A History of Toilets

By Tim Lambert

Toilets in the Ancient World

In the ancient world, people were capable of designing quite sophisticated toilets. Stone Age farmers lived in a village at Skara Brae in the Orkney Islands. Some of their stone huts had drains built under them and some houses had cubicles over the drains. They may have been inside toilets.

In Ancient Egypt, rich people had proper bathrooms and toilets in their homes. Toilet seats were made of limestone. Poor people made do with a wooden stool with a hole in it. Underneath was a container filled with sand, which had to be emptied by hand. (If you were wealthy slaves did that!)

In the Indus Valley civilization (c. 2,600-1,900 BC) streets were built on a grid pattern and networks of sewers were dug under them. Toilets were flushed with water.

On the island of Crete, the Minoan civilization flourished from 2,000 to 1,600 BC. They too built drainage systems, which also took sewage. Toilets were flushed with water.

The Romans also built sewers to collect rainwater and sewage. (They even had a goddess of sewers called Cloacina!). Wealthy people had their own toilets but the Romans also built public lavatories. In them, there was no privacy just stone seats next to one another without partitions of any kind. Despite the public lavatories many people still went in the street. After using the toilet people wiped their behinds with a sponge on a stick.

Toilets in the Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages toilets were simply pits in the ground with wooden seats over them. However, in the Middle Ages, monks built stone or wooden lavatories over rivers. At Portchester Castle in the 12th century monks built stone chutes leading to the sea. When the tide went in and out it would flush away the sewage.

In Medieval castles, the toilet was called a garderobe and it was simply a vertical shaft with a stone seat at the top. In the later Middle Ages, some towns in Europe had public toilets.

In the Middle Ages, wealthy people might use rags to wipe their behinds. Ordinary people often used a plant called common mullein or woolly mullein.

In 1596 Sir John Harrington invented a flushing lavatory with a cistern. However, the idea failed to catch on. People continued to use chamber pots or cesspits, which were cleaned by men called gong farmers.

Modern Toilets

However in 1775 Alexander Cumming was granted a patent for a flushing lavatory. Joseph Bramah made a better design in 1778.

Thomas Crapper did invent the flushing toilet. That is a historical myth.

However, flushing toilets were a luxury at first and they did not become common till the late 19th century. Also popular in the 19th century were earth closets. An earth closet was a box of granulated clay over a pan. When you pulled the lever clay covered the contents of the pan. In rural areas, flushing lavatories did not replace earth closets until the early 20th century.

In the early 19th century working-class homes often did not have their own toilet and had to share one. Sometimes you had to queue to use it.

In the 19th-century toilet, pans were made of porcelain. They were usually decorated, embossed, or painted with attractive colors. Seats were of wood and cisterns were often emptied by pulling a chain. At first toilet bowls were boxed in but the first pedestal toilet bowl was made in 1884. Meanwhile, the vacant/engaged bolt for public toilets was patented in 1883 by Mr. Ashwell.

However, inside toilets were a luxury in the 19th century. In the late 19th century working-class homes almost always had outside lavatories. About 1900 some houses were built for skilled workers with bathrooms and inside toilets. However, it was decades before inside toilets became universal.

There were public lavatories in the Middle Ages and the 16th century. For instance, we know there was one over the River Fleet in London. However, the first modern public lavatory, with flushing toilets opened in London in 1852. In 1892 John Nevil Maskelyne invented the coin-operated lock for toilets. In Britain, you had to insert one penny to use it.

Meanwhile toilet paper went on sale in the USA in 1857. At first toilet paper was sold in sheets. It was first sold in rolls in the USA in 1890. It was first sold in rolls in Europe in 1928. Soft toilet paper went on sale in 1942. However, after it was invented in the West toilet paper was a luxury. In the early 20th century many families used newspapers.

Andrew Rankin patented the urinal in 1866.

Today in rich countries we take toilets for granted yet in poor countries millions of people do not have hygienic toilets.

Our word toilet is derived from the French word toilette, which means little cloth. In the 17th century, it was a cloth cover for a dressing table, called a toilet table. If a woman was at her toilet it meant she was dressing and preparing her appearance. By the 19th century toilet room or toilet was a euphemism for a certain room.

Our word lavatory comes from the Latin lavare meaning to wash. In the 17th century, a lavatory was a place for washing. Later it became a euphemism for a certain room.

Onboard a ship the toilets are called the heads. Originally they were just wooden boards with holes cut in them hanging over the sides of the ships. They were placed at the head of the ship.

On land, there are many euphemisms for toilets. One is ‘the smallest room in the house’. An old euphemism for going to the toilet was ‘going to spend a penny’ because public lavatories used to cost one penny to use.

Today many people in poor countries still do not have adequate sanitation. The World Toilet Organisation was formed in 2001 to improve toilets in the developing world.

Last revised 2024