The subject of sewers was recently brought to my attention. What brought the subject to my attention was the sewage in my basement. What put the sewage in my basement was threefold.
Firstly, a whole lot of rain.
Secondly, an invasion of my sewer pipe by tree roots.
And thirdly, but most importantly, a break in the sewer pipe running from my house to the main sewer out in the street, preventing the complete removal of said tree roots until such time as said broken pipe could be fixed. Needless to say, the pipe was fixed as rapidly as possible, the remaining cloggage was removed, and my basement become sewage free.
This was not my first encounter with public sanitation systems. That first encounter occurred decades ago, in the summer of 1968. While others of my generation were celebrating the Summer of Love, I experienced a summer of sewage. I had a summer job with the village water and sewer department. The most memorable part of that job was shoveling the euphemistically named sludge from the city sludge beds.
What was that sludge composed of, you may well inquire? It was the solids, as they were equally euphemistically named, the solid portion of the sewage after it ran through the whole treatment process. It was poop. It was cellulose fibers from the toilet paper. It was a lot of hair. It was a lot of other less mentionable items that had been flushed down the toilets of the town, items that were particularly durable, being made of rubber, and I don’t mean rubber duckies. That said, the treatment process resulted in a product that smelled, but not in a bad way. It smelled like wet dirt. But, then, good dirt is mainly worm and bug poop.
The history of humans endeavoring to get the poop out of their cities goes back a long way. The Indus River civilization in India had complicated sewage disposal systems as early as 2350 BCE. In the city of Lothal, all houses had a toilet connected to a covered sewer, with water running through it to conduct the waste to either streams, or more commonly, cesspits. The Babylonians used baked clay pipes, as early as 4000 BCE, to conduct sewage out of their cities.
The Minoans, the ancient Greeks, the Mayans, and the ancient Chinese all had covered sewage pipes of one sort or another. The Romans, in Rome, had one of the biggest sewers of ancient times, the Cloaca Maxima, which is still in use today, but only for rain water. Cloaca Maxima, oddly enough, means “big sewer”. The public toilets and baths dumped into it.
Later Europeans usually just had outhouses, private and public, that used pits, and had to be shoveled out when full. Users of these outhouses were encouraged to urinate into buckets, which were emptied into vats. After a bit of aging, the resulting ammonia was used to degrease wool. Sheep’s wool is very greasy.
The contents of the pits were usually used for fertilizer, until the introduction of gunpowder. The poop was then piled high. As it aged, the poop produced saltpeter, that is to say, sodium nitrate, the component of gunpowder that produces oxygen very rapidly when ignited. What may have come out explosively in the outhouse became even more explosive later.
With that incendiary sentence I will end this quasi. I am feeling a bit flushed.
First declaimed on the Squatcher’s Lounge Podcast:
For the reading impaired, an audio version of this quasi theory may be found here: