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.

Blue transfer ware patterned toilet bowl
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.

Wattle pattern earthenware chamber pot
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 teddy bear
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.

Red Cedar and mahogany commode chair with a hinged lid seat
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
Australian homemade commode
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.

Porcelain Bunnykins figurine called 'Outdoor Dunny Bunnykins'
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.

Metal sanitary pan with lid
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.

Photograph of toilet rolls
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, Curator, July 2018

10 responses to “Present and Past Family Life – Toilets

    • Hi Jeanette,
      Thanks for getting in touch. We’re unable to advise and recommend contacting your local council with this question.
      Sarah Reeves, MAAS

  • Hi
    I have a wooden toilet seat mounted on a metal ‘throne’- D shaped in cross section- looks like it may have had a dunny can under the seat.
    The lid on the seat has a metal reservoir, with a threaded filling hole and bung, and under the seat is an outlet, plus a sign instructing the user to close the lid slowly. It apparently dispensed a quantity of liquid from the reservoir into the dunny can when the lid was closed. No other associated mechanism. Looks like 1950s technology.
    Can you throw any light on its likely vintage, and/or what would have been dispensed?

    • Hi Ian,

      Replying on behalf of Curator Margaret Simpson:

      I think you may be talking about a ‘Sani-Lid’ (see this advertisement dated 1951) which dispensed chemicals into the pan to prevent flies and odours.

      I hope that answers your question!

      Sarah Reeves, MAAS

        • Hi Ian,
          So glad we could help! Makes you wonder what the difference was between the standard and superior models!

  • I’m currently writing a story set in a Western Australian town in 1975, would they be using an outdoor toilet?

    • Hi Alan,

      I’ve consulted with Curator Margaret Simpson, who wrote this post, and she says: “I am unable to definitely advise whether a home in a Western Australian town used on outdoor toilet or not. Sewerage and septic tanks replaced pan collection at different times at different places. However, I can say that in many NSW country towns sewerage was not laid on until the 1960s and 1970s.”

      Sorry that we’re not able to give a definitive answer, but I hope that this helps somewhat with your story.

      Happy writing 🙂

      Sarah, MAAS

  • Hi i have an old leather penny holder ,hold 3 pennys .
    On the front it says ” Just in case ”
    So people I’ve talked to seem to think it was for when you had to pay a penny to go to the loo !??
    Would this be true as I have never seen one befor and cant seem to find any info on it ??

    • Response from Curator Margaret Simpson:

      Yes, that could be what it was used for. The penny holder could have kept the coins in a handy place rather than searching for them in your purse or handbag. Certainly, some public toilets until at least the early 1960s required women to drop a penny into a slot to enable the toilet door to open.

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