This post is about toilets. Not just any old toilets, though — the kinds that get flushed down and sent off to wherever they go when we’re done with them.
We typically don’t discuss toilets too much (or even think about them), so I figured it was time for an article on this important topic. Below are 10 surprising things you may not have known about your toilet or the history of flushing. Please share if you found them interesting!
#1: THERE’S NO HISTORICAL RECORD OF WHO INVENTED THE FLUSH TOILET (AND WHEN)
While there aren’t records revealing who invented the flush toilet, historians know that ancient peoples around the world used some form of a “flush” technology. For example, flush toilets were found in Minoan Crete (from roughly 2000-1450 B.C.), and there’s evidence that the ancient Romans had a version of flushing toilets as early as 100 A.D.
The Minoan civilization from 1700–1450 B.C., having a flush toilet with a water channel leading to a soakaway below it
#2: TOILETS GOT THEIR NAME BECAUSE PEOPLE ORIGINALLY SAT ON THEM FACING THE STREET…
Although we have no records of who invented the first toilets, we do know where they first started being used — namely, places of business and trade such as taverns and inns. Why? You might ask: Well, they first appeared in the streets of ancient Greece in about 500 B.C., so people could do their business out in public without having to go home.
These “water closets” were originally only used by men (they didn’t want ladies seeing them during their “private time”) and were often referred to as “vessels.” When these toilets got their name is unclear, but one theory suggests that it was because people sat on them facing the street instead of facing each other, which resembled an old Roman vessel with two handles.
#3: FOR ALMOST 200 YEARS PRIOR TO 1857, THERE WASN’T MUCH VARIETY WHEN IT CAME TO TOILETS…
Toilets weren’t all that varied from 500 B.C. to 1857, when the modern toilet started getting popularized in England and America. In fact, for almost 200 years prior to this point in time, most people had a choice between a “cesspool” or a “privy,” both of which were not pleasant at all. The cesspool was basically a hole in the ground covered by a stone slab that often leaked raw sewage into nearby rivers and groundwater (this created an obvious health hazard).
The other option — the outhouse — wasn’t much better: It was essentially just a small hut (with no roof) that typically only had three walls; it would be partially enclosed with planks and straw on all sides except one (the fourth side), which would be open for access to the “seat” via a vertical hole.
#4: CHINA IS WHERE FLUSHING TOILETS GOT THEIR START…
Although ancient Greeks and Romans had primitive forms of flushing toilets, it was in ancient China that these types of toilets started becoming more widely used — starting around 100 A.D. Even then, though, they weren’t exactly like what we know today: These early Chinese-style toilets were big and pot-like (most likely made out of stoneware or porcelain), and water was actually carried into the room inside jars or pots that connected to pipes inside the toilet itself.
The first modern flush toilet (also known as a “water closet”) was invented in 1775 by an Englishman named Alexander Cummings:
#5: THE MODERN FLUSH TOILET WAS INVENTED BY AN ENGLISHMAN NAMED ALEXANDER CUMMINGS
In 1775, a man from England known as Alexander Cummings invented the first modern flushing water closet (flushing WC) – also called “the Earth Closet.” It was similar to the types of toilets used in ancient China, except that it didn’t have a pot-like design but rather a cylindrical shape made out of wood. Water spouted upward inside the chamber after each flush, which pushed waste out and down into a pan underneath where it would be flushed away with water. This was not only more sanitary than what came before it, but it also proved to be much more effective at moving waste away from the toilet itself.
#6: ELABORATE VICTORIAN-ERA TOILETS WERE OFTEN GILDED WITH GOLD
While flushing toilets first started becoming popular during the mid 19th century, it wasn’t until the Victorian era (1837-1901) that they started getting more ornate and detailed. After all, at this time in history, having an elaborate toilet was one of the ways you could show off how wealthy you were. For example, Victorian-era washbasins often came with beautiful marble countertops and matching sinks made out of porcelain or copper.
As for more intricate fixtures like these “dumb waiters” here (also known as closets), they typically had walls or sides made out of wood, with elaborate carvings decorating the upper portions. On top of that, they were often finished in gold or other precious metals.
#7: THERE’S A REASON WHY TOILETS ARE TYPICALLY PORCELAIN
The main reason so many toilet bowls are made out of porcelain is because it’s extremely durable and you can easily clean it without worrying about corrosion or rust coming through (it also has an aesthetically pleasing look). But up until around 1900, many Victorian-era toilets were actually made out of wood…which sounds pretty gross to us these days. Even then, though, people weren’t just using wooden planks; instead, they would typically use “cane reed,” which was much more absorbent than today’s wooden planks and was often covered with hemp or wool.
#8: …AND BECAUSE OF THAT, EARLY VICTORIAN-ERA TOILETS WERE MADE OUT OF CHEAPER MATERIALS LIKE WOOD AND THEN COVERED INEXPENSIVE FABRICS
Even though porcelain and other ceramics started becoming more popular as toilet materials around the mid 19th century, you can thank the Victorians for spreading this trend. Namely, they started using much more expensive materials (like marble) to make their washbasins and urinals – but would cover them up with beautiful carpets or rugs to hide the fact that they weren’t actually made out of porcelain. This way, it appeared as if everyone who had a fancy bathroom was using a porcelain toilet, even if that wasn’t the case.
#9: ONE OF THE PRIMARY REASONS WHY SOME TOILETS ARE BLACK IS BECAUSE IT’S MORE SANITARY
Though many people associate black toilets with being dirty, this isn’t actually true. Back in the early 20th century, porcelain was still considered somewhat new technology, and since it had only been recently introduced most people weren’t exactly sure how to make something out of it (or whether or not they were any good). Because of this, there were numerous problems with products made out of pale-colored porcelain-like stains or discoloration appearing on them after a while (you can thank chemicals for both these issues). As such, one common solution was to coat toilets in black enamel paint, which was both inexpensive and prevented these stains from ever appearing.
#10: THE BOWL DESIGN MOST COMMONLY USED IN HOMES TODAY IS ACTUALLY A NEWER INVENTION
Two of the most common styles of toilet bowls you can find are called “squat” toilets and “bowl” toilets. Bowl toilets have an upside-down funnel shape that allows waste to easily slide away after each flush, while squat toilets look more like a large porcelain plate with a deep hole in the middle. However, neither of these bowl designs are new or particularly great for your health, so it’s hard to say who came up with them first. Instead, most modern homes around the world today use what’s known as “siphonic flush,” which pushes water down from the rim to force waste away below.
There you have it! Even though none of these might seem like they have much to do with one another, all ten are part of the interesting history behind modern-day toilets.
Guest Contributor: Mark Webster