Flushing Toilets - Historic Information

The History of the Flush Toilet
By: Maureen K. Francis

We have received written permission from Ms. Maureen Francis to republish this educational paper

A gleaming tribute to human ingenuity stands silent and ready for use at a moment's notice. This invention is now largely ignored, or taken for granted, but it has done as much to revolutionize the health of the world as any vaccine. This marvelous invention is the flush toilet.

We don't like to think about what our lives would be like without modern conveniences such as electricity, automobiles, and appliances. Could you imagine what your life would be like if you did not have modern plumbing? Most of us cannot imagine life without a toilet, but until the 1800's, disposal of human waste was a daily struggle, and a disgusting task.

The earliest written reference to the disposal of human waste is more than 3600 years old and is found in The Holy Bible. "And you shall have an implement among your equipment, and when you sit down outside, you shall dig with it and cover your refuse . . . " For hundreds of thousands of years before the bible was written, human beings simply squatted when they had the urge to relieve themselves.

As the world became more populated, disposal of human wastes became a bit more difficult. In ancient Egypt, cities began to spring up from the desert. By 2500 B.C., the Egyptians had solved the waste disposal dilemma, and had constructed bathrooms with latrines which were flushed by hand with buckets of water. The latrines emptied into earthenware pipes, many of which are still functional today. Rome also had a public sewage system called cloxa maxima. It was constructed to prevent the streets from filling up with rain water and human waste. Public latrines were erected over channels of water. The latrines had stone seats with a hole in the center of them, much like the modern toilet seat that is in use today. Much of this forward- thinking technology had not spread to Europe, however, and the Europeans struggled with sanitation for centuries to come before they realized that something needed to be done.

By 1189, the city of London was an absolute mess. The population had grown rapidly, and many of its inhabitants lived in squalor. London did have public and private facilities called garderobes. A garderobe was a toilet, or bank of toilets, either in a private castle or public hall. It was connected to a pipe through the side of the building that housed it. The waste emptied directly into a pit, moat, or river directly outside the building. A huge public garderobe emptied directly into the Thames river, causing stench and disease for the entire population of London. The Thames river was squalid and ripe with the smell of rotting sewage. A public law, written in 1189 by the London Health Board, stated that garderobes must be walled in, or at least 5 1/2 feet from the nearest neighbor. The law did little to improve sanitary conditions.

The garderobe was no longer built by the year 1530, and the close stool was the newest modern convenience. The close stool was simply a chair with a hole cut into the seat, and a porcelain or metal pot underneath, which needed to be removed and emptied. The stool was often equipped with handles for traveling. This was a great invention for Kings and Queens, Noblemen and Ladies. The poor still relieved themselves in the street, or in a bucket or cistern inside their homes called a chamber pot.

What did these people do with the waste? They threw it out into the street, of course. They would shout "gardez l'eau" (watch out for the water) before tossing the contents of their chamber pot out an open window or door, usually to the dismay of the passers by on the street. In the early 1800's, Londoners would rather live with the stench and filth than pay higher taxes to have underground sewer systems installed. The public had not yet made the association with sewage and disease.

R.H Mottram, in 1830, stated in a public report regarding the streets of Leeds, England: "568 streets were taken in for examination . . . Whole streets were flooded with sewage . . . The death rate in the clean streets was 1 in 36; and in the dirty streets; 1 in 24." Children seemed to be dying at an amazing rate. Death rates for children were 480 per thousand in the city, while in the country, the death rate for children was 240 per thousand. The rulers, as well as the public, knew that something must be done. Cholera was rampant and the smell was unbearable. Louis Pasteur, a noted scientist, convinced Europe that if drinking water came from a well, it may be contaminated from any number of nearby cesspits, and if it came from a river, it was most certainly contaminated. The Cholera epidemic between 1844-1855 claimed 20,000 lives, and something had to be done, so London built a sewer system. With the new sewer system came the need for a toilet that flushed with water in order to prevent the future spread of disease, so the flush toilet was born.

Sir John Harrington, godson to Queen Elizabeth I, was a writer by trade. In 1596 he penned a tongue- in- cheek article named "Plan Plots of a Privy of Perfection." In the article, he described in detail his invention, the first flushing water closet. He erected one at Kelston, near Bath, England. The water closet, for the most part, worked, and the Queen had Sir John install a water closet in the Royal Palace. One of the many problems with Sir John's water closet was that it was inadequately vented, and sewer gas constantly leaked into the Royal powder room. The Queen remedied this problem by placing bowls of herbs and fragrances around the room. The flush toilet, however, would not be deemed "popular" for several hundred years.

Many years earlier, Leornardo DaVinci drew plans for a number of flushing water closets for the castle of Francis I at Ambrose. The plans included flushing channels inside the walls, and a ventilating system which reached through the roof. Unfortunately, like DaVinci's plans for flying machines and military tanks, the project was scrapped and considered nonsense.

The belief that Thomas Crapper invented the first patented flushing water closet is untrue . The first patent for the flushing water closet was actually issued to Alexander Cummings in 1775. A watchmaker by trade, Cummings designed a toilet in which the water supply was brought low into the bowl, and some water remained after each flush. "The advantage of this water closet," he stated, "depends upon the shape of the bowl." The Cummings water closet was generally made of copper. It was a great improvement, but the seal at the bottom of the toilet leaked, continually emitting sewer gases into the home. No one was aware at that time that sewer gases were highly explosive, as well as great bacteria carriers. Other inventors sought to change both of those problems.

Joseph Bramah, a cabinetmaker who regularly "fitted-up" water closets, sought to improve Cummings' original idea, and a patent was issued to him in 1778. Bramah discovered that by replacing Cummings' string valve closure with a crank-type mechanism, he would essentially get an air tight seal between the toilet and whatever offending odors may be lurking beneath it. There were some problems with this new toilet, however. The flushing action failed quite often, it was incredibly noisy, and the seal would dry up if the toilet was not used often enough. Although Bramah installed more than 6,000 toilets by 1797, without a tight seal, the sewer gas problem remained.

By 1860, people around Europe were tired of the odor from the sewer gases escaping into their homes. Inventor Henry Moule impressed the world with his patented Earth Closet. This wonderful commode dispensed dirt or ashes onto the offensive materials, rendering them odorless. The problem with Moule's invention was that the contents had to be emptied by hand. People bought the earth closet in great numbers though, because they could hardly stand the stench in their own homes from their previous toilet experiences.

Thomas Crapper, an industrious plumber, opened his shop on Marlborough Street in London in 1861, and aptly named it The Marlboro' Works of Thomas Crapper & Company. Crapper continuously tested toilets at Marlboro Works, so much so that he had a 250-gallon water tank installed on the roof of his building. Crapper's claim to fame is the improvements that he made to the water closet. He invented a pull-chain system for powerful flushing, and an air tight seal between the toilet and the floor. He also patented several venting systems for venting the sewer gas by way of a pipe through the roof.

Crapper also teamed up with Thomas Twyford, the pottery maker. Twyford changed his pottery assembly lines from turning out tableware to turning out toilets, with Crapper supplying the inner-workings. Twyford also made toilets into art pieces, by molding them into many shapes including dolphins. The fine porcelain makers Wedgewood and Royal Doulton soon followed suit. None of the porcelain manufacturers were opposed to the free advertising, as the names of their firms were emblazoned on the toilet, in a conspicuous place.

Across the Atlantic, Americans were still using chamber pots, but only in the event of an emergency such as illness or bad weather. Other than that, people used the outhouse, a small building constructed over an open pit with a bench inside into which several holes were fashioned. The user would sit over the hole and relieve himself. The flush toilet did not gain popularity in the United States until after World War I, when American troops came home from England full of talk about a "mighty slick invention called the crapper." The American slang term for the toilet, "the john," is said to be derived from the flushing water closets at Harvard university installed in 1735, and emblazoned with the manufacturer's name, Rev. Edward Johns.

The flush toilet is an invention of which humanity can be very proud. Without this marvelous contraption, disease would still be rampant and water supplies throughout the world would be undrinkable. The next time you see a toilet, standing at attention in a bathroom, remember the many inventors and plumbers that made it a clean, simple, easy-to-use device that makes our lives a little easier.

Many thanks to the following contributors:

Barlow, S. Ronald. The Vanishing American Outhouse, A History of Country Plumbing. California: Windmill, 1989

Coleman, Penny. Toilets, Bathtubs, Sinks and Sewers, A History of the Bathroom. New York: Altheneum, 1994

Kerr, Daisy. Keeping Clean, A Very Peculiar History. New York: Franklin Watts, 1995

Reyburn, Wallace. Flushed With Pride, The Story of Thomas Crapper. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1971

Stein, Rod. Personal interview. 22 September, 1999

Wright, Lawrence. Clean & Decent,The Fascinating History of the Bathroom, the Water closet and of Sundry Habits, Fashions, and Accessories of the Toilet, Principally in Great Britain, Europe, France and America. New York: Viking, 1960

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