Plumbing: Fun Facts

Plumbing History: 15 Fun Facts About Toiletsby

Allen B. Ury

  1. Many sources cite ancient Crete’s King Minos (18th century B.C.) as having the world’s first flush toilet. However, the people of Skara Brae, Britain’s oldest known Neolithic village, had their own primitive flush system some 1,200 years before Minos.
  2. The flush-and-fill mechanism used in virtually all modern toilets was created for a hand-washing device by the Arab (or Kurdish) inventor known as al-Jazari in 1206 A.D.
  3. Until the 18th century, European city dwellers used “chamber pots” to catch bodily wastes, then casually threw the contents into the public streets where they mixed with horse droppings. If you think today’s cities smell bad, imagine London, Paris or Prague circa 1600.
  4. The first public toilets appeared at London’s Crystal Palace in 1851. They were also the first-known “pay toilets,” as patrons were charged a penny for their use. (“To spend a penny” thus became English slang for using the toilet.)
  5. Contrary to the urban legend, London’s Thomas Crapper (1836-1910) did not invent the modern toilet. He did, however, found a very successful plumbing company and was awarded numerous patents for his improvements. English doughboys leaving for the trenches of WWI often passed through London where they saw signs for Crapper’s company and adopted his name as a slang term for the device.
  6. Other euphemisms for the toilet include commode, john, lavatory, head, loo and water closet.
  7. In fact, the word “toilet” itself is a euphemism. It comes from the French toilette, meaning the act of cleaning or grooming one’s self.
  8. It wasn’t until the late 19th century when the germ theory of disease finally took hold that urban planners rushed to install sewer and clean water systems in their communities.
  9. The modern closed tank and bowl didn’t start to replace the older elevated tank design until around 1910.
  10. As recently as 1950, 25 percent of American households, mostly rural, still lacked indoor toilets. In some Southern states, that number topped 50 percent.[3]
  11. According to the United Nations, 2.6 billion people around the world still lack indoor toilet facilities.[4]
  12. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) was the first Hollywood film to show a toilet flushing. (Shocking!) On TV, the first toilet appeared on the ABC sit-com Leave It to Beaver (1957-1963).
  13. Most American toilets flush in the key of E Flat.
  14. Toilet paper, sold as individual sheets, didn’t appear until 1857. How did people clean themselves before that? With whatever was available.
  15. It’s been estimated that the average person visits the toilet six to eight times per day, spending a total of three years on the john during the average lifetime.