In developed countries around the world, it would be rare to find a home without a toilet. As toilets have become more prevalent, strides have also been made when it comes to cleanliness and public safety when dealing with human waste.
From holes in the ground, to chamber pots, toilets have appeared in many different forms throughout history, going as far back as the Stone Age. The Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae on the Orkney archipelago is one such civilization. Residents of the community built drains under their primitive stone homes as a way to dispose of sewage. Some even had cubicles in their homes above the drains. These concepts were extremely innovative considering the settlement was established around 3180 B.C.
Another innovation for toilets came from 2,600 to 1,990 B.C. in the Indus Valley. Here, the streets of the city were built on a grid system with a sewer system running beneath it. Toilets were placed over the grid, and were “flushed” as water going through the system would wash away waste.
Around this same time period, the Romans had also created their own sewage system, but that wasn’t all. They also built public lavatories for the general population. Like a modern-day public restroom, these lavatories had multiple seats for people to do their business. However, privacy was a luxury for the rich. Public lavatories had no dividers, so you could see everything that was going on. But if you were wealthy enough, you could enjoy using the toilet in the privacy of your own home.
Another type of toilet that was available during this time was a dry toilet. In ancient China, a dry toilet called a “pig toilet” was used. The toilet used no water, and was essentially an outhouse built over a pigsty. The human feces would fall down into the pigsty, where pigs would consume it. This became a popular toilet for many countries in Asia, and in some communities was still used up until the current decade.
During the Middle Ages in Europe, many toilets were simple holes in the ground, with the luxurious option having a wooden seat. In some monasteries, monks built lavatories over bodies of water, which allowed sewage to be swept away by rivers or the sea. In castles, you could find a garderobe, which was a room that had a seat over a vertical chute, where the waste would fall. By far the most rudimentary option of the time was the chamber pot. They were mostly used during the night and had to be emptied manually by the servants. They were used up through the 1800s.
Sir John Harrington of England invented the first modern flush toilet in 1596, which was called the Ajax. He built a lavatory with a cistern that would empty water into the toilet bowl and flush the contents out of the bowl. Harrington even wrote a book about his invention. However, the idea failed to impress the people of the time and his book, which contained more than just a description of his creation, got him banished from court for being libelous against his relatives.
The first patent for a flushing lavatory was issued to Alexander Cumming in 1775. While his model was similar to Sir John Harrington’s, his toilet bowl design prevented the foul smells from the sewers from entering the building. This was accomplished by keeping water in the bowl following a flush. In 1775, while installing Cumming’s model, Joseph Brahmah noticed water closets would freeze in the winter. He patented an improved design that solved the problem in 1778, however, even with these improvements flush toilets were considered a luxury and not a necessity. Once the 1800s rolled around, most of the wealthy in Europe had flushing toilets in their homes, while the general population shared a public toilet. Pedestal toilets, the most common toilet installed today, came onto the scene 1884.
Like most inventions, the toilet went through a long process to become what it is today. However, even in modern times there are many places in the world that still use holes in the ground or outhouses to dispose of human waste. So next time you find yourself sitting on your porcelain throne, be sure to say a thank you to all the brilliants minds who made that experience possible.