When I suggested to my wife that I was interested in writing about the toilet and its history, her response was, “You’re joking, right? Isn’t that a bit indelicate?”
It seems that some essential facts of life are always subsurface, such as the claim I heard recently that some people will buy toilet paper only when no one is looking.
But, the relevance of the toilet in modern life was hammered home to me when I met with a new seller client who told me she totally rebuilt her old cottage-style home from the ground up 20 years ago because she grew tired of using an outhouse in the back yard. Did I hear right? Actually, 30 years ago when I bought my home built in 1734, there was still an outhouse in the backyard that didn’t look that long abandoned.
The removal of human waste from domiciles has been one of the greatest challenges and necessities of tolerable living from ancient civilizations to the Romans, who in their glory days had perfected a sophisticated sewage system. But when Rome fell, so did the technology of the sewer, along with baths, engineered water and basic sanitation.
In fact, by the Dark Ages, bathing and sanitation became uncommon, resulting in more than a quarter of the European population dying from such diseases as cholera and the plague. Until the 18th century, most people just did whatever they had to do, whenever and wherever they needed to do it. Even as recently as the mid-19th century, the contents of chamber pots were commonly dumped from second story windows into the streets.
When the connection was made between disease and waste, sanitation came to the fore once again, especially in cities with dense populations in Europe. In America, most of us relied on outhouses until the development of water supplies, indoor plumbing and a system to accommodate waste removal from the home, either to a septic or sewer.
The development of sewer and septic systems is a fascinating subject for future exploration, but the focus here is that porcelain- coated fixture we relate to most directly when the need arises. To rid our environment of any residual, all we need do, mindlessly at that, is press a handle, which even a cat can be trained to do.
For years, I believed that the toilet was invented in the late 1800s by an Englishman named Thomas Crapper. Seriously. But those old English words preceded Crapper’s flush toilet by some centuries and the connection with his name is purely coincidental.
Three hundred years earlier, another Englishman, Sir John Harington, wrote a treatise of the toilet’s design and peddled its first installation to his godmother, who happened to be Queen Elizabeth I. The flushing mechanism is remarkably similar to what we use today.
Very honestly, I had rarely thought about how a toilet works, leaving any problems with its operation to my plumber. It’s like my car. I just fill the tank with gasoline and it runs. But it’s actually quite a sophisticated piece of equipment, considering its 16th century origins.
Today, a toilet is composed of two main pieces – the tank and the bowl, with the working parts in the tank. When the lever is pushed, it pulls on a chain, which pulls up a flush valve at the bottom of the tank, allowing water to rush out into the toilet bowl. As the water level in the tank goes down, a float ball attached to a rod opens the fill valve and water from the house water pipe begins to flow into the tank. When the tank is almost empty a flapper falls onto the discharge hole and seals it again, and water starts refilling the tank. That sitting water in the tank actually serves as insulation from smells and fumes from the pipes.
The toilet’s significant contribution to the environment was further enhanced in 1992 when Congress passed legislation requiring new toilets to drain just 1.6 gallons per flush instead of the then 3.5 gallons, conserving water resources.
In recent years, the look of the toilet has become more sleek, particularly the tank. The bowl shape had always been round, but newer versions feature an elongated shape, designed perhaps with the male anatomy in mind. For a man, it would seem to me that trading up to an elongated toilet bowl is like switching from jockeys to boxers.
And, of course, there has long been the “up or down” debate between men and women about the lid, as well as the rank humor attached to this serious, essential fixture in our homes. But, an exploration of that latter subject would indeed be indelicate.