerees arrived.

HISA MATSUDAIRA: We got off the train, they were still putting in the sewer and they were still putting in the pipes and things like that.

ISAO KIKUCHI: There were outhouses at the time.

TAKETORA JIM TANAKA: Because they were laying that sewer line, the water line, and all that.

TOSHIKAZU “TOSH” OKAMOTO: I guess they tried to build things so fast that the sewage system wasn’t working and oh, it was really, really smelly in the latrine. [Laughs]

VO: By the end of September at Granada, 29 blocks were populated, but only 12 had plumbing. When toilets were used before the water had been connected, “a clean-up hose squad” was created to deal with the mess. At Minidoka, the sewage system was not fully operational in August 1942 when the first incarcerees arrived—or four months later in December. The residents were still using outdoor latrines in Idaho during a time of year when the average high is 27 degrees Fahrenheit and the average low is -2.

HENRY SAKAMOTO: For about the first year, we didn’t have a sewage plant, so the option was outhouses, different outhouse for men and women and each block had two… and I think they were six-seaters.

SAKAMOTO: By springtime, you had to dig new holes for the outhouses and cover up the old holes because they were getting pretty full. I think it was almost a year before we had sewage facilities.

VO: And then there were maintenance problems.

CHIANG: Sometimes pumps would break down. There would be clogs, there would be sewage backups.

VO: As the camp populations grew, so did the strain on these systems.

CHIANG: At Topaz, the effluent was discharged into a slew that was about a half mile from the center of the camp. And this indeed created a nuisance—at least a nuisance that the WRA officials were aware of—because of the odor, and also because it was a breeding ground for mosquitoes. So they eventually began to drain the slew into another ditch, which was another couple miles from the center. And this, this confined the water to a smaller area and sort of helped keep the mosquito problem under control.

VO: At Tule Lake, says Jimi Yamaichi, who worked as an engineer:

JIMI YAMAICHI: We had almost 20,000 people living there. And the well system was made for 15,000 people, and it was part of our job to watch the water intake into the camp, the excess sewers and power and so forth. But the sewer, we couldn’t take care of that, so they built an extra sewer plant later, but we just flood, hundreds of acres was just flooded out there, raw sewer out there.

VO: Sewage could cause or spread diseases if it wasn’t disposed of properly. It attracted mosquitoes and other bugs. It could get into the groundwater or start leaking into the streets. Yeah, that actually happened at Gila River.

CHIANG: One of the pipes failed. So there are large pools of sewage that formed in the camp. And so the WRA staff had to use bulldozers to turn over the sewage, mix it with sand and dirt. The Japanese Americans who are living in the camp at the time, had to sort of navigate around these open ditches of sewage, there are planks placed over some of the open the open ditches and so on and so forth.

VO: This was unpleasant during the day, but if you had to use the latrines at night, these ditches could become… perilous.

CHIANG: When Japanese Americans were perhaps out at night where they couldn’t see very well, possibility that they might fall into an open open ditch of untreated sewage.

VO: In fact, the road was fondly dubbed “sewer lane” by young people at Gila. And that wasn’t the only place that got a nickname based on its proximity to the sewers. Yukio Kawaratani lived in block 34 at Tule Lake.

YUKIO KAWARATANI: we were on the corner of the camp, which was close to the effluent or sewage treatment plant. So it was pretty stinky. In fact, the blocks in that portion of the camp were called “Sewer Heights.” [Laughs] You get used to the smell, but whenever you had visitors, they’d always say, “How can you stand the stench?” But anyway, that’s where we were.

VO: The sewage accumulated in a pond out on the edge of camp. In the winter, that pond froze.

BETTY FUJIMOTO KASHIWAGI: I remember my tap dancing teacher, we used to skate on the sewer pond, and she fell through and I laughed my head off. [Laughs]

VO: The toilets and showers and sinks required constant cleaning.

MASAMIZU KITAJIMA: My mom, because she had five kids, she felt during the day she had to be with the children, take care of the children. She would work at night, when the kids were sleeping, or she could work sometime when she didn’t need to watch the kids. So she took the job as a janitor to clean the latrines, both the men and women’s latrines and the showers.

VO: And the boilers had to be maintained, or the pipes might freeze and—if it got cold enough—burst.

HENRY SAKAMOTO: My dad was in charge of the boiler room, and he’d keep the fires going for the hot water, for the laundry, and the shower rooms, coal burning furnace. He’d take care of that during the day.

Camp inmate shoveling coal into the block’s central heater, which will warm water for the laundry and bath facilities. Photo taken at Minidoka c. 1944. Courtesy of the Mitsuoka Family Collection, Densho.

VO: At Minidoka, the administration tried to cut the number of boilermen and janitors in summer 1943. The increased workload was somewhat manageable during the summer, but less so during the winter when boilers had to be maintained at all hours.

CHIANG: The boiler men and the janitors essentially went on strike. Minidoka was called upon to reduce its workforce—this was coming from the National WRA office, and they were telling all the camps that they had to reduce the number of employees. So the Minidoka officials decided that they were going to cut down on the number of boiler men and janitors in all of the blocks. This was a big deal in the winter, because, you know, in Idaho, it was cold, and you needed the boiler men to maintain the heat in the latrines, make sure that the pipes didn’t freeze, make sure that there’s access to warm water. And in addition, they also had to take on additional duties of cleaning the latrines.

VO: The strike was unsuccessful. The WRA refused to budge and when community leaders, suffering from the lack of heat in the bathrooms during the Idaho winter, asked the boilermen to return to work, they reluctantly did. But even with the boilermen working, the latrines were freezing.

HOPE OMACHI KAWASHIMA: It was cold, there was no heat at all in the bathrooms.

VO: And the trek to and from the latrines in the middle of winter was unpleasant to say the least.

SAKAMOTO: In the wintertime, that first winter, was kind of tough, and you would resist having to go to the bathroom for as long as you could because it was so cold and windy.

KUDO: You couldn’t go in the middle of the night in your pajamas all the way to the communal bathroom.

AKIKO KUROSE: Because our toilets and bathrooms were way far away and in the middle of the night, people didn’t want to go in the freezing cold to go to the bathrooms.

VO: But the incarcerees came up with a solution. The chamba.

TAKESHI NAKAYAMA: My father had set up a big bucket to use as a chamba, indoor toilet thing for the little ones.

VO: More commonly known as a chamber pot, “chamba” was the Issei transliteration of the term.

ELSA KUDO: My father pronounced it “chamba.”

KUROSE: One of the most popular things that people purchased, and the stores kept running out of, was chamber pots.

VO: Heather Harano’s family came prepared.

HELEN HARANO CHRIST: And we had to wait ’til we were called, and then we carried only the things that we had. I always carried the chamber pot. My parents knew that that would be an important thing for our family.

LOUISE KASHINO: And most of us purchased chamber pots, so we wouldn’t have to go out at night.

ELSA KUDO: He bought a chamber pot for us children.

YOSHIKO KANAZAWA: I was six and a half … For me it was too frightening, so I used a little chamber pot in our barrack.

VO: The chamba was helpful for many, but it was absolutely indispensable for Betty Sakurai, who used a wheelchair to get around. Her brother Richard explains:

RICHARD SAKURAI: She couldn’t go any further than that because the wheelchair wouldn’t go up and down the stairs. And if she got down to the ground, of course it was muddy, so she couldn’t leave the room. There weren’t any bathroom facilities in the barracks so my parents asked me to build a little chair for my sister that they could put a chamber pot underneath. So somewhere or other I found some tools, so I gathered pieces of lumber together and built a chair and cut a hole in the seat of the thing there and measured underneath it just enough so that the chamber pot would just slip underneath the hole and that my sister could use that as a toilet. I did that at the assembly center and at Minidoka.

MARGIE Y. WONG: You know my dad was elderly, for having somebody my age. He was fifty-five when I was born. When you get old you have to urinate in the evenings. And when it was snowing and everything so I remember my mom had a bottle and she would put it there for him

VO: Chambas don’t exactly clean themselves.

WONG: And in the morning it was the girls’ duties to go and, and empty it out.

ELSA KUDO: The shi shi would freeze in the winter, that’s how cold it was.

LOUISE KASHINO: It was our duty to clean out the chamber pots in the morning, you know. [Laughs]

MAS OKUI: My little brother always had to take the chamber pot out.

OKUI: My older brother and I never took the chamber pot, the chamba, we never.

OKUI: [Laughs] You didn’t want to be seen carrying it.

VO: Some chambas were, uh, multi-purpose.

YUKIKO MIYAKE: There was a lady that used to make otsukemono in the chamber pot. And when I was sick, this lady was kind enough to make some otsukemono for me and bring it over, [laughs] and my friends wouldn’t let me eat it because they said, “How can you? How do you know she didn’t make a boo—you know, make a mistake?” So I never ate her otsukemono, but I always had to tell her how nice it was and thank you very much. I never knew who the lady was, but she was always bringing otsukemono over, but my friends said, “No don’t touch it. Don’t touch it.”

VO: Food wasn’t the only thing you could make in a chamba.

GEORGE ISERI: One thing they wouldn’t allow was liquor in the camps. I had a good friend that, so he went and sat on his army cot, and he reached under the bed, pulled out a chamber pot, took the lid off and gave us a cup and said, “Here, have a drink.” [Laughs] These are brand new pots, he says, so we had a drink of wine out of this chamber pot.

VO: But for the most part the chamba had one specific—and important—purpose.

YUKIKO MIYAKE: The Issei ladies always had a chamber pot.

YUKIO KAWARATANI: So the females could, instead of walking to the toilet could go there at night.

AMY IWASAKI MASS: My mother would need to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, so she had a chamber pot like many women. And as kids we made a lot of fun of chamber pots.

KAWARATANI: Of course, it was metal, so when they put the cover on, it was a big clank, but everybody pretended not to notice.

MARY HARUKA NAKAMURA: —and we could hear the chamber pots clanging.

VO: Embarrassment aside, these Issei women—and anyone else who used the chamba—were onto something. Navigating your way to the latrine at night was not easy. It was dark—unless the guard’s spotlight was following you—and incarcerees were not allowed to carry flashlights or lanterns, Chiang explains.

CHIANG: There’s a story of a man who basically got lost, he was wandering out around outside looking for the latrine. And he wandered around for about an hour before he finally found shelter in another dining hall.

VO: The chamba was also more convenient.

TAKESHI NAKAYAMA: I guess it smelled bad, but I don’t know. Beats going all the way to the toilet, wherever that was.

VO: Especially because you never knew who might be watching in the latrines.

BETTY FUJIMOTO KASHIWAGI: And then one time when we were taking a shower, my girlfriend who was on the shy side, I said, “Hey, Nancy, that guy’s looking at you through his peephole.” Because we had a boilerman that adjusted the temperature of the water.

LOUIE WATANABE: You try to look at, peeping tom, and other side, “What are you doing over there?” [Laughs]

TED HACHIYA: But the girls found out that there were peepers up there.

INTERVIEWER: And then what?

HACHIYA: They used to holler in unison.

INTERVIEWER: What did they holler?

HACHIYA: “Peeping Tom.” [Laughs] God, it was funny. You should have heard all the fire guys scurry off the roof.

VO: But these situations were really nothing to laugh at. Here’s Nina Wallace, who has written about sexual assault in the camps for Densho:

NINA WALLACE: The latrines were a big site for sexual harassment, for, in some cases, even assaults. And, you know, just a lot of kind of generally creepy behavior that maybe wasn’t documented.

VO: Sexual assault and rape were both under-reported and covered up by the WRA and other incarcerees.

WALLACE: You see women working as secretaries or clerks, or hospital aids, but, you know, you don’t see as many women, for example, working for the Japanese Evacuation and Resettlement Study, which is where a lot of this information about sexual violence came from. And you don’t really get the perspective of people who maybe have experienced this or have a closer knowledge and understanding of what sexual violence looks like. So you see a lot of people kind of dismissing stories, dismissing that as rumors or even cases where you see people excusing, excusing rapes.

VO: Mae Tsubouchi’s story is a heartbreaking example of how the community at Poston and those placed in charge of chronicling the incarceration dismissed or excused sexual violence.

WALLACE: Mae was 24. She was incarcerated in Poston with her dad. And she had dated this older man who worked in the mess hall with her. She ended this relationship, and her ex did not take kindly to this. He for months after they broke up, would stalk her around the camp, would threaten her, would force his way into her barracks to try to get her back, I guess. Finally after a few months of this, he snuck into her room while she was sleeping and stabbed her multiple times. And she, after a few days in the hospital, died.

VO: Her murderer escaped into the desert. A search party went after him but he was never found.

WALLACE: In the notes from Richard Nishimoto, who was one of the field workers for JERS, and he describes what happened to her, but there’s just no sympathy for this woman. You know, he has several pages of his journal and he just talks about essentially her sexual history and her physical appearance. And that’s really all that he had to say about her.

VO: Sometimes family members also pressured victims to excuse or legitimize sexual violence.

WALLACE: There was one case where there was this teenage girl, I think she was maybe like, 14, 15, something like that. And she was pregnant after, being raped by, I think a family friend. And it was something that had gone on for a couple of years before she became pregnant. And her father actually was pressuring her to marry this man who had abused her to, I think the phrase that he used was ‘to legitimize the child.’ This girl actually, even though she was facing all of this pressure from her family, she actually she didn’t give into it. She did not decide to marry her rapist. I have no idea what happened to this girl from, that’s kind of where her story in the record ends, but it takes a lot of courage and a lot of bravery to advocate for yourself in that situation.

VO: Dr. Tamie Tsuchiyama’s field notes for the Japanese Evacuation and Resettlement Study describe how dangerous the latrines specifically could be. Tsuchiyama was the only Japanese American woman to work full time for the study.

VO: On December 16, 1943, Tsuchiyama, then a graduate student, wrote, “last night one middle aged man sat in the women’s latrine of his block. There was a girl taking a shower then, another girl about 16 years of age came into the latrine. He approached this girl, flashed a five-dollar bill, and asked her to ‘go to bed’ with her.”

VO: “She was frightened and stood still for a moment. The man left but the girl was too frightened to leave the latrine. When the other girl finished her shower, the two left together. They saw the man still lurking in the darkness at the corner of the building. The man was briefly confined in jail and then released on farm work.”

HANK SHOZO UMEMOTO: —and we knew about it, but it was something that was, you know, not talked about.

VO: At Tule Lake, a group of men attacked the women in one of the latrines.

WALLACE: A group of kibei turned off the electricity to a women’s latrine and then actually went inside and raped the women who happened to be inside the latrine. And it sounds like it was multiple victims and multiple rapists. And it was something that—it sounded like everyone in the camp knew about and heard about after the fact and after that women would not go to the latrines alone, like, they would always be accompanied by a husband or a father. Because it wasn’t safe to go on your own.

VO: Sumiko Yamamoto remembers taking precautions when using the latrines at Tule Lake.

SUMIKO M. YAMAMOTO: Late at night, if you’re taking a shower or if you’re using the bathroom, somebody would come in, sneak in.

YAMAMOTO: You’d get assaulted. They would assault you. So they said, “Don’t ever go late at night.”

VO: All of this made bathing an extremely stressful experience.

YAMAMOTO: —they have holes in the roof or something.

VO: Before camp, Japanese baths, or ofuros, had been an important relaxation ritual in Japanese families.

GEORGE NAKATA: And to a lot of Japanese, taking a bath or taking a shower is not simply getting clean, but it’s relaxing, it’s soothing. It’s really a period of the day to kind of unwind.

TOSHIRO IZUMI: They’d undress, wash themselves outside, and then they’d get into the ofuro and they soaked themselves real well. And I believe that’s one of the enjoyment they had.

VO: Historians have traced bathing in Japanese culture back as far as the third century. Both Shinto and Buddhist traditions used baths for religious purification. Baths were also thought to heal everything from diarrhea to colds to skin diseases, arthritis, nerve damage, muscle pain, high blood pressure, and mental health issues. On top of that, it was a great way to relax, as several have pointed out.

YASUI: Those baths were the greatest things, you know. They were very relaxing. What you do in the Japanese tradition is you soap yourself and wash yourself and rinse yourself off real thoroughly outside of the tub, and then you get inside the tub to soak and relax.

Painting by Kango Takamura at Santa Fe Internment Camp, c. 1942. Caption reads: “We made bath tubs in the shower room out of wooden fish boxes.” Courtesy of Manzanar National Historic Site and the Kango Takamura Collection.

VO: Yuriko Yamamoto enjoyed baths in the ofuro before camp, but even after an ofuro was built at Heart Mountain, she was afraid to use it.

YURIKO YAMAMOTO: They said there was a peeping tom, so I was kind of afraid to—

VO: Camp took that small pleasure away from her too. But some did find ways to enjoy a bath—even in camp. In some cases, people put barrels in the showers to use as a tub.

KAZUKO MIYOSHI: And we had one room that was a shower, and you had the little barrels you could use as a tub—

VO: In a pinch, the wash basins in the laundry room would do as a tub for little kids.

LAURIE SASAKI: In the washhouse there were these double vats. And because, you know, we were kids, we’d just go in there at nighttime and take baths in there. We’d fill up both tanks and then put our feet on one side and the body on the other and that was our furo. And we’d just shut the light off and make sure that nobody else came by there and we’d take our baths.

KAZUKO MIYOSHI: —and then eventually people built a Japanese-style bath.

VO: Of course these didn’t begin to compare to the ofuros some families had before camp.

GEORGE NAKATA: A wooden Japanese bathtub with a live fire underneath.

HOMER YASUI: This is a Japanese style bath which is usually made in an outbuilding, and the way you do that, it’s in a different building by itself, and they have a, usually, a concrete tub, could be metal, and the bottom of it they’d have, they’d have slabs of iron, and they’ve actually build a fire underneath it, and you boil the water in this tub.

VO: But in camp, you made do with what you had. And what they had at Manzanar was lots and lots of cement.

SUE KUNITOMI EMBREY: In our block we put a Japanese soaking tub. They bought the cement and made a what we call a ofuro, and people would wash themselves under the shower and then go in and soak in the tub. And then it pretty soon became sort of a socializing method for our older generation. They were kind of taking over the custom that they have in Japan.

The remains of a soaking tub constructed by incarcerees at Tule Lake. Photo taken in 1983 by Harry Gamble and his team to lobby for Tule Lake to be designated a National Historic Landmark. Courtesy of the Frank Sato Collection, Densho.

VO: Eventually, the latrines and showers were relatively finished: flush toilets and partitions for the women.

SUMIKO M. YAMAMOTO: When you take a shower, they have no partitions, and the bathrooms, they had partitions, but they were up to here. [Laughs]

VO: Even with these improvements, the latrines left much to be desired. We asked around to see what other latrine stories were out there. Matthew Hashiguchi replied on Twitter that he remembers his grandmother talking about quote “the v-shaped cut outs in the wood plank toilet seats.” His grandmother told him, “They knew to never sit at the end of the row because you’d get splashed with sewage when someone flushed.” Ew. And, of course, even after the latrines were finished, the weather could still make using them an… uncomfortable experience.

WILLIE K. ITO: Of course, we had to go to the latrine, and some of those winters were so harsh, and you would leave your barracks, trudge over to the bathhouse and the latrine, take a shower or take a bath or whatever, and then you have to trudge back to your barracks.

VO: Snow wasn’t the only problem. There was also the dust.

JAMES NISHIMURA: The dust was just as brutal as the cold.

HISA MATSUDAIRA: It was very, very dusty. And so the first thing we hit, I think was, a dust storm. And it was like being sandblasted. You have to get down like this, close your eyes, close your mouth, and just scrunch down. Still you’d get all that dirt and sand and everything.

SHARON TANAGI ABURANO: And the dust is something unlike anything you ever saw. It’s light because it’s lava, old lava dust, and this is why we had trouble. When it rained, it turns to this shoe-pulling mud, you know.

NISHIMURA: You’re always slopping in mud.

VO: The incarcerees developed ways of dealing with the mud too.

JAMES NISHIMURA: I remember the older men, members of the community, they made wooden clogs—

EGASHIRA: that you wore so you won’t get all muddy—

Kadju Nishimura on her way to the shower. She is wearing geta, which kept her feet clean as she walked through the dirt and mud to reach the shower facility. Photo taken c. 1944 at Minidoka. Courtesy of the Wing Luke Asian Museum, the Hatate Collection.

TAKAHASHI: It was so muddy. I remember one time that the thong broke on that was holding your toe and that held onto the geta, you know, and I stepped right into the mud and was ugh, it was terrible—

VO: That wasn’t the only benefit of getas.

SHIG YABU: Well, I had the worst case of athlete’s feet, because we had an open shower facility… but it doesn’t take much to have that spread, rampant, everybody gets it, you know.

KAZUMI YONEYAMA: We did wear getas in the showers, so that our feet wouldn’t touch the concrete, but I think that was mostly to prevent getting athlete’s feet.

YABU: —so we start all wearing getas, with scrap wood, we all made getas, and that worked great.

WILLIE K. ITO: Some of these artisan guys were fantastic. They would fashion beautiful getas with the straps that were beautifully knitted and formed and whatever with stuffing so it didn’t hurt your feet. And all of these artifacts that were created out of necessity, but at the same time very artistic. The wood was polished and it was lacquered, and beautiful. And then, of course, you had the utility getas that kept your feet out of the mud coming from the bathhouse and all that.

WILLIAM R. JOHNSTON: Clop-clop-clop-clop. Quite a distinctive sound.

ITO: So that’s another thing, I marvel at the ingenuity of some of these people that made life much easier.

VO: Living in the camps was humiliating. The loss of freedom, being suspected of being the enemy and the ever-present threat of sexual assault that never went away—the big things. Then there were the latrines with no partitions. Food poisoning. Neighbors hearing your every move, word, and… fart. A gross, undignified, anxiety-inducing nightmare. Waiting in line in the dead heat of summer with a belly full of tainted macaroni salad. Carrying the chamba down Sewer Lane, hoping its unspeakable contents didn’t slosh onto you. Winding your way around ditches of raw human waste that formed in the streets. And in the face of all those humiliations, were the cardboard boxes that women carried with them to the latrines, the block’s cement ofuro, the handcrafted geta, and the people behind them—the old men who lovingly crafted scrap wood into shoes, the girls who kept lookout for one another when they had their periods, the friends and family members who protected one another in the latrines, the boy who built his sister a toilet because her wheelchair couldn’t navigate the dust, mud and snow. This is a story about the lavatory. And that story is humiliating and heartbreaking and flawed and resilient… and sometimes just plain funny.

VO: You’ve been listening to Campu. Please subscribe, like, share, review—on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you’re tuning in we love reading the reviews and hearing your feedback! Or hey, just pass the word along. And a big, big thank you to everyone who’s helped out so far! Visit densho.org/campu for additional resources and this episode’s transcript.

VO: Campu is produced by Hana and Noah Maruyama. The series is brought to you by Densho. Their mission is to preserve and share the history of the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans to promote equity and justice today. Follow them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at @DenshoProject. Support for Campu comes from the Atsuhiko and Ina Goodwin Tateuchi Foundation. Special thanks to Natasha Varner, Brian Niiya, Nina Wallace, Naoko Tanabe, Andrea Simenstad, and Connie Chiang for their assistance with this episode. This episode included excerpts from more than 70 Densho oral histories as well as interviews conducted by Frank Abe for his film Conscience and the Constitution. The names of the narrators featured in this episode are: Marian Asao Kurosu, Rokuro Kurihara, Masako Murakami, George Azumano, Frank Yamasaki, Mika Hiuga, Akiko Kurose, Dorothy H. Sato, Hiroshi Kashiwagi, Jim Kajiwara, Lucy Kirihara, Taylor Tomita, Henry Sakamoto, Dorothy Kuwaye, Etsuko Ichikawa Osaki, Sachi Kaneshiro, Cherry Kinoshita, Hope Omachi Kawashima, Isao Kikuchi, George Iseri, Betty Fujimoto Kashiwagi, Keiko Kageyama, Grace Watanabe Kimura, Sue Kunitomi Embrey, Mas Okui, Louise Kashino, Victor Ikeda, Peggie Nishimura Bain, Frank Kitamoto, Toshikazu ‘Tosh’ Okamoto, Min Tonai, Helen Tanigawa Tsuchiya, Hikoji Takeuchi, Fred Oda, Lily Kajiwara, George Katagiri, Hisa Matsudaira, Taketora Jim Tanaka, Jimi Yamaichi, Yukio Kawaratani, Masamizu Kitajima, Elsa Kudo, Takeshi Nakayama, Helen Harano Christ, Yoshiko Kanazawa, Richard Sakurai, Margie Y. Wong, Yukiko Miyake, Amy Iwasaki Mass, Mary Haruka Nakamura, Louie Watanabe, Ted Hachiya, Hank Shozo Umemoto, Sumiko M. Yamamoto, George Nakata, Toshiro Izumi, Homer Yasui, Yuriko Yamamoto, Kazuko Miyoshi, Laurie Sasaki, Sumiko M. Yamamoto, Willie K. Ito, George Katagiri, James Nishimura, Sharon Tanagi Aburano, June Takahashi, Tomiko Hayashida Egashira, Shig Yabu, Kazuko Yoneyama, William R. Johnston, Yasuko Miyoshi Iseri.


Like in every advanced antient city in Ephesus the Latrines ( public toilets ) were also built as a need. Latrines were used as a part of Scholastica Baths. Latrines of Ephesus were a place for people to enjoy and relax. It was one of the place for socializing.

After passing the Scholastica Baths the Latrines locate at the corner of Curetes Street on the right hand side. They were used by public, only men. The enterance of Latrines was a double-winged door. On three sides of open courtyard there are U-shaped 48 marble seats with holes. A deep sewage pipe was located under the seats which was for allowing the fast sterilization of the toilet drains and the open courtyard in the middle was for the rapid removel of bad smells.

For cleaning themselves up there was a clean water channel which is passing through in front of the toilet seats. They were using sticks with a sponge for cleaning. Sponges were kept in vinegar for hygiene. Before using, people would take the sitcks and wash with the fresh water running in the channels in front of the closets. In the middle was a pool open to the sky while there were columns at the sides of the pool supporting the roof to cover the toilets. The room was kept cool with a central pool in the summer and heated by the central heating system with the hot water which was brought from Scholastica Baths via clay baked pipes.

Change history

McMahon, A. in Sanitation, Latrines and Intestinal Parasites in Past Populations (ed. Mitchell, P. D.) 19–40 (Routledge, 2015).

Antoniou, G. P. &amp Angelakis, A. N. in Sanitation, Latrines and Intestinal Parasites in Past Populations (ed. Mitchell, P. D.) 41–68 (Routledge, 2015).

Koloski-Ostrow, A. O. The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy (Univ. North Carolina Press, 2015).

Robinson, M. &amp Rowan, E. in A Companion to Food in the Ancient World (eds Wilkins, J. &amp Nadeau, R.) 105–115 (Wiley-Blackwell, 2015).

Rowan, E. in Fish &amp Ships: Production et Commerce des Salsamenta Durant l'Antiquité (eds Botte, E. &amp Leitch, V.) 61–74 (Errance, 2014).

Jansen, G. C. M. et al. (eds) Roman Toilets: Their Archaeology and Cultural History. BABESCH Suppl. 19 (Peeters, 2011).

Watch the video: Latrines - Mémoire de Merde WV041. WV Sorcerer 巫唱片 (July 2022).


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