History of the Toilet Part 1

About the history of the toilet tracing its origins to its modern forms.


From Antiquity to the Future

The Reverend Henry Moule's hellfire and brimstone sermons failed to make much of a mark on history, but his tinkering will never be forgotten in the annals of human sanitation. His most successful invention was the earth closet. Constructed by him in 1860, it consisted of nothing more than a wooden seat over a bucket and a hopper filled with dry earth, charcoal, or ashes. The user simply pulled a handle to release a layer of earth from the hopper into the bucket. The container could be emptied at intervals.

Mr. Moule's original earth closet is a rather austere piece of household furniture, but later innovators loaded it with accessories. For example, a device could be added that released the earth each time a user rose from the seat. But the automatic earth release met with some opposition. "In sick rooms," according to one account, "this method of distribution of earth may be found objectionable, as more or less vibration follows the rising, and this is apt to disturb the nerves of a patient."

While sanitary historians may recognize Henry Moule's contribution, he is no longer a household word. Certainly he is not as well known as Thomas Crapper, the father of the flush toilet. In fact, while folk history is good to him, I am convinced he is a myth created by British author Wallace Reyburn, who wrote an amusing biography of him in 1969 entitled Flushed with Pride. Although the book and the history seem to be a complete figment of the author's imagination, many libraries, including the Library of Congress, file their bibliographical cards for the book as if it were a serious historical treatise on the origin of the water closet.

Who actually invented the water closet is a mystery; its origins go far back in history. One of the earliest indoor bathrooms has been found by archaeologists on Crete. According to the bathroom history Clean and Decent by Lawrence Wright, the great palace of King Minos at Knossos included a water-supply system of terracotta pipes that some have judged superior to modern parallel pipes. One of the Knossos latrines appears to have sported a wooden seat and may have worked much like a modern flush toilet. Cities in the Indus Valley between 2500 and 1500 B.C. also had indoor bathrooms flushed with water. The waste was carried to street drains via brick-lined pits similar to modern septic tanks. Except for the briefly used water closet of Elizabethan times, such engineering did not appear in England until the middle of the 18th century.

Generally, the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe were dominated by the pan closet, or the jerry pot. By 1800 many were elaborate, even to the extent of placing portraits of archenemies (Napoleon was a big hit in England) in the target area. After use, the pots were either emptied or concealed in commodes.

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