the invention of the toilet -- 5/8/14

Today's encore selection -- from At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson. The toilet. Thomas Crapper became very wealthy by inventing the Marlboro Silent Water Waste Preventer:

"Perhaps no word in English has undergone more transformations in its lifetime than toilet. Originally, in about 1540, it was a kind of cloth, a diminutive form of 'toile', a word still used to describe a type of linen.

"Then it became a cloth for use on dressing tables. Then it became the items on the dressing table (whence toiletries). Then it became the dressing table itself, then the act of dressing, then the act of receiving visitors while dressing, then the dressing room itself, then any kind of private room near a bedroom, then a room used lavatorially, and finally the lavatory itself. Which explains why toilet water in English can describe something you would gladly daub on your face or, simultaneously and more basically, water in a toilet. ...

"Most sewage still went into cesspits, but these were commonly neglected, and the contents often seeped into neighbouring water supplies. In the worst cases they overflowed. ... The people who cleaned cesspits were known as nightsoil men, and if there has ever been a less enviable way to make a living I believe it has yet to be described. They worked in teams of three or four. One man -- the most junior, we may assume-- was lowered into the pit itself to scoop waste into buckets. A second stood by the pit to raise and lower the buckets, and the third and fourth carried the buckets to a waiting cart. ...Workers ran the risk of asphyxiation and even of explosions, since they worked by the light of a lantern in powerfully gaseous environments. ...

"In St. Giles, the worst of London's rookeries -- scene of Hogarth's Gin Lane -- 54,000 people were crowded into just a few streets. ... Such masses of humanity naturally produced enormous volumes of waste-far more than any system of cesspits could cope with. In one fairly typical report an inspector recorded visiting two houses in St. Giles where the cellars were filled with human waste to a depth of three feet. ... The river was a perpetual 'flood of liquid manure,' as one observer put it. ... The streams that fed into the Thames were often even worse than the Thames itself. The River Fleet was in 1831 'almost motionless with solidifying filth.'

"Into this morass came something that proved, unexpectedly, to be a disaster: the flush toilet. Flush toilets of a type had been around for some time. The very first was built by John Harington, godson to Queen Elizabeth I. When Harington demonstrated his invention to her in 1597, she expressed great delight and had it immediately installed in Richmond Palace. But it was a novelty well ahead of its time, and almost 200 years passed before Joseph Bramah, a cabinet maker and locksmith, patented the first modern flush toilet in 1778. It caught on in a modest way. Many others followed. ... But early toilets often didn't work well. Sometimes they backfired, filling the room with even more of what the horrified owner had very much hoped to be rid of. Until the development of the U-bend and water trap -- which create that little reservoir of water that returns to the bottom of the bowl after each flush -- every toilet bowl acted as a conduit to the smells of cesspit and sewer. The backwaft of odors, particularly in hot weather, could be unbearable.

"This problem was resolved by one of the great and surely most extraordinarily appropriate names in history, that of Thomas Crapper (1837-1910), who was born into a poor family in Yorkshire and reputedly walked to London at the age of 11. There he became an apprentice plumber in Chelsea. Crapper invented the classic and still familiar toilet with an elevated cistern activated by the pull of a chain. Called the Marlboro Silent Water Waste Preventer, it was clean, leak-proof, odor-free and wonderfully reliable, and their manufacture made Crapper very rich and so famous that it is often assumed that he gave his name to the slang term crap and its many derivatives.

"In fact, crap in the lavatorial sense is very ancient, and crapper for a toilet is an Americanism not recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary before 1922. Crapper's name, it seems, was just a happy accident."


Bill Bryson


At Home: A Short History of private Life


Anchor Books, A Division of Random House


Copyright 2010 by Bill Bryson


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