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The History of Toilets


"When you consider the contributions that plumbing and sanitation makes to the quality of our lives,
then much of the other things that we do just seems so much less significant.
"
- 1995 our founder


This paper was presented by Dr. Bindeswar Pathak, Ph.D., D.Litt.
at the International Symposium on Public Toilets held in Hong Kong

we have received written permission from Dr. Pathak to republish this important paper

Highlights in the Evolution of Toilet System - 2500 BC to 1990 AD
BC 2500: In Mohenjo - daro, there existed highly developed drainage system where waste water from each house flowed into the main drain.
BC 1000: In the Bahrein Island in the Persian Gulf, flush type toilet was discovered.
AD 69: Vespasianus (Otto Empire) for the first time levied Tax on Toilets.
1214 AD: Construction for the first time of public toilets manned by scavengers in Europe.
1596 AD: JD Harrington invents W.C.
1668 AD: Edict issued by Police Commissioner Paris, construction of Toilets in all houses.
1728 AD: Architect J.F. Brondel argues that attached toilet is ideal.
1739 AD: First separate toilet for men and women appear at a ball in Paris.
1824 AD: First Public Toilet in Paris.
1859 AD: Toilet of Queen Victoria is decorated with gold.
1883 AD: First Ceramic Toilet by Thomas Turiferd for Queen Victoria.
1889 AD: Sewage Treatment for the first time in the world.
1959 AD: All surface Toilets abandoned (Paris).
1970 AD: Sulabh International is established by Bindeshwar Pathak, as a non-profit NGO in Bihar.
1980 AD: Installation of Auto - control Public Toilet.

UNLIKE body functions like dance, drama and songs, defecation is considered very lowly. As a result very few scholars documented precisely the toilet habits of our predecessors. The Nobel Prize winner for Medicine (1913) Charles Richet attributes this silence to the disgust that arises from noxiousness and lack of usefulness of human waste. Others point out that as sex organs are the same or nearer to the organs of defecation, those who dared to write on toilet habits were dubbed either as erotic or as vulgar and, thus, despised in academic and social circles. It was true for example of Urdu poets in India, English poets in Britain and French poets in France. However, as the need to defecate is irrepressible, so were some writers who despite social as well as academic stigma wrote on the subject and gave us at least an idea in regard to toilet habits of human beings. Based on this rudimentary information, one can say that development in civilization and sanitation have been co-terminus. The more developed was the society, the more sanitized it became and vice versa.

Toilet is part of history of human hygiene which is a critical chapter in the history of human civilization and which cannot be isolated to be accorded unimportant position in history. Toilet is a critical link between order and disorder and between good and bad environment.

In my own country i.e. India, how can any one ignore the subject of toilet when the society is faced with human excretions of the order of 900 million liters of urine and 135 million kilograms of fecal matter per day with totally inadequate system of its collection and disposal. The society, thus, has a constant threat of health hazards and epidemics. As many as 600 out of 900 million people do open defecation. Sewerage facilities are available to no more than 30 per cent of population in urban areas and only 3 per cent of rural population has access to pour flush latrines.

Seeing this challenge, I think the subject of toilet is as important if not more than other social challenges like literacy, poverty, education and employment. Rather subject of toilet is more important because lack of excremental hygiene is a national health hazard while in other problems the implications are relatively closer to only those who suffer from unemployment, illiteracy and poverty. I thus view a study of the history of toilet an important subject matter.

As long as man did not have an established abode, he did not have a toilet. He excreted wherever he felt like doing so. When he learnt to have a fixed house, he moved toilet to courtyard and then within his home. Once this was done, it became a challenge to deal with smell and the need was felt to have a toilet, which can intake human wastes and dispose these of out of the house instantly and, thus, help maintain cleanliness. Man tried various ways to do so i.e. chamber pots, which were cleaned manually by the servants or slaves, toilets protruding out of the top floor of the house or the castle and disposal of wastes in the river below, or common toilets with holes on the top and flowing river or stream underneath or just enter the river or stream and dispose of the waste of the human body. While the rich used luxurious toilet chairs or close stools the poor defecated on the roads, in the jungle or straight into the river.

It was only in the 16th century that a technological breakthrough came about and which helped the human beings to have clean toilets in houses. This breakthrough did not come about easily and human race had to live in unsanitary conditions for thousands of years. For all to know the history of toilet we have established in New Delhi the Sulabh International Museum of Toilets with the help of curators like Dr. Fritz Lischka from Austria and 80 to 90 other professionals around the world. The museum traces history of toilet for the last 4500 years.

Historical Evolution

The perusal of literature brings home the fact that we have only fragmentary information on the subject of toilet as a private secluded place to help the body relieve its waste. Sitting type toilets in human history appeared quite early. In the remains of Harappa civilization in India, at a place called Lothal 62 kilometers from the city of Ahmedabad in Western India) and in the year 2500 BC, the people had water borne toilets in each house and which was linked with drains covered with burnt clay bricks. To facilitate operations and maintenance, it had manhole covers, chambers etc. It was the finest form of sanitary engineering. But with the decline of Indus valley civilization, the science of sanitary engineering disappeared from India. From then on, the toilets in India remained primitive and open defecation became rampant.

The archaeological excavations confirm existence of sitting type toilets in Egypt (2100 BC) also. Though we have been able to mechanize the working of these toilets, the form and basic format of the toilet system remains the same. In Rome, public bath-cum-toilets were also well developed. There were holes in the floor and beneath was a flowing water. When the Romans traveled they constructed the toilets for their use. The stools were keyhole type so that these could be used for defecation as well as urination. Excavations in Sri Lanka and Thailand too have brought out a contraption in which urine was separated and allowed to flow while the other portion was used at the same time for defecation.

Historical evidence exists that Greeks relieved themselves out of the houses. There was no shyness in use of toilet. It was frequent to see at dinner parties in Rome slaves bringing in urine pots made of silver; while members of the royalty used it but continued the play at the same time. Whatever little information is available about history of toilets in India, it was quite primitive. This practice of covering waste with earth continued till the Mughal era, where in the forts of Delhi and Agra one can see remnants of such methodologies to dispose of human waste.

It was also popular in those days to emphasize on the medicinal values of human waste. Urine was supposed to have many therapeutic values. Some quacks even claimed that by study of urine they could confidently say whether a young girl was virgin or not. Hiroshi Umino reports that a Pharaoh got his eye cured by use of urine of a woman, whom he later married. It was also widely believed that the dung of a donkey mixed with night soil removes black pustules or urine of a eunuch can help make women fertile. For oral care it was advised to relieve oneself on one's feet because the divine liquid gives the required cure. In the Indian scriptures there are stories about the strength of wrestlers. If a wrestler defecates too much, he is relatively weak because he cannot digest all what he eats. Similarly, a perfect saint has no need to defecate, for he eats as much as he can digest or he is able to digest all that he eats. So not to defecate was considered saintly while in other societies not to defecate was considered manly. Blown Bettelheim states that men of Chaga tribe blocked their anus during the ceremony of attaining of manhood and pretended as if they did not defecate at all. This was also one way of establishing superiority over women. The ancient Greeks it is reported had similar beliefs. Swallowing something and not taking them out was considered as source of power and authority.


In Middle Ages, people used to throw excreta from their houses on the roads below.

Between the period 500 to 1500 AD was a dark age from the point of view of human hygiene. It was an era of cesspools and human excreta all around. Rich man's housing and forts in India had protrusions in which defecation was done and the excrements fell into the open ground or the river below. The forts of Jaiselmer in India and big houses on the banks of rivers bear testimony to this fact. In Europe it was an era of chamber pots, cesspools and close stools. So were the toilets protruding out of the castles and the excrements from which fell into the river.

It was also an era of "liberty to pee" French poet Claude le Petit described Paris as 'Ridiculous Paris' and in the following words:

    "My shoes my stockings, my overcoat
    My collar, my glove, my hat
    Have all been soiled by the same substance
    I would mistake myself rubbish"

There was lot of jest and humor relating to toilet habits and toilet appurtenances. Ballets were performed with basket of night soil in the form of hood, on the head or a tin plate commode moving around with toilet sounds. The clothes were spotted with accessories from the toilet. The actors were etronice (night soil) Sultan Prime of Foirince (i.e. diarrhea) etc. There are stories given by Guerrand, which depict the mood of Europe at that time. A lady of noble birth requested a young man to hold his hand. The young man suddenly feels the urge to urinate. Forgetting that he is holding the hand of a lady of noble birth he relieves himself. At the end he says "excuse me Madam, there was lot of urine in my body and was causing great inconvenience", Similarly Maid of honor Anne of Austria owing to excessive laughter, urinated in the bed of the queen. Joseph Pujol (hero extraordinary of French scatology) in his shows demonstrated many types of farts i.e. young girl, mother-in-law, bride. He could even extinguish a candle 30 centimeters away through his farting.

Poetry on Night soil:

Irrepressible poets in many countries despite social stigma attached to their professional work were writing poetry on defecation habits, farting and heavenly qualities of night soil. Chakrian in India, Euslrog de Beaulieo Gilles Corrozal and Piron in France, Swift in England were all enjoying themselves at the technological impasse which human beings were faced with in disposing of what they excreted.

Gilles Corrozel for example described the toilet in the following vein i.e.

    "Recess of great comfort
    Whether it is situated
    in the fields or in the city
    Recess in which no one dare enter
    Except for cleaning his stomach
    Recess of great dignity" 7

Or take the erotic French Poet Eustrog de beaulieu and I dare to translate as follows:

    "When the cherries become ripe
    Many black soils of strange shapes
    Will breed for many days and urgents
    Then will mature and become products of various colors and breaths" 8

French poet Piron called the faeces as 'Royal Nightsoil. Though ostracized by the
academic community he wrote as follows:

    "What am I seeing oh! God
    It is night soil
    What a wonderful substance it is It is excreted by
    the greatest of all Kings
    Its odor speaks of majesty" 9


Public baths were quite famous in early Rome
(about 200 BC)

English poet called night soil as object of contemplation for the sage. According to him, midwives predicted the future of the child from examining the first excrement. In the province of Punjab in India and before independence Grandmothers ate the first excrement of the male child if he was born after a long period of marriage or after number of female births in the family.

The Urdu poet Chirkin in India was not well recognized by his poet fraternity. Out of vengeance and to create embarrassment he wrote on human waste and farting. I venture to share with you the following English version translated from Urdu-the language in which he wrote.

    "The asset which I will earn
    now will all be invested in Toilet.
    This time when I visit your home,
    I will never 'pee' there."

Public Habits and Attitude

In the absence of proper toilet facilities, people perforce had to defecate and urinate wherever they could. Defecating on the road, open spaces, or just easing themselves in the river was very common.

While the authorities were educating people to have private places for defecating, and getting it cleaned, in actual practice there was total disorder. Squalor and filth abounded in cities. The social reformers advised people where to defecate, how to defecate in privacy and the need to control themselves when in company. Children were taught not to touch human waste. At the same time, there was no hesitation in letting loose pigs to eat human excreta.

Number of enactments, however, could not prevent people to defecate in the open. A delegation led by master weaver protested in front of the French Municipal Building and said" our fathers have defecated at the place where you prevent us to do. We have defecated here and now our children will defecate there".

The rich used wool or hemp for ablution while the poor used grass, stone or sand or water depending upon the country and weather conditions or social customs. Use of newspaper was also common. In Russia to the utter dislike of all, the subordinates even stamped the toilet paper with imperial arms for use of the Czar. But in was termed as sacrilege. The final solution to the problem of ablution was found when in 1857, Joseph Cayetty invented the toilet paper in USA. This invention has enabled human beings to have a tissue paper, which is convenient to use, is absorbent, as well as compact and within reach while defecating.

In India it is very common to use water for ablution. However, the hand one uses varies in various parts of India. While in South India, people use the right hand for eating food, it is considered disgusting to use the same hand for ablution with water. So left hand is used for sanitary purposes. In most parts of the North India, however, no such sharp distinction exists.

Household hygiene habits of ordinary people left much to be desired. The dry latrines using bucket was cleaned by menials. These workers came to be known as 'Bucket Brigades'.

According to Hiroshi Umino, European culture blossomed forth after contact with Crusaders from the East. Washing hands for example before food also became popular. The social reformers admonished the people by saying "suck your fingers beast, do not wipe them on the wall". In colonial times in India, the British called big; cities as "vast mass privy" due to defecation by people at all times and at all places. There were also no separate toilets for men and women, till a restaurant in Paris put up 'Men Toilet' and 'Women Toilet' at a dance party in 1739 AD.

It is also around this time that the urinal pot was introduced to enable men to relieve themselves. The facilities for women were niggardly and they were taught virtues of control. Despite technological breakthrough a lot needed to be accomplished to educate people to use the new technology appropriately, to ensure that the toilet drainage system is not misused by disposal of other household wastes. However, at city level the disposal of human waste still remained a problem.

Public Toilets and People

In each society from time to time the government felt the need to provide public toilet facilities to those who could not afford to have individual toilets. The public toilets have a long history in number of countries and most of which were constructed and managed by municipalities. But there was all around disgust with their poor maintenance, vandalism and lack of basic facilities. The Mughal King Jehangir built a public toilet at Alwar, 120 kms away from Delhi for use of 100 families at a time in 1556 AD. Not much documentary evidence exists on the quality of its maintenance but one can well visualize that with rudimentary technology and with government to manage the O&M functions, it like others must be in very unsatisfactory condition. As hygienic conditions in public toilets were bad, people preferred to do open defecation. This was true in most of the countries. It was in 1872 that the municipalities in France asked the private companies to manage public toilets for a lease period of 20 years. The private companies were also offering even amounts to government as they felt confident to recover the same through user charges. Ground floor owners were also being requested to construct latrines for use of the passersby. Previously known as Palais Royal Hotel in Paris, the owners started charging monthly fee from diners. Incidentally condoms were also sold as part of the facilities.

In India, when I founded Sulabh International in 1970 in a small village in Patna, people laughed at me when I proposed to introduce the pay-and-use toilets. But my approach has succeeded and today 10 million people use Sulabh facilities every day. Most of the public toilets are being given to us to construct and maintain on a 30 years base period at no charge to the State. At the beginning of the century most of the public toilets have gone underground in Europe, but in India these are still over ground. Much more attention is being given to construct these toilets on pay and use basis in slum areas where men pay half a rupee per use, the females and children avail of these facilities free. The facilities available include toilet, bathing or washing of clothes and to change clothes. We are also setting up primary health care center at these places. However, a lot of effort is required to get people's participation in efficient operation and maintenance of public toilets. This remains a big challenge to be met by NGOs. Based on my experience of the last 25 years, I am also convinced that only cooperation between Government and NGOs can make the sanitation program a success. Neither the NGOs nor the government can create an impact if they work in isolation.

Law and Citizens

In order to improve sanitary conditions, Governments in various countries also resorted to legal measures. Dirt by definition was considered as disorder, because it disrupts order of maintaining the environment.

In 1519 the provincial government of Normandy in France made provision of toilets compulsory in each house. The French government also passed a parliamentary decree to make cesspools in each house compulsory. Again a similar attempt was made in 1539. In Bordeaux in France, the government made construction of cesspools compulsory. It was tried again in 1668 when the Lieutenant of Police made construction of toilets compulsory. In England the first sanitation law was passed in 1848. In India the first sanitation bill was introduced in 1878. It tried to make construction of toilets compulsory even in huts of Calcutta - the capital of India at that time. The Bill even proposed construction of public toilets at the cost of neighboring houses. The government of India enacted another Sanitation Act in 1993. Under this Act construction of dry latrine and its manual cleaning was made an offence. But despite these enactments open defecation is rampant, proving that unless adequate social awareness is created in a developing country where instruments of state are weak and family income is low, it is a hard task to make significant progress in this area.

Toilet Technologies

Eighteenth century was a century of toilets. Despite invention of water closet by John Harrington in 1596, which was, costing only 6 shillings and 8 pence this was not adopted on a large scale for almost 182 years. The delays in actual use of invention is common in human history, which Toffler calls as "Cultural Gap". It was true for railway train, ballpoint pen and innumerable other inventions. During this period people used earth closet. In these toilets instead of water earth was used. So the problem of cleaning remained. The world also saw development of Pan closets - which like cigarette ashtray threw the material at the bottom. This too required manual cleaning. At the same time chamber pots, close stools, open defecation remained. In comparison to this, Harrington's toilet under the name Angrez was being used in France, though not introduced on a large scale in England. In 1738 JF Brondel introduced the valve type flush toilet. Alexander Cummings further improved the technology and gave use a better device in 1775. In Cumming's design water was perennially there in the toilet so it suppressed odors. Still the working of the valve and foolproof inlet of water needed further improvements. In 1777; Joseph Preiser provided the required improvement. Then Joseph Bramah in 1778, substituted the slide valve with crank valve, It seemed then that the technology of pour flush was now perfected. No the world was yet to witness further technological developments. In 1870, SS Helior invented the flush type toilet, called optims - an improvement over Blummer's design.

From 1880 onwards, however, the emphasis has been more on aesthetics to make cisterns and bowls decorative. The bowls were so colorful that some suggested to use these as soup bowls. It was in 1880 that the toilet curtains made their appearance. The trend was called the age of "Belleepoque" in France and Edwardian (opulence) in England. During 1890 we had the first cantilever type of toilet. Since then the world has not witnessed any significant technical change except some change in shape of toilets and reduction in quantity of water per use.

It was around 1900 that the institution of bathroom came in vogue in Europe. In India the institution of Gushalkhana (bathroom) was established by the Mughal Kings in 1556. Oppressed by the heat and dust the Kings constructed luxurious bathing and massage facilities. But this was only for the rich. The ordinary citizens however lived in unsanitary conditions.

Unlike in the past when latrines were tucked away in attics to keep it away from nose and eye of the family and the society. In contrast the twentieth century has given a pride of place to toilet in the home-rather these are more opulent, more spacious than anytime in the past. While the provision of toilet in the house solved household problem of cleanliness but the challenge remained as to how to dispose of human waste at city level. This was also solved when the sewerage system was introduced. Haussmann in 1858, describes beautifully the sewerage system. He said that "the underground galleries which are the organs of the big city will work in the same way as organs of the body, without being revealed.

The pure and fresh water, the heat and light will circulate like the various fluids whose movement and maintenance are necessary to ensure life. The secretions will not mysteriously like place there and maintain public health without disturbing the order of the city and spoiling its outer beauty". Around the same time the sewerage system was introduced at Calcutta - capital of colonial India. However its extension in the country was and remains slow as it is capital intensive and beyond the resource capacity of the economy even today.

In 1970, realizing that sewerage facilities will remain out of the reach of the society at large, Sulabh International introduced a pioneer technology twin pourflush latrines and human excreta based Biogas plants. We have constructed in the last 25 years over 650,000 toilet cum bath complexes and 62 human excreta based biogas plants and are maintaining them. I believe this gives an appropriate solution to dispose of and recycle human waste into fertilizer, electricity and working gas.

Summing up

As sewerage based toilet remains and will remain out of the reach of the majority of population in India, the challenge is to propagate and ensure installation of toilets, which are affordable, upgradeable and easy to maintain. The Sulabh experiment is a success story and the technology is well established and has been successfully functioning for the last 25 years and is financially sustainable. At household level TPPF latrine based on Sulabh Model has also been a success and is in use in 650,000 households. It is however, now necessary in India to replicate it on a mass scale with public pay and use toilets with Biogas plants at neighborhood level and Sulabh TPPF latrine at household level.

Though the challenge to provide toilet facilities have been totally overcome in rich countries, it has still to be met in developing countries like India. The journey of toilet has ended in Europe and North America but continues in the developing countries.



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