The History of Toilets

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Podcast Transcript

It is one of the most important inventions in history. Almost everyone listening to this has one. You use one almost every day, and if we didn’t have them, the world would be a very different place. 

I am talking about toilets. 

It isn’t something we like to talk about in public, but the sanitary removal of waste has been one of the critical components of allowing the development of the world we know today. 

Learn more about the history of toilets and how this simple invention helped shape the modern world on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily. 

Before I get too far, I need to acknowledge that many of you are chuckling or snickering at the subject of this episode: the toilet. 

Or, you might know it better as the loo, bog, john, water closet, potty, commode, lavatory, etc. You get the idea. 

While I understand the humor, you also have to admit just how vitally important toilets are. 

If you doubt it, consider this: Of all the things in your house, how many would you get rid of before you got rid of your toilet? Television is easy. A Bed, probably, you can sleep on the floor. 

Refrigerator: you can always eat out or get food that doesn’t require refrigeration. 

In fact, toilets are so necessary it is hard to even think of a modern home without one, and if you live in a city, it would almost be impossible. 

In a previous episode, I discussed sewers. Sewers were an innovation that made large cities livable. They allowed waste to be flushed out of a city, usually into a river. 

Cities were incredibly proud of their sewers, and rightly so. The same sewers built in ancient Rome are still in use today. 

Sewers were very important, to be sure, but if you remember back to that episode, you still had to deal with waste at its source. In many places, people used chamber pots, which required the manual removal of waste. 

It was extremely unhygienic, and the chamberpots were often emptied into the street. 

When I mention toilets, you probably think of a modern flush toilet. However, despite many urban legends, the flush toilet wasn’t invented by a single inventor. It was something that evolved over time and was the result of multiple innovations over the years. 

The earliest things that functioned similarly to a toilet could be found in the ancient world. By this, I mean a system of removing waste at the source and taking away via flowing water. 

Some of the earliest evidence of using a hydraulic system to remove waste was found in the settlement of Skara Brae in Orkney Islands in the far north of Britain. These were dated back about 5000 years and weren’t toilets per se, but evidence of using flowing water for sanitation purposes.

The first known sanitation systems, including rudimentary flush toilets, were found in the ancient cities of the Indus Valley civilization located in modern-day Pakistan and northwest India over 4000 years ago. 

These were holes that could be used as a toilet or for general waste disposal. When something was put into the hole, it would then be flushed away by a jug of water into either a cesspool or a larger drainage system. 

The palace of Knossos on the island of Crete had advanced plumbing systems, including toilets with a system of flowing water in the palace that would wash waste out to a nearby river. These have been dated back about 3000 to 3500 years ago.

Very recently, a discovery was made in Xi’an, China, which provides evidence of an early type of waste removal system using water. It is believed that the system was used in the home of a wealthy person. 

The best-known ancient toilets were those used by the Romans. The Roman ruins of Ostia, which was the port used by Rome where the Tiber River met the sea, have some of the best-preserved ancient toilets in the world. 

The ruins of Ostia are only about a 45-minute train ride from Rome. The Romans called this a latrine, and it was a communal room with a series of benches with holes in them.

People would literally sit next to each other, with as many as one to two dozen seats, and would do their business. These were usually not found in private homes but rather were found in public places, most commonly a Roman bath.

Below each seat, there was constantly running water, which would wash the waste away. 

If you are wondering how they cleaned themselves afterward, they used a sponge on a stick, which was shared communally. 


Despite very different customs and traditions regarding the handling of human waste, all of these ancient cultures identified from a very early age the benefits of removing waste by water. As far as we can tell, they all came upon the idea independently. 

In the centuries that followed, this idea was seldom implemented. Throughout the Middle Ages, there were some monasteries and castles that developed systems where they would dump water to remove waste, but they were the exception. 

Most castles just had a waste hole that hung off the side of the wall, known as a Garderobe, and most city dwellers had chamberpots that they emptied into the street because most cities didn’t have sewers. 

The development of the flush toilet is usually credited to Sir John Harington. 

Harrington was a poet and author and a regular at the court of Queen Elizabeth I.

His invention featured a raised cistern that could be filled with water, which was then released through a small pipe to flush waste from the bowl. The toilet had a valve to control the water flow, effectively washing away the contents into a cesspool. 

Although innovative for its time, Harington’s design was not widely adopted due to the absence of proper sewage systems and the high cost of implementation. 

What Harrington did was put together many of the waste removal principles that had been known since ancient times but put them together into a basic system that we would recognize today. There was a water tank, a bowl, and pipes for carrying the water.

The next major innovation in the toilet was the S-trap. Alexander Cumming, a Scottish watchmaker, patented the S-trap or the S-bend, a device that used a sliding valve to prevent sewer gases from entering buildings. This was obviously a very important advancement as without it, the pipes connecting a toilet would simply be a conduit for sewer gasses to enter a home.

In the late 19th century, the British inventor Thomas Crapper had two important inventions related to the toilet. He patented the floating ballcock, which can be found in every toilet tank today. 

The floating ballcock is usually a ball-shaped device that floats in the tank’s water. As water is added to the tank, the ball rises. It is connected to an arm that turns off the water once it reaches a certain height. 

The floating ballcock is what regulates the water flowing into the toilet tank to always reach an appropriate level and no more. 

His other invention, which is also seen in modern toilets, is the U-Bend. The U-bend is a U-shaped section of pipe that is below the bowl. The U will fill up with water, which blocks air from moving through the pipe.  Look under most toilets today, and you will probably find a U-trap. 

At this point, I might as well address the question that most of you are thinking. 

Was the euphemism for a toilet named after Thomas Crapper?

The answer is……no. 

The use of the slang term crap or crapper predates the birth of Thomas Crapper. The term was used at least as early as the Middle Ages and probably comes from the Dutch word krappen or the French word crappie. The term originally had nothing to do with body waste.

That being said, the Thome Crapper company did make porcelain toilets with the word “Crapper” prominently displayed, so the name might have reinforced an already existing phrase. 

The first known written association of the term with human waste was first recorded in 1846 when Thomas Crapper was only 10 years old. 

While I’m at it, does the slag term john come from Sir John Harrington? The answer is probably not, but not definitely not. It is a reference that goes back to the 16th century, roughly around the time of John Harrington, but it might also come from the term Jakes, which was short for Jake’s house.

A jake house would have been an outhouse, and jake was a term for a country bumpkin or a yokel. 

Yet another story, the term “john,” comes from Harvard University. The 1734 college regulations refer to a toilet as a cuzjohn.

Regardless of where the phrases came from, by the late 19th and early 20th century, all of the pieces of the modern flush toilet were in place. 

One of the events that popularized, or at least raised awareness of flush toilets, was the Great Exhibition in London in 1851. Flush toilets were available for the public visiting the event, the first public flush toilets in history. 

However, adoption was still slow. Despite increased awareness, flush toilets still require sewer systems and indoor plumbing to be effective. By the end of the 19th century, indoor plumbing was far from widespread. It was usually only found in hotels or the homes of the rich and well-off. 

This started to change in the early 20th century. Sewer systems became more widespread, as did running water in homes. 

Even by the end of the First World War, most buildings in the United States and England did not have indoor flush toilets. 

Flush toilets did not become common in new urban housing developments in Europe and North America until the 1920s and 1930s. The water and sewage infrastructure allowed them to be adopted easily at that point. 

In rural areas, electrical pumps working from wells as well as the create of septic systems, allowed for flush toilets to work even when not connected to a wider sewage and water system. 

Post-World War II economic growth and urbanization further increased the prevalence of flush toilets. By the 1950s and 1960s, most urban and suburban homes in developed countries had installed flush toilets. Public health campaigns also promoted their use as a sanitary improvement.

Most of the innovations in toilets in the late 20th and 21st centuries have been in the area of water efficiency, heated seats, and automated bides. 

While flush toilets and sanitation systems have become widespread, they are still not universal. 

Every November 19th, the United Nations sponsors World Toilet Day. It raises awareness of the fact that half of the world’s population lacks what they call Improved sanitation, which is defined as never having any contact with human waste. 

A further 650 million people have no toilet systems at all. 

World Toilet Day is also sponsored by the World Toilet Organization, which runs the World Toilet Summit.

They also run the World Toilet College, which trains people worldwide in proper sanitation practices. 

…and yes, all of these are real things. 

The good news is that things are continually improving. All over the world, extreme poverty is decreasing, and sanitation, including flush toilets with sewer systems, is expanding in use. 

I’ve covered the history of many different inventions and technologies on this podcast, many of which have helped shape the modern world. But I really think that the flush toilet has to be put in the top tier of innovations. 

If we didn’t have flush toilets and sewage systems, the world would be a very different and much more unpleasant place. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel. 

The associate producers are Ben Long and Cameron Kieffer. 

Today’s review comes from listener W222333444 over on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:

Great podcast!!!!!!

My name is Warren, and I’m 11 years old. I’m a part of the completionists club. Can you do an episode on the history of the Stanley Cup, the oldest trophy still in use today. Thanks if you read this on an episode.

Thank you, Warren! I think a future episode on the Stanley Cup would be a great idea. I think an entire episode could probably be done on some of the outrageous things that players have done with the cup when they got to take it home. 

Remember that if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.