J.K. Rowling's official Harry Potter website Pottermore has taken advantage of the new year to remind everybody just how gross wizards were before the invention of plumbing. Hogwarts is renowned for its toilets, not least because one particular Girls' Bathroom is actually the concealed entrance to the Chamber of Secrets, while the plumbing became particularly useful to Slytherin's Monster, the Basilisk.
But plumbing, of course, is a relatively recent invention - and a Muggle one, at that. Hogwarts was established in 990AD, hundreds of years before the creation of modern systems of plumbing. And so J.K. Rowling has decided her Pottermore website should answer the question nobody was really asking at all: How did wizards go to the bathroom at Hogwarts in the centuries before the toilets were installed?
The answer, it seems, is remarkably gross. In support of National Trivia Day, Pottermore has taken to Twitter to remind Harry Potter fans that the plumbing was installed as recently as the 18th Century. Before then, witches and wizards simply relieved themselves in public, and then vanished the evidence. Presumably this also explains the designs of the long, sweeping robes sorcerers usually wear, which would potentially be useful for keeping their excretions secret. It all sounds pretty unhygienic; it's not hard to imagine young students getting the spell wrong and not quite managing to make everything disappear.
Hogwarts didn't always have bathrooms. Before adopting Muggle plumbing methods in the eighteenth century, witches and wizards simply relieved themselves wherever they stood, and vanished the evidence. #NationalTriviaDay— Pottermore (@pottermore) January 4, 2019
Of course, the reality is that even in the Muggle world hygiene was hardly a priority when it came to toilet-habits back before plumbing. Although Sir John Harrington invented the first flushing lavatory back in 1596, the idea failed to catch on. Muggles preferred to use chamber pots and cess pits, and in towns and villages it wasn't uncommon for bodily wastes to be tossed out a window onto the streets. This frequently got into the water supply, and in truth proper sanitation only began to be practiced when it became clear this could lead to problems like cholera.
But why did Hogwarts believe proper plumbing was better than a simple disappearing spell? The answer, of course, is that there is no such thing as a "disappearing" spell. Even in the Wizarding World, matter cannot be created or destroyed, meaning the witches and wizards were presumably transporting their waste elsewhere - maybe to a waste pit. The potential would be there for the spells to go wrong, with (depending on your point of view) either hilarious or embarrassing results. Meanwhile, it's not hard to imagine the potential for chaos if school bullies decided to use this to prey on their unpopular victims, transporting feces into their bed-chamber or school-bags. In the end, Hogwarts decided to forbid the use of spells outside classrooms, which would have also prohibited this.
Ironically, there's a reason Rowling specified this on her Pottermore website - it's because the plumbing actually matters to the story of Harry Potter. Its installation almost led to the discovery of the Chamber of Secrets, but unfortunately a member of the Gaunt family was on hand to conceal it in the plumbing around the Girls' Bathroom.