While toilets and toilet papers are everywhere around us now, many people might be unaware of their evolution and the kind of life humans led before their invention.
How did the idea of a toilet emerge? Who actually invented the first toilet? When did toilet papers come into being? And what did they replace? This article provides an in-depth guide to all these questions.
Who invented the toilet?
You might see the name “Thomas Crapper” floating around whenever this question is raised. And sure, he contributed a lot to the popularity of the toilet and even patented various toilet-related inventions. In fact, the world’s first toilet was owned by his company, Thomas Crapper and Company. Also, in 1861, he was hired by Prince Edward to construct several lavatories in different royal palaces. That being said, there is still no clear answer as to who invented the toilet.
Therefore, no one can be attributed as the undisputed inventor of the toilet. In fact, the history of the toilet is so rich that it has roots in Elizabethan politics, ancient sanitation practices, and the activities of the Industrial Revolution! Similarly, the Scots (in a Neolithic settlement dating back to 3000 BC) and the ancient Greeks from 1700 BC are also said to have played a vital part in producing the first toilet.
What we do know, however, is an accepted timeline of milestones leading to the evolution of the modern flushing toilet.
Timeline of the evolution of the toilet
Primitive latrines that carried away waste with a constant stream of water have a 5,000-years old history. Toilet systems were used by advanced civilizations such as the Romans and the Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa civilizations of the Indus Valley.
315 AD: Roman Times and public toilets
It is known that by 315 AD, Rome had around 144 public toilets. Funnily enough, this was treated as a social event. It was a time for the Romans to meet each other, discuss their lives, and learn about news. To wipe themselves, they used a sponge attached to a short wooden handle. The waste was rinsed in a water channel running in front of the toilet.
1596: Sir John Harington and the first design for flushing toilet
The design for the first modern toilet was described by Sir John Harington in 1596. The godson of Queen Elizabeth I, he was an English courtier and was banned from the court. During his time in Kelston waiting out the Queen’s displeasure, he built a house with a flushing toilet. Immensely impressed by this invention, Queen Elizabeth I had a flushing toilet installed for herself at the Richmond Palace. She didn’t use it though because apparently, it caused too much noise. However, it was only after a few centuries that the flushing toilet became widely popular.
Sir John Harington titled his invention ‘Ajax’, a pun on the word ‘jakes’ which was slang for toilets. His device required a 2-feet deep oval bowl waterproofed with pitch, wax, and resin. It was to be fed with water from an upstairs cistern. Flushing this pot required 7.5 gallons of water and nearly 20 people could use this commode between flushes.
1775: Alexander Cummings and the first flush toilet design patent
Alexander Cummings from Edinburgh was a watchmaker who patented the first flush toilet design in 1775. This design was an improvement over Sir John Harington’s description which had a straight pipe allowing dangerous and unpleasant odors to go back to the room. Alexander Cummings added the famous S-bend through which water was permanently retained in the toilet bowl. The S-shaped pipe was located under the toilet basin. This meant that sewer gases stayed in the sewer rather than floating around in the bathroom.
Late 1770s: Samuel Prosser and Joseph Bramah
In 1777, Samuel Prosser invented and patented the hinge valve. This is used in a toilet to prevent anything from coming back up. Prosser termed this the ‘plunger closet’.
In 1778, Joseph Bramah from Yorkshire improved Prosser’s idea and developed a slide valve that sealed the bottom of the toilet bowl. This was meant to prevent the toilet from freezing in cold weather, like often happened in London.
1848: Victorian Times and the decree for water closet
In 1848, the government ordered that every new house had to have a water closet or an ash-pit privy. ‘Night soil men’ were assigned to clean the ash pits regularly. The building of a system of sewers in London was commissioned in 1858 when the rotting sewage, in an extremely hot summer, resulted in the ‘great stink’. This construction was completed in 1865, leading to a drastic drop in water-borne diseases.
1870: Thomas Crapper and the first mass-produced toilets
It was in the late-19th century when Thomas Crapper manufactured one of the first successful lines of flush toilets. He also opened his bathroom showroom in 1870. Although he did not ‘invent’ the toilet, he is credited with the invention of the ballcock – an improved tank-filling mechanism – before which the valve system was in use. The ballcock is used in many toilet designs to this day. However, the terms ‘crap’ and ‘crapper’ have been in use long before Thomas Crapper and it’s an interesting coincidence that his name has become synonymous with the toilet. In fact, the term ‘crapper’ has been around since World War I when American servicemen stationed overseas started referring to toilets as crappers. Therefore, Thomas Crapper isn’t really the inventor of the toilet, but more of a popularizer.
It was then that along with Crapper, his contemporaries including Edward Johns, George Jennings, Henry Doulton, and Thomas Twyford began producing toilets the way we know them today.
20th century: Modern Times and the modern toilet
It was with the advent of the 20th century that the toilet became widely popular and used. These had flushable valves and water tanks resting on the toilet bowl. Such a toilet also had to use less than 1.6 gallons of water for flushing since the US Energy Policy Act of 1922 ordered this. Consequently, companies worldwide began producing more water-efficient and low-flush toilets.
Today, the toilet we use has come a long way (literal centuries!) from the manner in which the Romans and Indus Valley civilizations washed away their waste or the designs and patents mentioned above. A modern toilet can even have a sealed ‘vacuum water closet’ which is common to airplanes and boats. Another engaging example is the kind that is used in Japan which can compost the waste and turn it into fertilizer for plants! Today, you have the option to have a toilet installed nearly anywhere in your sanitary space, for example, a corner toilet that sits neatly at one corner of your bathroom, or a wall-mounted toilet that takes no floor space at all. Additionally, in 2006, waterless toilets were developed to meet the sanitation needs of water-scarce parts of the world such as South America where sanitary plumbing is not readily available. On the same line, handicap toilets are also manufactured to aid senior citizens or handicapped individuals.
Thus, even an invention as simple as the toilet, which we have utilized all our lives, has gone through centuries of improvement, refinement, and evolution.
When was toilet paper invented?
Having a well-functioning toilet is just half the part of the cleaning process. It’s incomplete without having the right kind of toilet paper – an invention which has a history as, if not more, complex than the toilet itself.
History of toilet paper
Something as plain as the toilet paper wouldn’t have taken a species as intelligent as the humans too much time to invent. However, what we know the toilet paper as today, went through different variations and many improvements.
6th century: The Chinese as pioneers of toilet paper
Chinese are believed to be the pioneers of using paper for wiping purposes. They used sheets of paper to clean themselves, as early as the 6th century AD. The scholar Yen Chih-Thui in 589 AD wrote, “Paper on which there are … the names of sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes.” By the early 14th century, the Chinese were manufacturing 10 million packages of 1,000 to 10,000 sheets of toilet paper per year. In fact, by 1393, the Hongwu Emperor’s imperial family was using thousands of perfumed paper sheets. However, it wasn’t after another 1300 years or so that toilet papers were widely used across the world.
1857: Joseph Gayetty and medicated paper
In 1857, Joseph Gayetty’s invention of the ‘medicated paper’ completely transformed the way people cleaned themselves. This invention was made of hemp with added aloe. Since Joseph Gayetty was extremely happy with his creation, he printed his name on every sheet of the medicated paper. It was sold in packages of 500 sheets for 50 cents.
1890: Toilet paper rolls
An improvement over Gayetty’s invention was the toilet paper on a roll, invented by two brothers in 1890. This product didn’t have any name on its sheets and was sold to drugstores and hotels. These were perforated toilet paper rolls.
1900s: The Hoberg Paper Company
The next notable improvement was in 1928 when Green Bay’s Hoberg Paper Company produced a much softer toilet paper. It is believed that someone called this paper charming because of its softness and elegant design. This led to Hoberg’s paper being officially called the ‘Charmin’ toilet paper. From the 1950s to 1970s, the company engaged in various marketing campaigns centered around this paper and its improved version – including changing the company name to the Charming Paper Company – which greatly contributed to its popularity and allowed people to openly talk about bodily functions and the use of a toilet paper.
The modern toilet paper used in American households today is strong, absorbent, and soft to touch.
What did people use before toilet paper?
From seashells to communal sponges, humans have used an interesting variety of materials and tools to wipe themselves clean. Apart from the inventions available at the time, throughout history, the way anal hygiene was carried out was dictated primarily by the local customs and the climate. Some of these choices sound perfectly sensible – leaves, moss, grass, fruit skins – but some sound downright painful – stones and wood shavings! In hotter climates, water was the obvious way to wipe oneself clean but in cold climates, even snow was commonly used.
An eclectic array of tools and materials
In ancient culture, water or snow were used along with seashells and animal fur. Evidence that the sponge was also a popular choice for hygiene is abundant. Such sponges, attached to sticks, could have been used once or perhaps cleaned with vinegar or saltwater to be reused. This was particularly common among the Romans. Apart from the communal sponge, even pieces of ceramic called pessoi were used – this was a common practice among the Greeks. Pieces of pessoi which were broken pottery, called ‘ostraka’, usually had names of adversaries written on them. Talk about killing two birds with one stone. By 79 AD, it is believed that small fragments of cloth were being used in Italy for the purpose of wiping. Wooden or bamboo sticks wrapped in cloths which were known as ‘hygiene sticks’ have also been discovered by archeologists.
Paper as a wipe
Through the 1700s, a popular alternative was the corn cobs. Then came along newspapers and magazines which were a very convenient option. For a long time, Americans used the pages of the widely popular Sears Catalog. Not only was it easily available, but it also came free in the mail. Add to it the fact that it had a small hole in the corner through which the paper could be nailed to the wall, it made for a convenient alternative to the modern toilet paper. The Sears Catalog was a popular choice until it started being printed on glossy paper.
It wouldn’t be false to assume from this development that one of the primary motives behind the evolution of toilet paper and all the different ways humans wiped their backsides was comfort. And who knows what the future might bring; already there are heated toilet seats that come with the feature to sprinkle warm water that does the cleaning for you!