History of the Toilet

What do you think about when you use a toilet? You might scroll through your phone or read something, or you might just think about what you're gonna eat for lunch later; your thoughts probably aren't dwelling on the toilet itself. We can thank the modern toilet for making it easy and convenient to do our business. Even as recent as a century ago, people didn't have it so easy!

Ruins of ancient Roman public toilets. Concrete replica on the left.

Ruins of ancient Roman public toilets. Concrete replica on the left.

Though simple toilets can be found throughout ancient history, the first notable example can be found in the Roman Empire. The Romans had open public toilet rooms with a channel of water running under the seats to carry away waste. These toilets were made possible by the Roman Empire's impressive system of aqueducts which carried water around the city, similar to modern-day water mains and sewers.

After the decline of the Roman Empire, however, the world returned to the "lavatorial dark ages." Chamber pots, made of metal or ceramic, were widely used; they were emptied into street gutters, where the waste would be washed away by rain. For the wealthy, garderobes were built high up in the walls of a castle or Manor house. These consisted of a seat with a hole in it that would let waste drop directly down the side of the outer wall, and it was the responsibility of gong farmers to collect the waste in a bucket and carry it away by hand. What a nasty job!

In the 16th century, the growing populations in Europe were too much for the street gutters to handle, so cesspits and cesspools were dug into the ground near houses. These large underground holding tanks were made of brick or stone. Tradesmen would empty them during the night as to not disturb the public with the smell. Outhouses were also used, and many of them had more than one seat. People often went to the outhouse together, especially in the dark of night.

In 1858, so much sewage built up in the River Thames in London that it created an overwhelming stench, which was only made worse by the summer's heat wave. This event came to be known as "The Great Stink of 1858," and it finally pushed lawmakers to take sanitation seriously. Public health experts and officials began studying and debating sanitation, and the construction of an underground network of pipes began.

Alexander Cummings' design for a flush toilet. Notice the S-trap underneath.

Alexander Cummings' design for a flush toilet. Notice the S-trap underneath.

The first-ever patent for a flush toilet (or "water closet") was taken out by Alexander Cummings in 1795. It included an S-trap underneath the toilet to keep sewer gases from getting out. The design was improved by Joseph Bramah in 1778, and it was so well-received that "Bramah" became English slang for something really good. These toilets came to widespread use in wealthier homes by the late 19th century, just in time for the dramatic growth of sewer systems around that same time.

A fully-functional Bramah water closet, located in Osbourne House on Isle of Wight

A fully-functional Bramah water closet, located in Osbourne House on Isle of Wight

Over the next few decades, many improvements were made to the design, and eventually a toilet was invented that included the S-trap in the pedestal beneath the bowl. This made it much cheaper to produce, and therefore much more affordable and accessible to the working classes. In America, chain-pull toilets came to wealthy homes and hotels in the 1890s, and in 1906, William Sloan invented the Flushometer, which used water supply pressure rather than gravity to flush the toilet.

Interestingly, Thomas Crapper, who is thought by many to be the inventor of the modern toilet, actually did not have any part in the invention of toilets. He was simply a plumber, business owner, and great marketer. As other people invented better and better toilets, he sold them and heavily promoted their importance while making sure his name was on it all. And while many people believe the word "crap" came from Crapper's name, it actually is of Middle English origin and most likely came from a combination of the Dutch krappen (to pluck off, cut off, or separate) and the Old French crappe (siftings, waste, or rejected matter).

A modern Japanese toilet.

A modern Japanese toilet.

Today, toilet technology continues to improve. They are made to use much less water than they did years ago, efficiently saving gallons of water with every flush. Some even have self-cleaning capabilities and special anti-microbial glazes. In parts of Asia, toilets have many high-tech capabilities such as seat warmers, speaker systems with a variety of sounds to choose from (even chirping birds), water jets, and more. Bare minimum, modern toilets help stop the spread of disease and ensure that our cities and water sources stay clean.

Next time you use a toilet, take a moment to think about what your life would be like without it. It's definitely something to be thankful for!

Your toilet is one of the most important things in your house, so don't be stuck in the "dark ages!" If your toilet isn't working quite right, or if it's old and you'd like to reduce your water bills by getting a new one, give Universal Plumbing a call at 586-459-0040.