A History of Toilets

1,298 words 


If asked “Who built the very first toilets?” most people would probably think that the Romans were responsible.  After all, they built amazing baths and spas with piped systems.  The most famous one is probably at Bath in England. The City was named after the Roman baths that still exist there today, surrounded with columns and watered from a spring of natural mineral water.

When it comes to the humble toilet, the Romans were a long way behind in the queue.

Here are some fascinating toilet facts that are guaranteed to bring any dinner party to a screeching halt.

Stone Age Conveniences

During the winter of 1850, the islands of Orkney, off the north coast of Scotland, were battered by a huge storm which ripped the grass from a large mound in Sandwick that the locals called Skerrabra.  This revealed some stone buildings which underwent various episodes of excavation up until the 1930’s.  In the 1970’s, materials from the site were radio carbon dated which showed that the settlement was a Stone Age one, from the late Neolithic period.

The dwellings dated from around 3000 BC.  There were probably only 6 to 8 houses on the site at any one time, providing shelter for 50 to 100 inhabitants.  And yet an impressively sophisticated draining system existed in the village, which archaeologists believe may have included toilet facilities.  Some stone huts had drains built under them and some of the houses had cubicles sited over the drains. These may have been some of the very first indoor toilets…very welcome when an Orkney gale was blowing!

Skara Brae is now one of the major tourist attractions on Orkney.

Nile Style…

ancient egyptian toilet 2At around the same time, in Ancient Egypt, wealthy folk had bathrooms inside their homes, which included toilets with seats made from limestone, like the one pictured.  Underneath the toilet there was a container of sand which was regularly emptied by slaves.  The middle classes used clay pots filled with sand.  The slaves and poor of the community had to manage on a wooden stool with a hole in it, again positioned over a container of sand…but they had to empty their own!

Indian Loos…

Situated where modern day Pakistan now exists, was the Indus Valley Civilization.  This was so called because it was along the Indus river basin.  These people flourished from 2,600 BC to 1,900 BC.  Their streets were in a grid system, as Manhattan is today.  Underneath was a network of sewers.  The progression here was to toilets that flushed – probably by having a bucket of water thrown down into the holes.

Greek Sewers…

Slightly later, (2,000 BC to 1,600 BC) the Minoans on the isle of Crete also had drainage systems incorporating sewage disposal by the ‘flushing’ of toilets with water.

Enter the Romans…

…probably a lot later than you would have thought!  In the first and second centuries AD the Romans built the first public lavatories.  They would not have been happy places for anyone who was shy as there was no privacy at all – just a row of stone seats next to each other.  The Romans built drains that collected rainwater as well as sewerage and had a Goddess of sewers called Cloacina.  Despite the public toilets, many people still relieved themselves in the street.  It is known that after using the toilet, Romans wiped themselves with a sponge on a stick.

The Fall of the Roman Empire…and with it, the Loss of Drainage Systems…

When the Roman Empire fell in 500 AD, plumbing systems disappeared with them for hundreds of years.  In the Saxon age, (500 – 800 AD) a toilet was a hole in the ground with a wooden seat over it if you were lucky.  For the poor, this was to remain the method of going to the toilet for the next few centuries.

Medieval Water Pollution…

If you walked past Portchester Castle, in Hampshire, England, during the 12th Century, you wouldn’t be at all surprised to see monks sitting on a stone ledge overhanging the sea.  The Monks did what they had to do through holes in the ledge and the tide went in and out, taking the sewerage with it.

In the castles of the Middle Ages, the toilet was a vertical shaft topped off with a chilly stone seat, which emptied into the moat.  The smell must have been overpowering but people hung their clothes there because they thought the pong would keep moths away.  The toilet rooms with clothes hung in them became known as ‘garde-robes’ from the French for ‘protect clothes’.  Over time, this word became changed to ‘wardrobe’ that we use today.

For après toilet hygiene, rich people used rags for wiping whereas the poor used a plant called the woolly mullein.

The First Cistern

In 1596, Sir John Harrington (yes…he is related to Kit Harrington who plays John Snow in Game of Thrones – no pun intended) invented a lavatory that flushed and had a cistern but for some reason, it wasn’t a hit and people carried on using either chamber pots (the first ‘potties’) which were then emptied into the streets – or just holes over pits.

Before flinging the contents of the potty into the street below, it was customary to warn those walking beneath by shouting “gardey loo!”  This is thought to have been derived from the French “regardez l’eau” which means “Look!  Water!”  This is also where the term ‘loo’ probably originated.

Flushed with Success (sorry!)

In 1775, Alexander Cumming was given the patent for a lavatory that flushed.  This was improved on a few years later in 1778, with a design by Joseph Brahma.  In 1782, the U Bend made its’ first appearance.  However, toilets that flushed were a luxury for many years and did not come into common use until the late 1800’s.

During the 1800’s, most people used an ‘earth closet’ which was a pan, which was used and then had the contents covered by clay, released from a box by the pull of a lever.  In rural areas, these earth closets were still in use until the early 1900’s.

Working class homes almost always had outdoor toilets and in the early 1800’s, many homes often shared one, with queues resulting!

At the turn of the century, some homes were built for especially skilled workers and these did have indoor bathrooms and toilets but it was still far from common.

Toilet pans were made of porcelain and if you were wealthy, they were often painted or decorated.  Seats were almost always wooden and the toilets emptied by pulling a chain fixed to the overhead cistern.

The Thomas Crapper Myth

Thomas Crapper didn’t invent the flushing toilet but he did hold the patent for the ballcock.  He provided the future King Edward VII with toilets at his new home, Sandringham and received a Royal Warrant for his troubles.  He was a great salesman and was the first to have a bathroom and toilet ‘showroom’ so although he didn’t invent the loo, he did a lot to popularize it.

Some Quick Toilet Facts…

1. In 1547, it was forbidden for people to relieve themselves in the courtyards of Royal Palaces so there must have been a lot of crossed legs…

2. The first public lavatory in London opened in 1852.

3. The Ancient Chinese used paper to wipe themselves but packaged toilet paper didn’t go on sale until 1857. It was hard and scratchy and soft paper didn’t appear until 1942.  It remained a luxury with most families using torn up newspaper.

4. We take our toilets for granted but in developing countries, there are millions of people who still have to use pits and holes in the ground.

5. The word lavatory is derived from the Latin ‘lavare’ which means to wash, because in the 1600’s, the ‘lavatory’ was where one washed.

So there you have it – everything you ever wanted to know about toilets.

Now, when’s that next dinner party…?

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