The Culture of Flushing: A Social and Legal History of Sewage.


405 pages
Contains Photos, Illustrations, Maps, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 978-0-7748-1291-7
DDC 363.72'8





Reviewed by Dave Bennett

David Bennett is the national director of the Department of Workplace Health, Safety and Environment at the Canadian Labour Congress in Ottawa.


The Culture of Flushing covers the history of sewerage over the past two hundred years in North America and Europe, especially Britain. The title of the book is, however, misleading since it is as much about the supply of water for drinking and industrial use as it is about flushing water back into the environment.


These twin themes of The Culture of Flushing are complicated further by the factors that have influenced both supply and the disposal of water: considerations of the quality as well as the volume and availability of water, and human concerns such as property rights, fisheries, navigation, and public health. These various factors have played out in different ways, at different times and in different countries, so it is inevitable that the narrative is fragmented by frequent changes of theme, with rapid and closely argued moves, back and forth in time and place.

Toward the end, the book focuses on the treatment of waste water in the major improvements during the mid-20th century. But this is done at the expense of the emerging dilemmas over drinking-water quality: source protection versus purification and the controversies over chlorination as the preferred mode of treatment.


The book concludes with an introduction to themes that are essentially new: the relation of water issues to “the longer-term perspectives of sustainability, biodiversity, and ecological integrity” — new because they concern the general environment rather than the focus on the human-centred issues at the heart of Benidickson’s history.


A rewarding but exhausting read is relieved by the author’s wry sense of humour. Who would have thought that a significant obstacle to the installation of water closets was “the felicitously named Mr. Tinkler”?


Benidickson, Jamie., “The Culture of Flushing: A Social and Legal History of Sewage.,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 19, 2024,