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The Sewer of City Life

Nineteenth-century Europeans weren’t so different from people in the twenty-first century. Some people liked the laid-back feel of the countryside, while others preferred the hustle and bustle of city life. There were plenty who lived in the country who were excited by the possibilities that the city offered. Men wanted to leave the rural life behind to find work in the cities, and women wanted to find men who found work in the cities. The factories attracted people by the thousands and cities soon filled to capacity and beyond, not just in Britain but everywhere industrialization took hold. The influx of people into the cities, most built in the Middle Ages and never intended for the population pressure of the nineteenth century, caused more than a few problems.

The Growing Cities

Factory owners often built their factories in cities because medieval cities were often built on rivers or along the seas. Rivers and seaports offered manufacturers easy access to raw materials that had been shipped in and offered an easy way to transport their finished products to other markets.

Cities grew at such a rapid pace during the Industrial Revolution that huge population shifts occurred. In England, for example, several million people moved from the countryside into the cities in the first half of the nineteenth century, doubling the percentage of England’s population that lived in cities to fully one third of the country by 1850. After another 50 years, practically half of England’s population were city- dwellers. Just a century before, the overwhelming majority of Englishmen lived in the country.

The phenomenon occurred elsewhere in Europe, too, with the most notable examples being France and Germany. While Britain’s boom occurred beginning in the eighteenth century, the rest of Europe experienced the boom in the nineteenth century. This pattern reflected the birth of the Industrial Revolution in Britain in the eighteenth century and the spread of the Revolution to the continent the following century. The number of large cities, or those with a population of 100,000 or more, nearly tripled between 1800 and 1900. Some cities in Germany, for example, experienced growth of a full one percent for many years, a rate of growth that would have caused the cities’ populations to double within two generations’ time. The existing buildings in the cities were maximizing their space by housing two and three families per unit and the buildings were side by side by side. There existed almost no recreational space in the cities. The huge and ever-increasing populations of European cities did nothing to help the conditions that already existed there.


Of course the infrastructures of these medieval cities felt the strain of such overpopulation, but it also created problems on a more personal, human level. Workers from the countryside often packed up and moved to the city with no intention of returning. Once in the city, the worker and his family settled wherever they could. Eventually, the finite number of apartments, or rather rooms, and living quarters filled up. When that happened, families frequently doubled up and in some cases packed three or more families into one room. Some families even rented attics and basements. The buildings that held these families were long, straight, tall buildings with as many rooms as possible crammed into the available space. The problem of overpopulation in European cities was exacerbated by the lack of running water, sewer systems, and the absence of public transportation.

Sanitation? What's That?

The living conditions in the overcrowded cities of post-industrial Europe were nothing short of sickening. With so many people packed into tiny places, disease ran rampant. Because most of the larger cities were medieval cities, sewage ran down the sides of streets rather than in underground sewers. People commonly threw their waste out windows and into the streets as they always had. Outhouses overflowed. Sewage was everywhere, creating a permanent stench. People walking to and from work tracked the waste into their homes and workplaces. Passing carriages splashed the sewage on everyone around. Runoff from the streets frequently seeped into cellars and basements where families lived. Such incidents were widespread and not just isolated, extreme occurrences.

The unsanitary conditions were worsened by the lack of transportation, as most people walked everywhere they went. The fact that people rarely took baths also complicated matters. Even the medieval architecture aggravated the problem. The tall buildings that towered over the narrow, winding streets prevented sun and wind from drying the streets so they remained damp, if not wet and muddy, all the time.

Define Your Terms

Cholera is a potentially fatal gastrointestinal disease caused by bacteria; it is often contracted from unsanitary drinking water.

One of the biggest reasons that the conditions were so bad, in addition to all the other reasons, was the ignorance of the population. Most people never thought twice about being dirty. Furthermore, no one had any concept of germs until about the mid-1850s, when Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) discovered living organisms called bacteria.

Until then, people believed that they contracted diseases by smelling bad odors. Pasteur’s discovery of bacteria proved that the waste material carried the bacteria and not the waste material’s odor. As such, it should be no surprise that cholera ran wild in many cities and claimed countless lives.

Cleaning Up Their Act

Would You Believe?

The modern mouthwash Listerine is named for Joseph Lister, the father of antiseptics.

Socially conscious politicians and scientists knew that something had to be done to clean up the awful conditions in the cities. Pasteur’s discovery of bacteria combined with Joseph Lister’s (1827-1912) antiseptic strategy had profound effects. Lister knew that by using chemicals on wounds, bacteria would die and would, therefore, not cause sickness. Doctors used this knowledge in operating rooms and throughout hospitals. Eventually, as this knowledge trickled down to the general population, people became somewhat more conscious of dirt and filth. Politicians used the newfound knowledge to combat sickness in cities. If bacteria in water caused sickness, the water needed to be cleaned up.

Napoleon III and engineer Georges Haussmann (1809-1884) took the lead in the effort to clean up European cities. They knocked down buildings in slums, built wider streets, and encouraged new construction in Paris. They also improved existing sewer systems and built aqueducts that carried fresh water into the city. Later in the nineteenth century, Paris added a rail system and public transportation. Other European cities weren’t as quick to get into the act, but they did eventually follow the French lead.

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