Traditional Māori communities kept human waste separate from living quarters and food preparation areas. 18th-century European explorers observed this and some, such as James Cook, compared the sanitation practices of Māori communities favourably to those of European towns.
Villages had paepae (latrines) which served individual houses or small groups of people. In hilltop pā, paepae were commonly built on the side of the hill well away from other buildings. Paepae were tapu (sacred) to stop human waste being used in mākutu (sorcery). This was a religious belief, but grounded in the knowledge that human waste could cause illness if not carefully disposed of.
Traditional sanitation practices broke down in the wake of European colonisation, as new diseases and land loss crippled Māori communities. Separate paepae were no longer the norm and declining belief in mākutu meant people defecated in the bush around villages without fear.
In the early 1900s Māori health reformers led by Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa) undertook a campaign to build new paepae in Māori villages. This led to sanitary improvements in some villages, but progress was slow. In the mid-1950s, 67% of Māori homes had no flush toilet, compared to 17% of non-Māori homes. By the early 1970s Māori homes without flush toilets had dropped to 11%, but this figure was still high compared with non-Māori homes (3%). Outside paepae became inside wharepaku (toilets).
Some early European settlers built fairly primitive privy outhouses out of mānuka. Forked branches in the ground supported a strong branch or rail which acted as a seat. Two upright branches on either side of the seat were gripped by the occupant and a back rail provided further support. Some built outhouses out of earth sods, but these were not a good idea if the privy was not fenced off – roaming cattle liked to rub against the sods, which tended to cave in and create a foul mess.
19th-century European settlers were less scrupulous than traditional Māori communities in their attitudes to human waste, although it was not simply a matter of defecating anywhere. Simple privies or outhouses were built over holes (cesspits) in the backyard and moved when the hole was full. People were confronted with human waste daily and had to tolerate the smell. It was a fact of life and tolerable for many – after cesspits were banned in the 1870s, people continued to use them for reasons of thrift, even though this could incur a fine.
Night-soil men were paid by households to collect human waste after cesspits were banned. Households had to leave the waste out for collection, but their contact with it ended there – the poorly paid night-soil man had to deal with it from that point.
The lavatory tree
Some 19th-century New Zealanders planted the datura plant next to their outdoor privy to screen it off and mask unpleasant smells. It was colloquially known as the ‘lavatory tree’. Climbing roses and honeysuckle were also trained to grow up the outhouse.
Developments in waste disposal and toilet technology increasingly separated people from the waste their bodies produced.
In the late 19th century permanent toilets – water or earth closets – started to appear in homes. Initially, water closets simply flushed the waste in water into a cesspit (which was regularly emptied). Earth closets contained a bucket, and the contents were covered with dirt and then left out for the night-soil man.
It was only when high-pressure water-based sanitation systems were installed that most people no longer had to handle the household’s human waste. The first high-pressure system was built in Wellington in 1899. Toilets could now flush waste away from the home into sewers. In more remote areas though, flushing toilets remained a dream until the second half of the 20th century.
Location of toilets
Like washing facilities, toilets moved from outside to inside, in line with developments in piped water and waste disposal. The backyard privy (often called the dunny) was common well into the 20th century, but the toilet made its move into the back verandah of new houses in the late 19th century. In the early 1900s the toilet was fully integrated into new houses, either in a small room next to the bathroom or within the bathroom. Two-storeyed houses often had a toilet upstairs. The general location and appearance of toilets has not changed much since then.
In the 1950s scientists believed bacteria was released from flushing toilets and stayed in the air. This led to a rule, enforced by local councils, that toilets had to be separated from kitchens by two doors. It was later found that the bacteria did not travel far and the rule was relaxed in the early 1990s. Modern building regulations require one door between a toilet and the kitchen and food storage areas.