Those Vulgar Tubes: External Sanitary Accommodations aboard European Ships of the Fifteenth through Seventeenth Centuries - Joe J. Simmons Well we have to shit somewhere. It was a real problem for ships at sea. It's just not that easy to throw a bucket downwind. This little gem will tell you more than you ever wanted to know about the development of excreta mechanisms.

One neat little trick was to move the "sanitary box" from side to side of the stern depending which tack the ship was on. The boxes were roped on to the side of the ship. Of course, some of the smaller ships might employ the ocean for another useful purpose. "For jakes, there were the 'gardens,' stools hung over the lee side, where as like or not, the sweep of the water as the ship heeled would wash your arse." Hanging over the side with holes cut in the bottom, there was an uncanny resemblance to the "garderobe" prominent on medieval castles. The overhang obviously permitted excreta to fall into the moat (geez...) Since ships in the 15th and 16th centuries were considered "sea castles," it is not illogical that their form might follow the land-based equivalent.

By the latter part of the 16th century, the "head" or "beak-head" had become more standard and was probably an attempt to build some kind of ram on the front of the ship. Forward facing guns were also employed. Having sanitary (don't you love the euphemisms) arrangements up front close to the sea and in the open had several advantages: open to the sun and washing action of the waves. It was also the area where common seamen were "stowed," as opposed to the stern which was the province of the officers. Tubs for the collection of urine were employed to help with fire-fighting.

The 17th century introduced new ship design. The beak-head was reduced and "seats-of-ease" were employed by 1670. They were located in the aft part of the beak-head, a rectangular box with backrest of the rail and unhindered access to the sea below. I suspect lingering was rare except in the calmest weather. A 1692 model of an English eighty-gun ship shows only two of these devices for a crew of 650. On the model it is assumed the person using it faced outward, perhaps so as to be able to see heavy seas coming. I wonder if there might have been more and the model builder just didn't want to make more. Internal facilities did not appear until the early 19th century and the more extensive use of iron in the hulls had much to do with it.

I must admit to really enjoying books like this that tell us about the most common things that we all need but rarely talk about. It would have been nice in the movie Master and Commander to have them indulge in a little verisimilitude. My only gripe is that the illustrations are often not very clear. There was one I enjoyed very much. Entitled " 'Hanging Out' (do you suppose that's where the phrase comes from?) from the fore chains," it shows a bare-ass sailer hanging on to the shrouds in a rather uncomfortable posture (pg 74).