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History of Toilets; History of Bathrooms; Toilet Improvements

Cindy has a strong interest in the world around her. Her interest and research lead to the creation of this article

Bathrooms, restrooms, toilets, water closets or loos - whatever you want to call them, we all know what they are and what they're used for. But, they have not always been so handy, hygienic or private. They have changed over the years, and it's likely that they'll continue to change.

Let’s look at the history of toilets throughout the ages. In our journey through history, we will even find an answer to the question of why a toilet is called “the john,” among other less favorable terms.

history-of-toilets-history-of-bathrooms-toilet-improvements
history-of-toilets-history-of-bathrooms-toilet-improvements
Roman toilets in Bet She'an

Roman toilets in Bet She'an

history-of-toilets-history-of-bathrooms-toilet-improvements

The Romans: 753 BC – 410 AD

Toileting during this time period was viewed much differently than we view it today. For the Romans in this time period, “going to the bathroom” was a social event that was shared with family and friends of both sexes.

Imagine a large room, which had “holes” located side by side on all the walls of the room. Roman cities contained many of these public toilets. In fact, in 315 AD, the city of Rome contained 144 public toilets. The people met in these toileting rooms to share the latest gossip and news, while also taking care of business.

Toilet paper did not exist. Instead, the Romans used a sponge affixed to a wooden handle. The stick with its attached sponge was dipped into a water channel or bucket, and then used to clean oneself. This apparatus was shared by everyone who frequented the toileting facilities. It is said that some wealthy Romans, not wanting to use the stick and sponge, used an ostrich feather instead.

It is believed that the saying, “getting the wrong end of the stick”, came from this time period.


The Saxons: 410 – 1066 AD

The Saxons had very little use for such luxuries. Instead, they used chamber pots or dug deep holes in the ground that the user squatted over.


Medieval Times: 1066-1485

Chamber pots were used during this time period. The contents of the chamber pots were dumped out a window into the open drains that lined the streets. Those walking below could find themselves unlucky indeed.

Rather than using chamber pots, wealthy individuals often built small rooms that were attached to an outside wall of their home. This room contained a supported plank of wood with a hole in it. Sometimes this room was built over a moat, enabling the waste to fall directly into the water. At other times, the room was designed to allow the waste to fall into a hole (cesspit) that had been dug under the room. And in still others, the waste would fall into a chute where it was diverted to a moat or cesspit.

These holes above the gate of this medieval castle are toilets right above the gate. I might have to find another gate.

These holes above the gate of this medieval castle are toilets right above the gate. I might have to find another gate.

Tudor and Stuart Times: 1485 – 1714

Those in the castle of King Henry VIII, courtiers and servants alike, shared a “great house of easement” which seated 28 people. The waste from this facility emptied into drains leading to the River Thames.

A team of boys small enough to crawl through these brick-lined drains were used to keep the drains clean and functioning. Now, that’s a job that would make you want to grow up fast!

The king, however, had his own special “throne”, called a “close stool.” The king’s toilet consisted of a large bucket with a water tank and a padded seat decorated with silk ribbons and golden nail studs.

The Tudors felt free to urinate, “pluck a rose” was the term they used, wherever they were when the need arose – in the corners of rooms, in the fireplace or on the street.

Common folks used leaves, moss or stones to wipe and clean themselves. The well-to-do used bits of old clothing.

In 1596, Sir John Harrington built the first flushable toilet in his home. This facility impressed Queen Elizabeth I, his godmother; and she had one built at Richmond Palace. It was dubbed “the John," named for Harrington. After Harrington’s death, his home was destroyed and almost 200 years went by before the next flushable facility was built.

A Toilet from the Thomas Crapper Company. Click to view a larger image to clearly see the company logo and the type of toilet.

A Toilet from the Thomas Crapper Company. Click to view a larger image to clearly see the company logo and the type of toilet.

history-of-toilets-history-of-bathrooms-toilet-improvements

Georgian Times: 1714 – 1837

During the Georgian Times, the "potty" was often kept inside a piece of furniture such as the sideboard and was often located in the dining room. Most people living in a Georgian city would have a cesspit either under their home or in their garden. The "potties" were emptied into these cesspits. During this time, there are stories of people dying in the “night air”. It is now known that these deaths were caused by deadly poisonous gases generated by the wastes dumped in these cesspits.

Then in 1775, 179 years after Sir John Harrington’s invention, Alexander Cummings invented the first “modern” flushing toilet. It was improved a few years later by Joseph Bramah. Thomas Crapper’s company manufactured the toilets and his name was placed on them. This is the source from which one of the common names for the toilet was derived - the crapper.

The Victorian Times: 1837-1901

In the 19th century, the population in Britain increased significantly, but the number of toilet facilities did not. Facilities were shared, especially among the poor. It was not uncommon for a toileting facility to be shared by more than 100 people. This often led to their overflow, spilling waste into the streets and rivers.

The River Thames became a dumping ground for sewage, dead animals, horse manure and chemicals from factories. Although this water was brown when coming from the tap, the people drank it. The unhealthy condition of the water led to cholera outbreaks in the 1830s and 1850s, killing tens of thousands.

To put a stop to this situation, in 1848, the government declared that every newly built home must include a water closet or ash-pit privy (hole filled with ash rather than water). It was not until 1865, however, that a new sewer system carrying toilet waste away from homes and away from the River Thames was completed. Deaths due to cholera and typhoid continued until the completion of this new sewer system.

In 1857 the first toilet paper, which came in flat packs called “curl papers”, was sold in Britain. Because it embarrassed people to see it displayed in the stores, it was sold from under the counter.

The 20th Century

The first rolls of toilet paper were sold in 1928. It was not until 1932, however, that soft toilet paper became available. Interestingly, it was unpopular at first.

Despite the progress made in this arena, many people in rural areas still toileted in their gardens until the 1960s.

Even though my great-grandfather who lived in a rural Texas town had a bathroom added onto his home, he still continued to use the outhouse until his death in the 1960s. Although a younger girl at the time, the things I remember most about his outhouses (he had more than one) is that they were dark; they had spiders in them; and they often housed snakes. These minor details managed to put a damper on my curiosity.

The Present

This brings us to the present. Toilets, also known as commodes, come in many different colors and styles. Toilet paper comes in various colors, prints and even scents. Toilet paper dispensers are available with built-in air fresheners. Many public toilets now have an automatic flushing mechanism that activates as soon as the person rises from the toilet.

Toilets in the Future...

As long as we continue to need toilets, and I don't see that need changing, toilets will continue to evolve.

We are already seeing toilets with heated seats, water-saving toilets, and toilets that can wash and dry your bottom. What more is in store for us when it comes to this delicate question? Time will surely tell.


Strange but True

I would not have thought that I would have been able to find a video that related to toilets that I would want to use in this article, but once again I was wrong. Enjoy the video.

© 2011 Cindy Murdoch

Comments: "History of Toilets; History of Bathrooms; Toilet Improvements"

Cindy Murdoch (author) from Texas on July 21, 2020:

Who would have thought bathrooms and toilets could be so interesting. Thanks for stopping by.

Janisa from Earth on March 29, 2018:

Interesting article and I loved the prank video :D

Cindy Murdoch (author) from Texas on January 16, 2015:

Thanks for stopping by. Glad you enjoyed.

peachy from Home Sweet Home on December 09, 2014:

wow, i had never seen such open air toilet before!

Cindy Murdoch (author) from Texas on March 14, 2012:

This was a history lesson ... the land ... well it has evolved. Sorry!

Justin W Price from Juneau, Alaska on March 13, 2012:

cindy, tell me more about this land...

;-)

Cindy Murdoch (author) from Texas on February 18, 2012:

thougtforce - I am sure the smell must have been horrible indeed. In fact, when the heat was intense the smell could get very bad indeed.

Yes, AudreyHowitt - Thomas Crapper!

albertsj - I don't want to be on long enough to need a heated seat either. In fact, I can think many places to sit that would be so much more comfortable.

Thanks to all of you for stopping by and making my birthday truly memorable.

jacy albertson from Oviedo fl on February 16, 2012:

Cindy, this was great! You obviously did pretty extensive research on, uh...toilets. But I was really captivated. I mean we all use them. I can't figure out the heated seats though. I mean when I gotta' go I go and that's it. I don't want to spend half of my day there. But I really think I must be in the minority with that. Voted up, and interesting

Audrey Howitt from California on February 16, 2012:

Interesting write--Thomas Crapper huh?

Christina Lornemark from Sweden on February 16, 2012:

A very interesting read about the history of toilets! The early ways to handle the toilet waste sounds so horrible. Imagine the smell...

You have done great research and the hub is fantastic! Voted up, useful and shared

Tina

Cindy Murdoch (author) from Texas on February 15, 2012:

PDXKaraokeGuy - I have an even beter idea. Just print it out and take it with you. It's free! But if you really insist on paying, I also have some swamp land that I am absolutely sure you would be interested in ...

Justin W Price from Juneau, Alaska on February 15, 2012:

quite interesting, HUb. Have you considered compiling this information into a brochure that you could sell and then I could read it while using the toilet?

Cindy Murdoch (author) from Texas on February 08, 2012:

RealHousewife - I am glad that toilets have advanced away from some of these traditions. I hope we never have to figure things out without TP...hate to think about it. Thanks so much for stopping by.

Kelly Umphenour from St. Louis, MO on February 08, 2012:

Lol! I had no idea and I'm glad I didn't live during the glorious toilet out house days! This did give me a few ideas for in case we ever run out of TP again....haha! Ew! Very funny and voted you up because nothing makes this old girl laugh more than dirty potty humor:)

Cindy Murdoch (author) from Texas on January 17, 2012:

Just Ask Susan - There are many societies that practice and believe that squatting is healthier. A hole in the floor would cause you to squat. Thanks so much for your input. I may need to add this to this hub, as it is still valid.

Susan Zutautas from Ontario, Canada on January 17, 2012:

A friend of mine taught english in Korea and I am pretty sure she told me that in the place where her and her family were living the toilet was a hole in the floor. So happy I live in North America :). Great Article!

Cindy Murdoch (author) from Texas on December 12, 2011:

Sueswan - Glad you stopped by. Yes I can imagine that would be embarrassing. Thanks for stopping by, and glad that we are both living in these times.

Sueswan on December 12, 2011:

Hi Homestead

Great hub.

Glad that I am living in these times.

I have been in public facilites where the toilets are supposed to flush automaticlly. Once I used one and it didn't flush, I warned the next person not to use it. Talk about embarrassing.

Voted up and awesome.

Cindy Murdoch (author) from Texas on December 07, 2011:

stephaniedas - certainly wouldn't want to be a small boy or a pretty girl of marrying age - either one could be bad and one was quite deadly.

Thanks for stopping by!

Stephanie Das from Miami, US on December 07, 2011:

This is awesome! I would hate to have worked for the King of England, let me say. And I love hearing stories from my grandmother about their old toilets. They had all sorts of contraptions before the 50s.

Cindy Murdoch (author) from Texas on December 07, 2011:

Beth - I bet you never thought you would describe an article about the history of toilets as wonderful, much less fabulous! I'm glad it entertained you. Thanks for stopping by!

Beth Pipe from Cumbria, UK on December 07, 2011:

What a wonderful hub! Fabulous, funny & informative! I love it!

Cindy Murdoch (author) from Texas on December 05, 2011:

Definitely a smell that could stop you in your tracks, I imagine! Whoa, is right!

In London, when they were doing all that dumping in the Thames, that had a very hot season that they referred to as the "Big Stink".

Glad we don't have to deal with this stuff on a daily basis. Driving past the "dump" can be bad enough!

WillStarr from Phoenix, Arizona on December 05, 2011:

BTW, the reason the castle moats were so effective was what was in them. Can you imagine the smell on a hot day?

Whoa!

Cindy Murdoch (author) from Texas on December 05, 2011:

Happyboomernurse - Your comment made me smile - I'm wondering if that means I have a good reputation or oh no, what is she going to say now?

My great-grandfather's outhouses had 2 and 3 holes respectively, so it may have been social even for him!

I thought Leroy's idea was ingenious, and could be practical in a hospital application someday, if someone could figure out how to implement it.

Thanks for stopping by!

Cindy Murdoch (author) from Texas on December 05, 2011:

brittanytodd - who could have thought that reading about toilets could be so interesting? But it really was!

Don't think it's the same outhouse...

Glad you enjoyed it and thanks for stopping by!

Gail Sobotkin from South Carolina on December 05, 2011:

As soon as I saw the title on this hub and knew you were the author I had to check it out! You did a great job and it was extremely interesting learning the history of toilets.

When I read about the Roman public toilets being used to share gossip it struck me as the olden day equivalent of "reading the newspaper while on the John."

I had to laugh about Leroy's imaginative comment that someone may one day come up with sensors to monitor the deposits for health reasons. Sounds funny but I could actually see it being done one day.

Voted up, funny and interesting.

Brittany Kennedy from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii on December 05, 2011:

Wow! What an interesting history of the toilet! I had no idea. Also, is that picture of the outhouse from Shrek? Haha. You have a well-organized and interesting hub here, HSB. Thank you for sharing and keep up the great work!

Cindy Murdoch (author) from Texas on December 05, 2011:

WillStarr - LOL. Good for Mom. To have had a privy 150 years ago would have been quite a luxury! Thanks for sharing this great story!

And thanks for stopping by!

Cindy Murdoch (author) from Texas on December 05, 2011:

leroy64 - You brought up lots of interesting ideas about what is being done and what could be done.

Sensors to monitor ... might be useful in the hospital and nursing home settings.

Thanks for stopping and for a .... sharing.

WillStarr from Phoenix, Arizona on December 05, 2011:

Dad bought a small-town Iowa house in the early 1950s that was built around 1850. It had an indoor privy, and other deluxe features that made it quite the luxurious home in those days. Not so in the 1950s!

Mom put up with it until the spring thaw, and then Dad had a septic system installed, and a modern bathroom.

Brian L. Powell from Dallas, Texas (Oak Cliff) on December 05, 2011:

That sounded like a challenge.

Actual things I am Aware of:

There was a toilet on the market that played music to cover various sounds. I have read about a working toilet that included a fish tank where the normal tank should be. We in the West could decide that squatting is healthier and switch to traditional style Japanese toilets. (Basically a hole in the ground with ceramic foot holders.) If you are willing to pay for it, you can have images baked into the ceramic finish that gives guys a target. There is such a thing as a waterless urinal; but, I am not aware of a waterless toilet.

My Imagination

Perhaps someone will come up with sensors and an internet connection to monitor your umm..... deposits, for health reasons.