The flush toilet is one of the most important inventions. It is certainly an invention that many take for granted. Here is a quick history of the much used, but under-appreciated invention:
Hole in the Ground
The ancient toilet was a hole in the ground and toilet paper was a fallen leaf. While this was the most commonly used toilet, there were some civilizations that recognized running water and clean toilets were a key to a healthy community. Ancient Egypt and Rome had running water in their public bathhouses. The chambers in the bathhouses had underground chambers that sent waste away from the city.
Sadly, once the age of the Ancients passed and the Roman Empire fell, most people went back to the hole. During the Medieval times, no one seemed to understand the need for sanitation. People “went” in a hole in their home and their waste landed on the streets. Eventually, the waste made its way to a water source like a stream or river. This was why most people drank alcoholic beverages during the Middle Ages, because the water was so polluted with human waste.
Some people during this time had big pits called cesspits, which were the medieval equivalent of a septic tank. This large room would fill with waste and then someone would empty it. This was a horrible job that paid very little. If you had a cesspit, you would have either a privy that you would sit on to go. If you did not have a privy, you probably had a closed stool, which was a chair with a hole over a bucket. The bucket was dumped at some point during the day, usually out in the street.
Don’t Drink the Water
Until the 1800s, rivers were like open drains filled with human waste. Large cities had horrible stenches and waterways were horribly polluted. During the Industrial Revolution, the idea of the modern sewer was developed in London by Sir Joseph Bazalgette in 1860.
The Victorian Toilet
As big cities followed London’s idea, the Victorian toilet was manufactured. These toilets had bowls and a bend that trapped water and gas. They also had a seat and a tank for water used for flushing. The Victorian toilet was usually decorated with flowers and other nature scenes, much like the china that was used for table service. There are people who still use Victorian toilets today, but fortunately, there are toilets that are more water efficient.
The Legend of Thomas Crapper
The history of the toilet does have a few bumps. One is the legend of the Thomas Crapper. He is not credited with inventing the modern toilet, or giving the word “crap” its meaning. He did have his own plumbing company in London and he did invent the ballcock that is still used in toilets today. Instead, Sir John Harrington is the name we should all know. He developed a water closet he called the Ajax in 1596 for his godmother, Queen Elizabeth. This water closet used water from a raised cistern to flush away waste. Unfortunately, the Queen was not sold on the idea, even though an Ajax was installed in one of her palaces. Although, she did cover her privies with pretty velvet fabrics and lace details.
Thomas Crapper’s fame came from the fact that King Edward VII hired Crapper’s plumbing company to install toilets in his palaces. Along with inventing the ballcock, he was the first to have displays of his products. If you wander around London and pay attention to the names on the manhole covers, especially near Westminster Abbey and toilets in Victorian buildings, you might just get lucky and see his name.