Food and Sanitation

Food and sanitation are the titles of chapter 1 and 2, respectively of “Progress:  Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future”  by Johan Norbert.  As the purpose of these blog posts is to update our mental models regarding how much change there has been between now and the past, only the nature of the improvements will be presented, and not the innovations that underlay the improvements.  As it is only a fraction of the improvements that are in the book can be related, so this is a matter of necessity or convenience, depending on your perspective.  If you are interested in the technology and practices that underlay these improvements, please read the book.  Indeed, everyone should benefit from reading this book.

Famines are still relatively recent.  In Sweden, as in most if not all European countries failed harvests were not uncommon.  A single famine, between 1695 and 1697, claimed the lives of one in fifteen.  There were references of cannibalism  in oral accounts.   Absent machinery, cold storage, irrigation or artificial fertilizers, crop failures were a common threat, and without modern communications and transportation, failed harvests often spelled famine.

France, which was one of the wealthiest countries in the world, suffered twenty-six national famines in the eleventh century, two in the twelfth, four in the fourteenth, seven in the fifteenth, thirteen in the sixteenth, eleven in the seventeenth and sixteen in the in the eighteenth.  Moreover, there were also hundreds of local famines in each century.  In 1694, a chronicler in Meulan, Normandy, noted that the hungry harvested the wheat before it was ripe, and “large numbers of people lived on grass like animals.”  But they might have been relatively lucky, in central France in 1662, “Some people ate human flesh.”  The years 1695-7 are known in Finland as “the years of many deaths” when between a quarter and a third of the entire population died.  Now this is in  privileged Europe.  Things were far worse in Asia, China, and India.  In India the starving split open the stomachs of the dead or dying and drew as the entrails to fill their own bellies.

Even when times were good in the most developed countries, the food not always was very nutritious, nor could it be kept very long.  Often it had to be procured just before eating.  People dried and salted down their food for storage, but salt was expensive.
Norbert writes, “In an ordinary home in my ancestors’ province of Angermanland a hundred years ago, there were four meals:  potatoes, herring and bread for breakfast; porridge or gruel for lunch; potatoes herring and bread for dinner; and porridge or gruel for supper.  This is what people ate every day except on Sundays, when they had meat soup (if there was any meat) mixed with barley grains.  There being no china, everyone ate from the same dish, using a wooden spoon which was afterwords licked clean and put away in the table drawer.”

At the end of the eighteenth century, ordinary French families had to spend about half their income on grains alone.  The French and English in the eighteenth century received fewer calories than the current average in sub-Saharan Africa, the region which is most tormented by undernourishment.

It has been estimated that just 200 years ago some 20% of the inhabitants of England and France could not work at all.  At most they had enough energy for a few hours of slow walking per day, which condemned most of them to a life of begging.   This lack of adequate nutrition had a serious effect on the population’s intellectual development, since children’s brains need fat to develop properly.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the average daily coloric intake in western Europe was between 2,000 and 2,500 calories, which is below what it is in Africa today.  By 1950 it was already around 3,000.

However, even if they had access to sufficient nutritious food, without adequate sanitation, it would have been for nought.  Water is the source of all life, but throughout history it has also been a source of great suffering.  Even in small settlements it becomes contaminated by human waste and spreads bacteria, viruses, parasites and worms.

Medieval English village homes had no privy.  People would walk “about an arrow shot from the house” when they had to go.  Some people used chamber pots, and in some places there were open trenches with simple seats.  In the homes of the rich and powerful, latrines were often situated under the dining room.  This gave a whiff of danger to every dinner party.  For example, in 1183 the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II organized a great feast while holding court in his castle in Erfurt, Germany.  As the guests were eating the floor of the great hall began to sink and many noble guests fell into the cesspit beneath.  Many drowned.

Although flush toilets have been used in many civilizations, including the Roman Empire, the modern water closet was invented in 1596 for Queen Elizabeth I.   There are accounts of aristocrats soiling the corridors of Versailles and the Palais Royal.  The reason why Versailles’s hedges were so tall was so that they could function as toilet partitions.  And eighteenth-century Versailles could be regarded as “the receptacle of all of humanity’s horrors—the passageways, corridors and courtyards are filled with urine and fecal manner.

At that time taking a bath was rare and even controversial.  Queen Elizabeth 1 was an early adopter and is said to have taken a bath once a month whether she thought she needed one or not.

Europe’s greatest cities  were filled with huge piles of human and animal excrement, and their rivers and lakes were  as fetid swamps, frequently filled with waste.  Waste would be dumped into city streets and rain would wash it into the local watershed.  In 1900 horses supposedly filled New York City streets with more than 2.5 million pounds of manure and 60,000 gallons of urine daily.

The major push for a modern sewerage system came after “The Great Stink” in the summer of 1858, when Benjamin Disraeli compared the Thames to the river running through hell in Greek mythology: “a Stygian pool reeking with ineffable and intolerable horrors.”

During the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century, many cities built modern water and sewer systems, and began systematic garbage collection, and health dramatically improved.  One study found that clean water was responsible for 43% of the total reduction in mortality, 74% of the infant mortality reduction, and 62% of the child mortality reduction.

In 1980, no more than 24% of the world’s population had access to proper sanitation facilities.  By 2015, this had increased to 68%.  82% of the urban population now have access, compared to 51% of the rural population.

If you have yet to do so, go to   It is a very interesting website.  You might find the documentary “Don’t Panic End Poverty” well worth viewing.

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