The Chamber of Secrets: The Social and Mechanical History of the Toilet

1 Conversation


As with all tales, the toilet had a beginning. It is one of the oldest inventions (next to clothing) in the world. Our ancestors found that they needed to excrete body wastes often, but didn’t know where to put it. So, they dug holes, did their business, and buried it there. Of course, as technology progressed, so did toilets.

Eventually, people started to make their toilets fancier. Early Sri Lanka civilization had clay toilets with footrests and elaborate decorations. India was the first civilization to use plumbing to carry away their wastes, after they saw Greece’s plumbing system, which was first invented to carry water. The list goes on and on (and on).


Who invented the toilet? Well, to tell you the truth, we can’t credit one person or group with its invention. One surprising thing I learned while doing the research for this project is that Sir Thomas Crapper did not invent the flush toilet. He enhanced it, modified it, added to it, but the science and design behind the invention was there before he was on the scene . Now, Sir John Harington invented the modern flush toilet, which Thomas Crapper later refined further, but even Harrington did not actually invent it. For more details, see “A Toilet Timeline” below.

I should comment on one last invention controversy (now please don’t laugh): flushing. Sir John Harington used a symphonic flush in his first WC, wasting gallons of water with every flush. Until proper sewage was installed, water shortages were common, and people were asked to flush minimally. In fact, the British refused to change flush types until around 1990, when they eventually put valves in flushes to stop water wastage.


Here’s a basic timeline of the toilet’s development:

It all starts back around 10,000 BC. Stone Age homo sapiens don’t want to soak their new deerskin clothes with their own excrement, so they dig holes in the ground and er, …the first “toilet” is born. In 1450 BC, palace bathrooms with toilets are constructed on the island of Crête, Greece. Around the birth of Christ, Sri Lankans are using elaborate toilets with a high-tech (for the times) flushing system. Also, India uses basic plumbing to carry waste out to the rivers. Maybe neither Harington nor Crapper invented the flush toilet after all! Around 75 AD, Emperor Vaspasian of Rome invents the “pay toilet”; Romans paid a penny tax per use. The Saxon military goes with the flow in 122, when military bathrooms are built at Housesteads Fort, on Hadrian’s Wall.

The première case of Toilet Murder occurs in 1016, when the Anglo-Saxon King Edmund Ironside is murdered while on the toilet. This is followed by many similar events, including 1184, when German Emperor Frederick falls into his own cesspit and drowns!! German Parliament joins the brawl in 1189, when a law orders cesspits to be built away from homes, creating early “outhouses” and decreasing the smell factor while increasing the quality of German life. In 1245, King Henry III has new toilets built in all his homes. The pain continues in 1327, when King Edward II is tortured in his garderobe by mutinous members of his court. Yet another milestone happens in 1391, when China’s emperors begin using HUGE sheets of toilet paper which was easily obtained as China was the inventor of paper – the T.P. later becomes smaller.

In 1530, the so-called “House of Easement” is built at Hampton Court, England – a great relief to all. In 1596, in Surrey, UK, Sir John Harington designs the first flush toilet for Queen Elizabeth I, using now illegal symphonic flushes. The 1590s show the last known use of “crap” in Olde England meaning rubbish or chaff. However, the word is thought to enter North American usage via English settlers immigrating to the New World, and lives on.

Pan closets are installed in some larger houses in the 1750s in Europe. Now things start to get rolling. In 1775, Alexander Cummings revives Harington’s water closet, adding the S-trap, a sliding valve between bowl and trap of a flush-toilet. Two years later, Samuel Prosser applies for and receives a patent for a plunger closet. A year after that, Joseph Bramah invents a closet with a hinged valve at the bottom of the bowl. This becomes the true predecessor to the modern “ballcock” technique. Bramah, a sailor, also installs toilets on ships. Meanwhile, back in France in the 1780s, toilet paper and water closets still haven’t caught on. Piss boys are regularly used to collect and empty piss pots. Perhaps piss boys were easy converts to the French Revolution!

Thomas Crapper is born in Yorkshire in 1836 (a year before Queen Victoria ascends the throne). A few years later in 1842, a HUGE leap in sanitation and toilet ethics occurs: Edwin Chadwick publishes the revolutionary book Sanitary Conditions of the Working Classes, blaming the terrible hygiene (thus poor health) of workers on even poorer or nonexistent toilets, suggesting society learn to treat the diseases, and not leave the outcome to God. Also in the same year, the first water closet is installed in Buckingham Palace, London. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary first lists “crap” as a verb for defecation in 1846. Two years later, the First Public Health Act in England states that all new homes should have bathrooms. Americans start up their end of the business in 1856: Joseph Gayetty manufactures the first pre-moistened toilet paper. As well, the first patent ever is issued for the symphonic flush. All of this occurs four years before Crapper sets up shop, and 24 years before he receives his first patent. In 1860, Samuel Moule invents the Earth Closet, a toilet tank that uses ash, charcoal or earth to deodorize and absorb waste. Sir Thomas Crapper, falsely credited as the father of the toilet, sets up shop in 1861, and eventually registers plumbing patents to enhance, not create toilets (though he did remodel the toilet as we know it).

In 1870, the Metropolitan Water Act is passed in England, requiring new-fangled water closets to include “waste-water-preventers” (WWP’s) in cisterns to cut water waste after each flush. During the 1870’s, many American plumbers develop their own versions of “toilet plumbing systems”, leading to the cheaper and simpler flapper valves of today’s North American cisterns, though these used more water. Americans dismissed the water wasted. As well, about 20 patents are now being issued annually world-wide for various symphonic flush valves. None are issued to Thomas Crapper.

In the 1880’s, Queen Victoria hires Crapper to install new drains, plumbing and thirty lavatories with cedar wood seats plus decorative enclosures, for Sandringham House (her home) and Park House, Norfolk (birth home of future Princess Diana). Crapper cleverly connects toilet drains to the royal flowerbeds, which rapidly flourish. Crapper™ manhole covers are still seen in England including Westminster Abbey, where tourists do brass rubbings of them. Following Edward VII’s (Prince of Wales) ascension to the British throne, Crapper remains Royal Plumber through George V’s reign.

Charles Benjamin Clark and John A. Kimberly meet in 1872, and the former asks the latter to join him in building a paper mill in Wisconsin. America’s largest toilet paper manufacturer, Kimberly-Clark, is launched. Between 1881 and 1893, Thomas Crapper takes out six patents for drains, disconnecting traps (a major disease-preventer) and foot-pedal flushers (self-explanatory). He registered no patent for a valveless water-waste-preventer. In 1885, Joseph Twyford revolutionizes the business with the first trapless toilet: a one-piece, all-china design, dubbed Unitas™, beating out Wedgwood and Doulton who also submitted designs. In 1890 Scott Paper introduces the first toilet paper on a roll. In 1897, George Crapper (Thomas’ nephew) is issued Patent #724 “Improvements Relating to Automatic Syphon Flushing Tanks.” Thus, the family business (Marlborough Works) improved the symphonic flush, but didn’t invent it.

By the early 1900’s, 90% of London homes have piped-in water, so water closets are more common. Before this, you did your business in a basket and chucked the contents into the street. (Not surprisingly, this led to rich men wearing capes for protection.) On the down-side, as cesspools were used instead of sewage, many still contracted cholera. Crapper retires in 1904; his nephew George takes over. In retirement, Thomas tends his famous gardens and green-houses (thought to benefit from his, uh… unique fertilization methods) winning Royal Horticultural Society awards. Thomas Crapper dies at age 73 six years later.

In 1916, Kimberly-Clark begins making “cellucotton” for their special wadding toilet paper. Nurses use the stuff during the First World War to absorb blood and heal nasty cuts. In 1917, US servicemen stationed in England first see the humour in the Crapper™ stamped on many WC bowls, and coin the term “The Crapper” for the whole apparatus. In 1920, Kimberly-Clark invents 2-ply tissue paper to expel nasal passage contents called “Kleenex”. In 1925, Scott Paper (later bought out by K-C in 1995) is the leading toilet paper maker on the planet. In 1928, Hoberg Paper introduces the first Americanized toilet paper: Charmin (the logo - a woman's head on a cameo - was designed to appeal to female customers). A female employee called the package "Charming," and the product's brand name was born. In 1929, the patented “Pop-Up Box” combines with Kleenex like bread and butter. In 1942, St. Andrew’s Paper Mill, UK invents 2-ply toilet paper based on K-C’s Kleenex. Near the end of WWII, Kimberly-Clark receives an "E" Award (excellence in commercial service) for their heroic efforts supplying TP to soldiers in World War II.

In 1959, the Vacuum Toilet is invented in Sweden. One bears a sign: “DO NOT PUT ANYTHING IN THIS TOILET UNLESS YOU HAVE EATEN IT FIRST.” (think about it!) Tho. Crapper and Co. is sold to a rival in 1963, as Thomas had no children to be heirs, and stops trading as a separate company in 1966. The so-called “biography” of Thomas Crapper, Flushed with Pride, by Wallace
Reyburn with input from Crapper’s great-nieces, is published in 1969. It is later considered biased and inaccurate, as it flatters Crapper at the expense of the truth. In 1973, late-night talk show host Johnny Carson jokes about America’s looming toilet paper shortage, prompting a run to stores and hoarding. Carson apologizes the next day and retracts his quote.

In 1990, British Standard 7357 (a regulation) requires that “cisterns shall be supplied with an efficient flushing apparatus of the valveless symphonic type to prevent undo waste of water.” In 1991, US President George Bush Sr. (whose son George W. skipped military service in Vietnam) orders American military to camouflage its tanks in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War, with TP. In 1994, Tho. Crapper and Co. is revived as an independent company, and begins manufacturing “the finest in bathroom fittings.”

Taipei, Taiwan holds the first-ever wedding in a lavatory in 1996. Guests report that the new couple are “flushed with pride”! Japanese inventors create the paperless toilet, a combo toilet-bidet, in 1999; the idea, however, was flushed away. Under pressure from their European brethren, new British EEC (European Economic Community) regulations now require new British toilets to “go with the flow” and allow valves in their cisterns in 2000. The classic British syphon and valveless system will soon disappear. Japan is in a toilet-war in the present day, so to speak. Rival manufacturers outdo each other with high-tech toilets, including one that analyzes blood sugar and body fat, another with a self-opening lid, and still another that plays charming music as you eliminate. What will the flushing future hold? Leave that to Japan to discover…


As I have said before, the toilet is as old as we are. We have always needed to excrete. It’s just how we’ve actually taken care of what we excrete that has changed so much.

The first toilets were holes in the ground, dubbed cesspits. These are the earliest types of toilets. Next was a simple clay bowl, and the excrement was later dumped into a cesspit. Then came John Harington, who developed a flushing system that dumped our excrements into the ocean. Later, sewage was invented to filter out the excrements and the remainder was sent out to the oceans. The flush toilet stayed for a couple of centuries, constantly evolving, until the 1960s, where vacuum toilets were used on airplanes and ships.


The toilet has had a love-hate relationship with the people over the past couple of millennia. Some people only went to the toilet when they really had to, because they thought it was a work of the devil. Others thought that the toilet was a godly instrument to be used with great care, since it carries the stuff our bodies don’t want and no longer need.

Members of the royal families of France and Britain felt offended whenever the subject was brought up around them. It was “improper” for them to discuss such matters, especially so with HM Queen Victoria. In contrast, other monarchs like Henry VIII, actually went to the toilet in public, something we consider taboo today. Then again, he seemed to enjoy breaking modern taboos all around.

In Rome, the bathroom was a time for gossip, passing on information and learning. There were no stalls, so people chatted as they pooped. Can you imagine doing something like that today? I didn’t think so. This is a perfect example of how the toilet’s impact on people has changed more than people have impacted it. Let’s face it, the toilet is more love/hate than Don Cherry’s diatribes. Why is it that society must constantly change and shift nomadically in their taboos and choices like privacy or function of toilets?


The old toilet was very simple: dig it, do it, chuck it. But today is a different story…

The modern technological toilet has two main compartments: the inlet valve (under the seat area) and the outlet valve refill section (in the tank). When you flush, the handle causes the trip lever to raise a chain, which is connected to the tank stopper. The stopper rises and allows the waste and water to pass out the trap, at the flush passage, which opens into the toilet “bend” protected from leakage by the wax seal that then connects to the underground plumbing.
Once the cleansing task is completed, the tank stopper drops back into the flush valve seat. The float ball, which is down (due to lack of water in the tank), begins to rise and trips (turns on) the ballcock (inlet) valve assembly and allows fresh water to seep into the toilet through the tank refill tube and into the refill tank. As the tank is replenishing its water supply, the bowl refill tube directs some water into the overflow tube, which causes the trap at the bottom of the bowl to re-seal. The water keeps rising until the float ball shuts off the water when the float arm returns to a horizontal position.

Is your toilet not working probably? Here are some things you can do. If your toilet is flushing too noisily, it might be a defective inlet valve. Try oiling the trip lever, replace the ballcock washers or get a brand-new inlet valve assembly. If your toilet does not flush properly, the problem could be the water level may be set too low. To fix this, bend the float arm up gently, to raise the water level (or down to lower it). Use both hands and bent gently or you may strain the assembly. Also, check the float ball for cracks or holes if your toilet keeps on running…and running…and running. The ball may have cracks, which can cause it to take in water. If so, unscrew the ball and replace it with a new one. Remember to wash your hands (and other parts that may have been immersed in toilet water when trying to repair it).

FACT: The French have a cheap kind of cologne, which they call Eau de Toilette, literally toilet water. Contrary to its name, however, it is not made of actual toilet water (thank heavens).


Toilets are one of the most … ah … unique inventions on the planet. They can help you relax, think about life as you wait for elimination. Toilets have been talked about in millions of projects, books and essays (another here) and the toilet is an international symbol of stress relief.

The wonderful thing about the toilet is that its power has changed more than its technology. One minute, man was in a large room with no stalls as the bathroom, swapping gossip; the next, he’s locked in so tightly in rows and rows of stalls that he might develop claustrophobia… and all this just for privacy? It really is a shame this project is not supposed to be prose, as I could go on and on about the toilet. Adieu, good neighbours, and behold the glory and beauty of the Chamber of Secrets.

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