Daily Life Before Indoor Plumbing

Water: can be hauled by hand by someone in the household if you’re poor or don’t need that much of it or are out in the country, but in places with any sort of population density, you can pay a water-carrier to supply you. Basically a guy driving around a cart with a giant tank of water on it, to avoid the hassle of everybody hauling it bucketful by bucketful from a public fountain/well/pond half a mile away. In Paris in the 1830s it was one sou per bucket (thanks for all your nitpicky details, Eugène Sue!). And here’s what Hugo has to say about Montfermeil:

“The large houses, the aristocracy, of which the Thenardier tavern formed a part, paid half a farthing a bucketful to a man who made a business of it, and who earned about eight sous a day in his enterprise of supplying Montfermeil with water; but this good man only worked until seven o’clock in the evening in summer, and five in winter; and night once come and the shutters on the ground floor once closed, he who had no water to drink went to fetch it for himself or did without it.”

(The coin Hapgood translates as “half a farthing” is a liard, or a quarter of a sou. That works out awkwardly to 1.25 centimes (1/80 of a franc) in decimal currency, which was adopted in 1795 and used continuously even through regime changes, but the base-12 coins from the Ancien Régime livre/sou/denier system were still in circulation and remained legal tender until the mid-19th century. MORE THAN YOU EVER WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT FRENCH CURRENCY.)

As for toilets, you used a chamberpot at night and then emptied it into the sewer (in the city) or latrine (in the country) later. Apartment buildings would also have a communal toilet—basically a seat with a hole in it that emptied into a waste pit, which was also used for dirty wash-water and kitchen refuse. In urban England city workers would come through and empty the pit at night for use as fertilizer, but I’m not sure about Paris; it might have been the responsibility of the building owner or, in practice, the concierge, to either empty household waste into the sewers or hire someone to do it. The actual setup of the waste pit varied from “hole in the ground” to “big pail” to more elaborate earth-closet systems as the state of sanitation progressed, but that’s only relevant to the tenants in terms of how stinky the Seat of Ease is. From their end, no matter what the underlying sanitation system, it’s still a non-portable Port-A-Potty.

Full-immersion bathing was incredibly labor intensive due to water-hauling, but people still got clean—pitcher, wash-basin, washcloth. If you could afford nice furniture you’d probably have a washstand to hold it all, maybe even a fancy lavabo system with a tap. (Basically a sink, except the water came from a small tank instead of being piped in, and the basin had to be emptied by hand.) Hair-washing was rare, though, especially among women: you cleaned your hair by brushing it really thoroughly to get rid of dirt and excess oil, then you washed your hairbrush. This was partly because of the aforementioned hassle of immersion bathing, partly because detergent shampoo hadn’t been invented yet and soap is actually quite bad for human hair: it leaves it brittle and has to be followed with a vinegar rinse to avoid leaving soap scum. The brushing method was a much more effective way of cleaning hair at the time.

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