A Brief History of Toilets
Toilet, Loo, Water Closet, Crapper, Throne or John. Whatever you want to call it we all need to use it at some point in they day, though most of us don’t much like talking about (which I think is wise). Very few of us however think about the sophisticated plumbing that carries our waste away. And how did our ancestors keep clean and disease free without it? Okay, admittedly many of them didn’t really, but some of them managed it and that had a lot to do with their, sometimes no less sophisticated, methods.
In ancient Egypt a toilet was a seat (sometimes limestone for the wealthy, wood for the poor) with a bucket of sand under it. The sand would be emptied by the owner, or a slave. Some scholars believe wealthy Egyptians even had toilets over running water drains.
Amongst others who relieved themselves into running water would be the Scots. The Orkney islands in Scotland have stone age farmhouses also built over running drains. Some of the drains have cubicles built over them that archaeologists believe were ancient toilets. The bronze age Indus valley civilization had networks of sewers under the streets that were filled with gunk they flushed away!
The ancient Roman empire had a very sophisticated sewer system that afforded them both running water and toilets that would carry unpleasantness away. Though for Romans going to the bathroom wasn’t a private matter. Bathhouses, that included toilets, were a place to meet and greet. Even the wiping-apparatus was communal. Instead of paper, cloth or a leaf they used a stick with a sponge on it that was dipped in water. Though wealthy Romans preferred feathers for their sensitive posteriors. Just make sure you don’t grab, “the wrong end of the stick”…get it?
Roman mythology even had a goddess named Cloacina, goddess of sewage. Clearly, not one of the major pantheon. She was named for the Latin word “cloaca” meaning sewage or drain (now cloaca also means a frog’s rear end). The lady presided over the Cloaca Maxima (nope, not a really big frog butt) the sewer system of the ancient Roman city.
One of the oldest flushing toilets is a 4,000 year old loo found in India. While it didn’t technically flush one could pour water down the bowl that would flush everything into a sewage system below the city.
Ancient Mayans as well are now believed by many to have had not only flushing toilets but even fountains as more and more evidence is found of the sophistication of ancient Mayan society.
In Ancient china toilets were simple, collecting excrement in a pot. But that excrement proved an important aspect of the economy. Out in rural areas there were fewer people so there was subsequently, less excrement, and therefore less manure to help crops grow. In the city however, where manure was useless it was plentiful, thousands of non-farmers creating more and more everyday, that was then collected and sold to farmers. In ancient China human waste became an important economical link between the rural and urban areas. Ancient Chinese toilets were segregated by gender, much like toilets in the Middle East and North Africa.
Toilets in the Middle Ages
After the fall of the Roman Empire sophisticated plumbing, like so many other things, seemed to simply disappear from Europe to be replaced by outhouses where a pit had been dug in the ground and a wooden bench with a hole cut in it had been placed over top. This remained the hottest technology for centuries.
Some monasteries that housed clever monks however, had stone ledges with holes bored through them perched over oceans or rivers that would wash the sewage with the tide or current, respectively. Pretty tricky, but not so good for the local watershed.
In fancy medieval castles that held dashing royal families folks also sat on a stone bench, this time at the top of a long vertical shaft that most often emptied into the moat. No would-be seigers are going to want to swim in that. So, I guess it doubled as a defence mechanism, though that’s not historically proven information. No toilet paper yet either, and while the royals probably had soft cloth to wipe their behinds regular folks used a plant called mullein.
Toilets in recent history
In 1596 an inventive chap named John Harrington (hence “the John”) invented a flushing toilet with a cistern but our dirty ancestors apparently preferred excreting into buckets and having their neighbourhood gong farmers pick it up to be burned for fuel.
Although in some areas where gong farmers weren’t around folks who apparently didn’t like their neighbours much simply dumped their chamber pots out the window. They did see fit to warn passer-bys though with a call of “Gardey loo!” Which kind of sounds like the French “Regardez l’eau”, which is a polite way of telling people to watch out for water. The English bastardization is thought to be the origin of the term ‘loo’. The waste was then carried away by above-ground sewers that lined the streets.
The flushing toilet, and with it plenty of plumbing came along (again) in 1775, just in time for the new world to start flushing away tea and taxes. Although at that time only the most fancy-pants ladies and gents had them. Gradually the flusher caught on, the patent granted to Alexander Cummings not Thomas Crapper, unfortunately. Calling it “The Cummer” just doesn’t have the same ring…
Even today however in some parts of the world people relieve themselves in holes dug in the ground or in toilet bowls that have no-self flushing mechanism and need to be filled with water or sand to keep the stink away. If you’re ever travelling in a poorly developed area (I had my fair share of this in Bolivia and Peru) be prepared, and bring some hand sanitizer.