Inside the Collection

Present and Past Family Life – Toilets

Wooden toy farm house, windmill, wishing well, duck pond and outside toilet with lead farm animals and farmer.
An outdoor toilet featured in this collection of Australian toy farm buildings, maker unknown, made in Australia, 1931-1945, MAAS Collection, 2002/58/1. Photo: Geoff Friend, MAAS

Lav, privy, loo, thunderbox, WC, outhouse, toot, throne, restroom, powder room, washroom, john, kharsi, bog, comfort station, and even twinkle-palace, are just some of the euphemisms used for toilets. If you were in the military you’d be using the latrines, on a sailing ship going to the heads, but in country Australia it’d be the dunny.

We take flush toilets for granted as the unmentionable material disappears forever into a piped underground sewerage system never to be seen or thought of again. If you think that chamber pots, commodes, and outside toilets over pits or pans go back to over 100 years or more, think again. To many grandparents of today these are only too familiar.

A toilet bowl decorated inside with blue pictures on a white background.
Patterned toilet bowl in blue transfer ware, semi-stoneware, made in England, c.1860, MAAS Collection, B1115

Over 100 years ago wealthy people’s homes in cities had access to running water and flush toilets, called water closets (WCs). The toilet bowls of these were often beautifully decorated so when you looked in there were garden landscapes, urns, birds and flowers in blue transfer ware. The first sewers in Sydney were constructed in 1857 and the water closets ran into a sewerage system which discharged straight into Sydney Harbour. As the city grew this system soon became inadequate and a series of large engineering projects were constructed. The first was an ocean outfall at Bondi completed in 1889.

Meanwhile, for working-class people living in overcrowded areas of the cities, such as around The Rocks, in Sydney, toilets were outside and often had to be shared among several families. These had no plumbing and the effluent flowed into a cesspit or cesspool. If this contaminated the water supply diseases such as typhoid resulted, and many people died, especially children.

A large round ceramic pot decorated around the body, rim and handle with line drawings of wattle and fuchsias in brown.
Wattle pattern earthenware chamber pot made by Doulton & Co., Burselm, England, c.1891-1906, MAAS Collection, 2001/2/11. Photo: Rebecca Evans, MAAS
A bedroom scene with a doll's four-poster bed with a patchwork quilt under which is a teddy bear. Under the bed is a toy chamber pot while next to the bed is a toy wardrobe made of cane. On the floor is a toy candle holder and miniature book.
A doll’s four-poster bed with a patchwork quilt being used by a teddy bear with a toy chamber pot underneath. The bedroom scene also features a toy wardrobe and candle holder all dating from the mid to late 1900s. MAAS Collection A10780-1, 89/205/19, A10779 and K781. Photo: Geoff Friend, MAAS

For the young, old, infirm or sick going to the toilet outside the house was a problem, especially on icy cold nights. Chamber pots for adults and children were kept under beds. Chairs and other types of furniture were cunningly disguised as places to sit and do what was required in the comfort of the bedroom. The results fell into a hidden bucket to be removed later. When I was a child my Scottish grandmother, who grew up in a Glasgow tenement, continued to use her chamber pot in Sydney well into her 70s, despite an arthritic knee.

A timber chair with curved handles, a straight back and a seat which lifts to reveal a hole.
Red Cedar and mahogany commode chair with a hinged lid seat. The front panel would have hidden a bucket. Maker unknown in Australia, c.1840-1860, MAAS Collection A9837. Photo: Photo by Steven Agius, MAAS
The home-made commode comprises a chair with an attached pedestal sideboard made of three wooden crates nailed together. The horizontal shelf of the central crate has a circular hole cut for a potty and is strengthened by six wooden supports. The two side crates each have a removable sliding drawer. The whole piece is covered in floral print upholstery fabric of cream background with red, blue and violet floral print.
Australian homemade commode made from wooden packing cases for kerosene tins and covered with floral print upholstery. The lid is covered in fabric and when put down hid the timber frame. Made by Jack Male, Rose, Bay, NSW, Australia, 1909, MAAS Collection, 89/1428. Photo: Peter Garrett, MAAS
A rectangular timber box with a circular hole cut out of the top with a hinged lid to cover the hole when not in use.
Australian homemade child’s commode constructed from an old wooden butter box and complete with a hinged lid. Made by a family living in the bush, 1900-1930, MAAS collection, 86/1078. Photo: Kate Chidlow, MAAS

On Australian farms and in villages where there was lots of land a big hole was dug and the outside toilet placed on top of the ‘long drop’. Large families might have a large communal toilet with three holes of different sizes. However, the usual arrangement was a seat made from a plank of wood secured at its ends to the walls of the toilet with a large round hole in the middle. Colloquially known as the dunny, it was ideally sited facing east so the occupant could relax with the door ajar enjoying the warm morning sun. It also had to be well secured as knocking over dunnies was an unkind prank played by local youths.

Mould-cast figure of a male rabbit on a circular base, representing a garden path. He is coming out of the 'dunny'. The toilet is depicted as a wooden structure with a corrugated iron roof, a built-in toilet and three quarter sized door. A toilet roll holder is fixed to the door and a redback spider sits on the toilet seat. The rabbit is shown leaving the toilet with his braces hanging. He is replacing his hat and carrying his morning newspaper under his arm. He is dressed in dark blue belted trousers with red braces and brown boots. He is also wearing a blue buttoned shirt with the sleeves rolled up to reveal the sleeves of his winter vest.
Porcelain Bunnykins figurine called ‘Outdoor Dunny Bunnykins’ complete with a redback spider on the toilet seat. It was designed by Wendy Boyce-Davies in Australia for Royal Doulton, England, commissioned by Waterford Wedgwood Royal Doulton Australia, made in Thailand, 2012, MAAS Collection, 2013/12/2. Photo by Sotha Bourn, MAAS

I grew up in a small New South Wales rural town before the sewer was connected. Ours was an outside toilet in the backyard. Underneath the seat plank was a removable sanitary pan (dunny can). About once a week the full pan was taken away and replaced with a clean empty one. This unfortunate task was the job of the sanitary carter (dunnyman) with his horse and wagon and later a truck. Going to the dunny, especially in summer towards the end of the collection week, was a breath-holding, peg-on-nose experience.

A black metal cylinder with a circular metal lid with a central handle. The lid is secured to the sides of the cylinder with two clasps.
Metal sanitary pan (dunny can) with a clip-on lid. The pan has been used but would have been washed and tarred to prevent rust at the Sanitary Depot. Maker unknown, made in Australia and used in the Matraville area of Sydney, 1950-1962, MAAS Collection, 2000/22/1. Photo: Marinco Kojdanovski, MAAS

It wasn’t only the country towns which weren’t sewered. Some suburbs around Sydney had the dunnyman visit right up until the 1960s. In 1992 the Museum acquired a dunny can from a donor in Matraville. It was souvenired in 1962 when the sewer arrived there despite the Malabar sewage treatment works, which opened in 1919, being so close by.

Just like flush toilets, toilet paper is a relatively recent phenomenon. All sorts of materials have been used over time. If you were a Viking, you’d have used sheep’s wool, an Eskimo tundra moss, and a peasant used hay. French royalty used lace while the earliest references to toilet paper come from China. This was only used by the emperor and his family and each sheet was perfumed. In colonial America corn cobs were used to cleanse delicate areas but once newspaper was invented, yesterday’s news and even old telephone books, were commonly used. In Australia, these were cut into sheets by the householder and held together with a piece of fencing wire or string and hung on a nail inside the dunny. Another source of paper were the thick department store catalogues like Anthony Horderns sent out to householders.

Three rolls of toilet paper with colourful wrappers around them. One is decorated like a Union Jack and another is labelled Bronco toilet roll.
Toilet rolls made in England and Australia between 1930 and 1942, MAAS Collection, 89/1634. Photo: Margaret Simpson, MAAS

Commercial toilet paper was first made in 1857 and sold as “Therapeutic Paper”. Each sheet contained soothing aloe to help cure sores. It came in packaging of 500 sheets and was very expensive.

Thankfully, today we’re now removed from the smell and yuck factor of cesspool toilets, and pit and pan dunnies. These often made family life trying and tragically were responsible for much disease and death. On a lighter note though, the demise of the outside toilet is said to be responsible for a reduction in the understanding of the night sky. Children sometimes learnt to identify the stars and configurations on the nightly trip to the dunny before bed.

Written by Margaret Simpson, July 2018

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