Ever since mankind first appeared on this shiny blue marble we call planet earth there has been a need for us to use the toilet. Of course, back then the toilet was little more than a hole in the ground – if that – whereas today we’ve come to rely on the toilet as both a necessity and a source of comfort. When you’re sitting there on the toilet you’re probably not thinking of the history of the throne beneath you, but why would you? The modern toilet does everything we want it to, and while we have come to take modern toilets and plumbing systems for granted we tend to forget that what we’re sitting on is a relatively recent development.
The toilet itself isn’t though; it’s gone through many iterations over the thousands of years of Human history. Indeed, it may surprise you to learn that some ancient civilisations actually had well-developed toilet systems – in other words, no, they didn’t just do it in the street.
So, come with us on a journey from the fascinating – and often messy – history of the toilet.
There is the common misconception that people in the ancient world practically lived in their own filth. Sure, by today’s standards the air probably wasn’t going to smell as fresh as daisies when you walked into an ancient settlement but the people living there still somewhat cared about hygiene. That’s not to say you didn’t get the stuff in the streets, but no culture was sparkly clean.
Whoever invented the toilet has probably been lost to history, but historians and archaeologists have found some contenders. Up in Scotland, archaeologists dug up a Neolithic settlement that dates all the way back to 3,000 B.C. The stone huts discovered had small drains built into them that extended from recesses in the walls. It is believed these were used for toilet purposes. Elsewhere on the Greek island of Crete, and jumping forward to 1,7000 B.C. the splendid Palace of Knossos featured quite an advanced system of earthenware pans connected to a water supply which ran through terra-cotta pipes.
The toilet was even flushed with water.
Ancient Egypt went one step further and adopted toilet seats made of limestone; on top of a container filled with sand which was emptied by hand (ew!). Wealthy people would have a dedicated room for the toilet in their homes, heralding the rise of the bathroom. Poor people simply had to make do with a wooden stool that had a hole cut into it, but at least it was better than squatting in the street!
The Romans weren’t the first civilisation to adopt a sewer system – the Indus Valley civilisation between 2,600-1,900 B.C. had a rudimentary network of sewers built under grid pattern streets – but it was the most advanced seen so far. The Romans understood the importance of hygiene and realised that mixing what came out of their bodies in their drinking water supplies wasn’t such a good idea.
Let’s not forget that public bathhouses were the place to be for your average Roman citizen, so they did somewhat care about their hygiene and appearance. Romans still ended up throwing their waste in the streets, but Rome itself had around 144 communal lavatories – long benches with holes in them (and no cubicles like we’re used to) – dotted around the city. It sounds like going to the toilet was quite the social activity!
To top it off the Romans proved that they had a God or Goddess for pretty much everything by building shrines to a Goddess called Cloacina; ruler of Roman sewers. I bet she was pleased as punch to have that job!
You’d think that by the time the Middle Ages rolled around that toilets and plumbing systems would have improved dramatically. Unfortunately, you’d be wrong, and strangely things were far worse off.
Since the fall of the Roman Empire, the sewage system they had developed wasn’t adopted across Europe; unless you count throwing your leavings on to the street as some kind of rudimentary open sewer system.
Instead, Europeans tended to have communal outhouses that could be shared by dozens of families. This ‘outhouse’ was little more than a wooden bench with a hole cut in it, over a pit that you probably wouldn’t want to sniff up around on a hot summer’s day. Strangely it was monks who took the initiative in the toilet department, using stone or wooden lavatories that opened out over rivers.
Portchester Castle - built in Hampshire, England in the late 11th century – had stone chutes that carried the effluence directly into the sea. The sea would then act as a giant flush, carrying away the waste – and probably a lot of dead fish – as the tide went out.
Castles also had places called garderobes, a sort of cloakroom that also included a basic toilet. People wanting to visit the toilet would squat over a tiny hole, do their thing, and the waste would slip down a chute into the moat surrounding the castle or a cesspit set up for the purpose. With all this said it’s safe to assume why we don’t really hear about many people swimming around the castle moats of the time.
Eventually, the smell of a toilet would start to put off those of the royalty who had figured out that even the smell from a royal toilet was no bed of roses. Louis XI, king of France from 1461, had a box with a lid that he would hide behind curtains and cover with herbs to make sure it smelt a little nicer. Elizabeth I, queen of England from 1559, tried to make her toilet look a bit, well, less like a toilet by covering it in crimson velvet bound with lace.
One of the biggest misconceptions when it comes to the history of the toilet is that Thomas Crapper is responsible for inventing the beginning of the modern flushing toilet. It’s wrong of course, and before Thomas Crapper’s parents were even born big strides were being made in toilet technology.
Sir John Harrington is the guy we should all be crediting instead. Known as Queen Elizabeth I’s “saucy Godson” Harrington had published Metamorphosis of Ajax in 1596. In this, he described a water closet that was made up of a raised cistern with a small pipe which water ran through upon release by a valve. Unfortunately for Harrington the Queen wasn’t best pleased about his publication as it attacked the Queen’s close friend, Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester. However, the Queen did see fit to install one of the ‘Ajax’ inventions in her palace at Richmond, although they didn’t enjoy much popularity on a wider scale across England (although France was more susceptible).
By the end of the 18th century, the modern flushable toilets had hit the mainstream and were warming bums across the country. This is where our man Thomas Crapper enters the scene. Hired by King Edward VII Crapper was tasked with installing lavatories across several royal palaces. That’s all he really was, a decent plumber that happened to have a few jobs for the royalty. He did find the time to patent some bathroom-related inventions, but the modern toilet was by no means his invention.
However, he was the first person to display bathroom wares in a showroom, inevitably upping his fame as people would come to him whenever they needed new parts.
By the 20th century, the toilet we all know and love today had arrived. The water tank now rested on top of bowel rather than being high above it on the wall. Toilet paper rolls were also growing in popularity; thanks to a marketing push that began in 1902 (12 years after someone decided toilet paper would suit a roll shape quite nicely). For a history of toilet paper see here.
Toilets themselves wouldn’t properly move inside to a specialised room – the bathroom – until decades into the 20th century. Most of the homes in England had to make use of outdoor toilets, which were sometimes shared between a few families on the street. You can still spot some of these outdoor toilets around the country today, especially in the terraced house properties that most of the country’s working class occupied.
While the basic function of today’s modern toilet obviously remains the same, the companies that manufacture them haven’t stopped looking for ways to innovate in the toilet arena. We can thank
Japan for making the toilet not just a place for “doing your business” but an experience that you’ll wonder how you ever did without. In 1980, the Japanese company Toto introduced the Washlet. This came equipped with a warm water spray – much like a bidet – that cleaned those sensitive areas with water rather than making the user grab a handful of toilet paper.
From then on the Land of the Rising Sun hasn’t looked back; introducing toilets with heated seats, the ability to play your music and even toilets capable of measuring your blood pressure, body fat and the healthy state of your urine and faeces. The Western world is slowly adopting these hi-tech toilets, and with more features announced every year it’s clear to see that the history and evolution of toilets – the one throne we all get to sit on – isn’t over just yet.
Despite all the advancements though there are still around 2.5 billion people in the world who don’t have access to a proper working toilet. Of those 2.5 billion, 1.1 billion still openly defecate in the street. The United Nations is working hard to try and vastly reduce these numbers by 2025, as diseases contracted from such things as open defecation and open latrine pits are the cause of a large percentage of deaths.
*Image of Washlet toilet above is by Armin Kübelbeck and is licenced for use under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.
Check out The History of Baths.