A brief history of the toilet

A historical and cultural analysis

toiletGraphic by Evan Tremblay.

For much of the Western world, the toilet is a modern convenience taken for granted on a day-to-day basis. Modern plumbing, water treatment, and sewage systems are perhaps some of the most important inventions to have enabled large cities to thrive, limiting the impact of water-borne illness and disease, and giving mankind the foundation to innovate and thrive in the modern day. The porcelain throne is the combined efforts of technology, science, and architecture, and is rarely given the credit it is due when it comes to how much its invention has impacted health and culture with respect to human life.

An excellent way to come to appreciate modern toilets and water systems is to take a look at the history of the latrine, and how it has changed over time.

Ancient Rome (753 BCE to 476 CE)
The Ancient Romans invented the aqueduct, one of the most important inventions of the ancient world. The Aqua Appia, the very first aqueduct, was built in 312 BC to meet the growing need for water in Rome. The aqueduct remains one of the most effective ways to deliver water to cities, with similar systems being used in cities like Los Angeles.

The aqueduct consisted of a system of pipes, made from lead or concrete, which brought water from sources up to 97 kilometres away. Sedimentation tanks removed impurities, and siphons (curved segments of pipe which arched) enabled water to gain momentum to move upwards and overcome hills or elevation changes.

Additionally, aqueducts were capable of delivering 1,000 litres of water per citizen per day, outpacing many water systems existing in the modern world.

When Ancient Rome fell, its aqueducts also fell. However, during the Renaissance, several aqueducts were rebuilt and remain standing today.

While the Romans were very forward thinking with respect to effective water supply, toilet hygiene still left much to be improved.

Toilets in Ancient Rome were communal, often the site of discussion and social engagement. The ancient sewer system carried waste away through channels, just as modern plumbing does. However, superstition led Ancient Romans to believe that demons lived in sewer systems and that people were vulnerable to possession when using the toilet.

The reason Romans believed this was because since they didn’t have toilet paper, a communal sponge on a stick was used. This resulted in illnesses being spread quite easily. Romans had yet to learn about bacteria.

Middle Ages (400 CE to 1500 CE)
Toilet hygiene still required some improvement during the Middle Ages. Toilets varied from being just a hole in the ground with a wooden seat above them, or stone latrines built over bodies of water.

In castles, “garderobes” were stone seats above a vertical shaft which led to moats, or a cesspool. Aside from toilets built over moving bodies of water, waste would generally build up in stagnant pools, creating conditions where illness and disease thrived. Privacy still remained elusive, as garderobes remained shared facilities without any sort of barriers to your neighbour.

However, instead of shared sponges on a stick, the wealthy in the Middle Ages used rags for cleaning. Other people used plants.

During the Middle Ages, many water-borne diseases tore through towns, causing the death of a large portion of Europe’s population.

One such disease was dysentery, which spread due to poor toilet hygiene. Dysentery causes inflammation of the intestines, bloody diarrhea, vomiting, fever, and abdominal pain. Dysentery also had a large impact during the Crusades, causing many deaths and weakening armies.

The Black Death, or, bubonic plague, owed part of its rapid transmission to poor sanitation during the Middle Ages. Chamber pots were often emptied into the street, and waterways were contaminated and untreated before consumption. The Black Death claimed roughly a third of Europe’s population between 1347 and 1350.

1500s and forward
The invention of the toilet resembling more of what we know today occurred in 1596. Sir John Harington, a well-known inventor, wanted something better than a chamber pot. He invented the water closet, a chamber pot which flooded with water and took its contents away.

This invention ultimately ended his career as an inventor, as he received ridicule from peers over the device.

The development of the toilet continued in 1775, when Alexander Cummings patented a water closet with a valve for flushing. Shortly afterward, another improved design surfaced in 1778, created by Joseph Bramah.

The indoor flushing toilet remained a luxury until the 19th century when outdoor flushing toilets began to gain prominence.

The first public toilet opened in 1852 in London. Non-pliant toilet paper first appeared in 1857 and was considered a luxury item. Toilet paper rolls appeared in 1890 in the U.S. and 1928 in Europe. Soft toilet paper appeared in 1942.

Bolts on public bathroom stalls, indicating if the cubical was occupied or not, was first invented in 1883.

The first Hollywood film to show a toilet flushing was Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in 1960.
Today, toilets are commonly found in most homes, businesses, and in public places throughout the Western world.

Space toilets
One of the most common questions asked of astronauts is how the toilet works. Onboard the space station, astronauts secure themselves to their toilet with leg restraints and use suctioning hoses to collect waste.

The waste is then dehydrated, and the water is treated and recycled. The rest of the waste is collected in a tank which is eventually collected by resupply ships and is released to burn up in the atmosphere.

Impact of toilet and water sanitation
Since the emergence of toilets and sanitation, many of the conditions caused by poor sanitation have been prevented. People are able to live safely and cleanly in their homes, and are able to practise good hygiene to prevent the spread of illness.

While toilets and water treatment are widely accessible in the Western world, such amenities remain inaccessible to a large portion of the world’s population. Approximately 2.5 billion people do not have access to toilets or sanitation, leaving many at risk of sanitation-related illness or disease.

It is clear by reflecting on the history of toilets and sanitation that this is an often overlooked part of our daily lives. Hopefully in the future, the toilet will be seen as a symbol of human accomplishment similar to the steam engine or the computer.

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