The History of the Flush Toilet

Posted: March 28, 2013

Perhaps no other invention or device in history has had such a profound and utterly world-changing impact upon human civilization as the modern flush toilet. The only exception might be the millions of waste treatment plants which resulted from the widespread installations of indoor flush toilets around the globe. But that dissertation is for someone else to write about.

Where would this sad little world be without the billions of "porcelain thrones" to make the lives of common men and women easier, simpler and more free of flies?? It seems we always take for granted those things which would be nearly impossible to live without.      Ahh.......c'est la vie.................

Without the modern flush toilet cities like New York, Los Angeles or Chicago would be an impossibility (or, at the very least, a very smelly and extremely unsanitary possibility).  Believe it or don't, the flush toilet is actually a very recent invention. The Greeks and Romans had a very primitive and environmentally-unfriendly system of using aqueduct water to "flush" waste out beyond the city limits, but it polluted the water and land in the area and many Greek and Roman citizens ended up drinking manure milk shakes.

Credit for the modern flush toilet is usualy given to Great Britain. More specifically, to Sir John Harington, a relative of Queen Elizabeth I, who devised a primitive version of the modern flush toilet in 1596. It is possible this credit is unfounded, because no drawings or examples of Harington's invention have survived.

So, the outhouse users of the world had to patiently wait another 200 years  for Alexander Cummings to be born. In 1775, Cummings designed and patented a device that would come to be known as the "water trap".  By installing a bent pipe under sinks and bathtubs (and eventually toilets), noxious and potentially lethal gases were prevented from rising back up through the pipes and making life nasty for everybody. Ironically, Cummings got the idea from a similar device on a bagpipe.

Thus, the outdoor-excreting world had to endure the little shed behind the house a little longer. During the 1800s, something referred to as the "earth closet" was used in many homes in Britain and the United States. It was more or less a "human litter box" It consisted of a medium-sized box with a round hole cut in the top of it. One did one's "business" in the box and promptly covered it over with clay or dirt, masking the odor and preparing it for the next visit.

Another device which served the purpose and kept unwelcomed aromas from permeating the entire house was the "chamberpot".  A hole was cut in the bottom of a bowl or pot which was attached to a tank of water mounted near the ceiling of the room (or closet).  After the dirty deed was done, a valve was opened on the tank, allowing water to flow out from the rim of the bowl or pot and, hopefully, "flush" the unwanted material down the hole in the bottom and out to a waste line or flowing stream of water beneath the house. This system was fine and dandy if you were lucky enough to own a house built over a flowing stream, but it was quite inadequate if you happened to live in a densely-populated city. Incidentally, Ulysses S. Grant's historic home in Galena, Illinois has a excellent example of this sort of "waste disposal" system.

For the most part, toilets on railroad passenger cars (and even stagecoaches!) employed an "out-of-sight-out-of-mind" philosophy. One simply had to watch one's step when walking along the railroad tracks or hiking a known stagecoach route. Toilets aboard boats and ships could be considered "ballist" disposal devices as well as waste removing devices.

It wasn't until the 1870s before any true prototype of the modern flush toilet could be found (and, possibly....used). Once again, England gets the credit for introducing this modern marvel. One company, Thomas Twyford of England, is credited with creating the first "all-ceramic" toilet bowl. It was even featured in a major exhibit at the 1876 Philadelphia World's Fair. People were "bowled over", you might say.

Still, this new all-ceramic toilet was not that much of an improvement over the good old-fashioned chamberpot. It worked along the same principle of having a cistern of water mounted up near the ceiling. After relieving him or herself, the user pulled a chain and the water "flushed" their troubles down the drain. Many times, however, their troubles did not go anywhere. If the force of the plummeting water was insufficient to push their "troubles" through the water trap, then the offensive material stayed right where it was, smiling contently back at the person who put it there.

By the end of the 19th century, toilet manufacturers had discovered that by diverting some of the water from the cistern above to the toilet bowl below, a "jet flush" was created that added more "oomph" to the flush. Thus, the modern flush toilet was finally born.  By the first decade of the 1900s, the modern siphonic flush type toilet had become the standard and became more and more common in households around the world.

When these toilets first began to enter the market, the artists and designers who had created them were proud of their work. They actually signed their work boldly with their names or even their signatures. One British manufacturer, Thomas Crapper, has more than any other become indistinguishable from the product it produced. It has also been claimed that the slang term "john" originated with the John Douglas Company of Cincinnati, Ohio.  This cannot be specifically verified, however, because there were many toilet manufacturers which had the name John as part of the company's title.

As mass production and assembly-line manufacturing in America increased, so quality and personal touches decreased. It wasn't very long before the only difference between a "top of the line" toilet and one a person might buy at their local hardware store was how much they ended up paying for the thing.  Gone were the elaborate ornamentations and intimate personal touches that had made the "lavatories" of the Victorian era seem more like great works of art.

Today, toilets are being technologically integrated with more and more sophisticated functions. This is especially true in Japan, where some of the more advanced toilets can cost almost as much as a new car. Most of these futuristic features are operated by using a remote control and can include: Automatic flushing using photocell technology (which is also becoming more and more common in public restrooms in the U.S.), Blow-dryers (which are used after bidet-like "bottom washers" have done the work of old-fashioned toilet paper), CD and MP3 players to mask the sound of "bodily noises", Urine and stool analysis for monitoring potential medical or health problems (other toilets of this type can also check blood pressure, body temperature, and blood sugar levels). Many of these "smart toilets"  can also include a digital clock (if you want to time yourself, I guess), heated toilet seats, deodorizing fans in the bowl with perfumed scent atomizers, automatic lid closers and seat lowerers (or raisers), automatic toilet seat cover replacers and three-speed toilet seat massagers (I'll leave this last one to your own imagination).

There are even toilets manufactured with pivoting flat screen televisions that come with DVD players, for people, I suppose, who like to spend a lot of quality time in the bathroom. And with all these advanced features (and even more still coming), who wouldn't??

As far as etymology is concerned, the word "toilet" originated in the mid-1600s and commonly referred to the operations of hairdressing and body care that usually centered around a dressing table covered with a cloth or, in French, a "toile". Sometime in the 18th century, the word was adapted as a euphemism for the entire dressing room itself, much as the term "powder room" may by coyly used today. The word "lavatory" comes from the Latin "lavatorium", which in turn comes from the Latin "lavare", which means "to wash". The term "head" comes from toilets aboard ships during the 18th and 19th centuries, so named because of their position at the ship's bow, where they would be sluiced cleaned by the waves of the sea.

In the year 2000, it was estimated by the World Health Organization that 40 percent of the world's population does not have access to any kind of modern "waste disposal" devices. This is most true in parts of Asia and Africa. This lack of sanitary facilities along with the total absence of sewers, septic tanks and waste treatment plants accounts for a large portion of the disease and serious health problems experienced by those who live in these areas.   Believe it or not, there is actually a World Toilet Organization which has implemented programs to alleviate the unsanitary conditions in these various areas of the world. This organization sponsors a yearly World Toilet Summit, which is held in different cities around the world every year. Each year, November 19th is celebrated as "World Toilet Day" and the world's first "Toilet College" was opened in Singapore in October 2005.

Toilet Trivia

  • The most difficult thing to flush down a toilet is a ping pong ball
  • The movie "Psycho" was the first motion picture to show a toilet flushing
  • The first bathroom air-freshener was a pomegranate stuffed with crushed cloves
  • The German Nazi Hermann Goering refused to use toilet paper, using fresh white hankerchiefs instead
  • The United States government spent over $100,000 to study and discover that 3 out of every 4 people hang their toilet paper rolls so that the paper is pulled down to be torn off rather than being pulled up to be torn off
  • The first stall in most public restrooms is the one used the least and is therefore usually the cleanest
  • The average toilet is flushed at least eight times a day
  • The average person visits the toilet around 2,500 times a year
  • Approximately 7 million cell phones are accidentally (or purposely) dropped in toilets every year
  • Americans use more toilet paper than anybody else in the world
  • An average person with an average lifespan will spend at least three years of their life sitting on the toilet
  • Most toilets flush in the key of E-flat
  • The Pentagon uses almost 700 rolls of toilet paper a day
  • The first commercially-packaged toilet paper in the United States was introduced in 1857 by Joseph Gayetty, which was sold in stacks of 50 individual sheets
  • Americans use an average of 57 sheets of toilet paper a day
  • Ty-D-Bol is manufactured by Sara Lee, the same company famous for its cheesecake .

Well, that's all for now, folks.............I've gotta go to the bathroom...................