The Secret History of Toilets

Social IssuesCulture

  • Author Oliver Hutchins
  • Published October 13, 2019
  • Word count 441

Whilst it may not strike you as the most exciting of subjects, the history of toilets actually makes for some fairly interesting reading. Indeed, we take for granted that we’ve got nice and clean loos to use wherever we go. This wasn’t always the case.

When it comes to the first recorded use of toilets, historians generally agree that it was our Stone Age ancestors that used them. Well, perhaps the word ‘toilet’ is a bit of a stretch. It would be more accurate to describe them as cubicles inside of huts which had drains dug beneath them. Whilst this setup might not sound nearly as pleasant as the luxury bathrooms of the twenty first century, it served the very same purpose.

When it came to "proper toilets", it was the Ancient Egyptians who were the first to innovate. With toilet seats made from limestone, the wealthy members of their society were comfortably looked after whilst poorer citizens had to make do with wooden stools above holes in the ground.

The Indus Valley civilization were also attentive to nature’s call, building their streets around a grid pattern which accommodated for the sewers which ran beneath them. They also figured out how to flush their loos with water to increase their overall cleanliness.

Of course, the Romans are well known for their prowess in toilet innovation. Building public toilets and sticking sponges on the end of sticks, these ancient citizens clearly took great pride in keeping clean and orderly.

Monks in the Middle Ages had a funny way of doing their business- they built chutes that ran into rivers and the sea to dispose of their sewage. Medieval castles were also a little unusual, with vertical shafts running the length of the building to allow waste to flow freely into the moats which surrounded them.

In 1596, the inventor Sir John Harrington introduced the first flushing loo with its own cistern. It wasn’t a hit. No, people preferred to use their chamber pots for another hundred or so years. It wasn’t until Alexander Cumming and Joseph Bramah brought out better flushing toilets that they started to catch on.

By the late 19th century, porcelain toilets pans were a fairly common sight. Featuring in the homes of the rich and shared by the poor, these functional loos ultimately made society a whole lot cleaner.

Nowadays, clean and functional toilets can be found almost anywhere in the developed world. With many charities working together to bring more hygienic loos to third world countries, there’s hope that the history of the toilet will end with everyone having access to one.

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