The lavatories (toilet facilities) of 18th century expeditionary vessels don’t get as much attention in historic records as the profound scientific knowledge and the navigational advances made in the Pacific Northwest. But the most basic of human functions deserves some discussion because it was an important aspect of daily expedition life.
Aboard ship, the toilet was referred to as the “head.” This term developed during the early 1700s due to the placement of the toilet, a seat with an opening, towards the front end or head of the vessel. Waves of seawater, splashing up towards the bowsprit as the vessel cut a course, naturally cleaned away waste and mess.
The proper conduct for relieving oneself became a subject of discussion due to the serious diseases that spread rapidly in unhygienic conditions. The bacteria that cause typhoid fever and cholera, both of which may result in death, could quickly pass through a ship that did not address its human waste disposal. Anyone found guilty of “unclean behaviour” such as urinating or defecating anywhere but the toilet facilities (apparently instances of sailors “easing themselves in the hold” had created a problem) was severely punished. Those incapable of using the head due to illness or broken bones might have the luck of their own facilities, fashioned by the ship’s cooper. The British Admiralty of the 1700s described these as “buckets with covers for the necessary occasions of the sick men”.