By Joanna Hoyt
“The sewer is the conscience of the city.” So Victor Hugo wrote in Les Misérables.
Condensations and dramatizations of Hugo’s greatest story usually leave out his lengthy reflections on sewage, but he cared enough about the subject to introduce it into both his great novels dealing with revolution and the social order.
In Hugo’s Quatre-Vingt-Treize, which dealt with the great French Revolution, the dying hero Gauvain uses some of his last words to reflect on the irresponsibility of discarding human waste and the great improvement to liberty and food for all which would be obtained if only that waste were responsibly used as fertilizer. In Les Misérables, Hugo spends several chapters reflecting on the sewer’s many meanings and effects. He describes it as a source of diseases and a drain of valuable resources, but also as an honest place where social pretensions are stripped away; as a haunt of gangsters and predators, but also as a refuge for revolutionaries and humanitarians. He also uses the mismanagement of sewage as a metaphor for how his society discarded and stigmatized good people who were poor or who had run afoul of the law, making it harder for them to help society and giving them motives to attack it.
Hugo’s interest in sewers was not merely a bizarre personal obsession. One of the recognized causes of the actual 1832 insurrection (which he dramatized in Les Misérables) was disgust with the mismanagement of the Paris sewers. The cholera epidemic of 1832 killed twenty thousand Parisians, especially in overcrowded areas. The sickness was widely blamed on the foul odors arising from the clogged and inadequate sewer system. While this theory didn’t get the mechanism of transmission right, water fouled by sewage was likely a major source of cholera and other diseases.
The Early History of Parisian Sewage Disposal
Paris, like most of the rest of Europe, had a complicated history around sewage. For several centuries after Paris’ founding in the 300s AD, refuse was mostly thrown into its dirt streets or into the rivers, though sometimes it was carted off and used as fertilizer. (This is said to be one reason why a gentlemen escorting a lady along the road were supposed to walk on the street side: the lady, closer to the buildings, was more apt to be sheltered by balconies and overhangs, less likely to be splashed by chamber pots emptied from second-story windows.)
As industries developed, other uses were found for human waste: Frederique Krupa writes in “Paris: Urban Sanitation Before the 20th Century” that factories used urine and feces in papermaking, dying and making saltpeter. But there was still enough unwanted waste to foul the streets.
In the 1300s, ordinances were passed forbidding dumping of wastes and forming a corps of sanitation workers, but the rules were widely disregarded and the workers overworked. The first sewers were also set up at this time, but they weren’t well planned or maintained, and the royalty and nobility were not much inclined to take notice of them (except to flee areas that became particularly foul-smelling,)
In the 1400s there was some attempt to crack down on dumping waste into the Seine, and official waste dumps were set up outside the city. In the 1500s those dumps were fortified so that no invading enemy could set up cannon atop the mounds and rake the city with their fire.
A Social Disease
When the plague struck in the 1500s there was a revival of interest in sanitation. Property owners were made to build cesspools, although it wasn’t until the 1800s that these were required to be watertight, and the public gardens were equipped with latrines. Public attitudes, however, did not always keep pace with regulations; in 1780 another law was passed penalizing the dumping of chamber pots out of windows and onto the streets.
The next major changes were also brought about because of disease. The cholera epidemics of the early 1800s, and the political unrest which they fostered, renewed government interest in sanitation. During the 1830s public waterworks, providing sources of clean water as well as regularly cleaned latrines, were undertaken at great expense. In the 1850s Paris’ houses were systematically and directly hooked up to a wastewater system handling what we now call gray water, and the cleaning of cesspools became more systematic. The 1850s sewer system handled gray water and storm water only; waste was hauled farther and farther from the city for disposal. The new, clean sewers became popular boating locations. The waste dumps remained foul and continued to contaminate the Seine.
In the late 1860s new experiments with sewage treatment led to the revitalization of sandy, barren soils for farming. France was at war again, this time with Prussia instead of itself, and needed an enhanced local food supply. Victor Hugo’s dream appeared to be within reach.
Something Lost, Something Gained
Indoor plumbing became much more widely available in the later part of the 1800s, and fairly modern bathrooms with toilets and hot and cold running water began to be common in the early 1900s. This, combined with earlier innovations, helped to greatly reduce cholera epidemics. But the growing sanitary consciousness of the 1900s also made people less and less willing to tolerate food grown in human waste, which was once again routed into the sewers and washed away.
How much of a loss is that? That depends on how you read history and science. The modern development of the sewer was in part a rediscovery of the Roman practice of sewage disposal. But Rome’s decline is blamed in part on the depletion of topsoil which resulted from overpopulation and the discarding of humanure. Rome became increasingly dependent on food exports, and therefore increasingly unstable. Other great civilizations have followed a similar route—for some examples, consult John Bellamy Foster’s book The Vulnerable Planet.
In recent times the development of petrochemical fertilizers made manure seem less necessary. But those also have their dangers. Serious questions have been raised about their impact on soil structure and long-term fertility. Their runoff contributes to algal blooms in lakes and to the growing dead zone in the ocean. Their production and their overuse drive climate change—which, like the unsanitary sewage handling of an earlier area, affects poor people first and most severely. Perhaps Hugo had a good point after all.
For more on the history of Paris’ sewage systems, see Frederique Krupa ‘s “Paris: Urban Sanitation Before the 20th Century, ” http://www.simple-is-beautiful.org/fredek/parisproject/alltextparis.html For a broader history of sewers (focused on sanitation not on fertilizer) see http://www.sewerhistory.org/time-lines/tracking-down-the-roots-of-our-sanitary-sewers/part-2-the-middle-ages/ If you’re interested in Hugo’s thoughts on sewage and society, you can read The Intestine of Leviathan, an extract from Les Misérables, online at https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hugo/victor/lesmis/book5.2.html For more on the climate impacts of petrochemical fertilizer, see https://grist.org/climate-change/new-science-reveals-agricultures-true-climate-impact/