Flushed with pride

An ode to the toilet

Created date

June 28th, 2019
A white toilet with a black while behind it.

An outhouse in Norway, sometimes referred to as an “earth closet” or “earthen pit.” 

Over the years, it has had many names: the latrine, the lavatory, the commode, the loo, the john. The toilet, as it’s otherwise known, is one of the most important inventions in history.

And we take it for granted.

Imagine a time when people used pots and, in certain cases, absentmindedly tossed the contents from their bedrooms to the street. This was a common and most unpleasant practice in London, for instance, where up to the nineteenth century, people would dispose of their waste in such a manner—what they called “the morning toast.”

The practice was not only disgusting, it was massively unhealthy. 

Rampant disease and death

Cholera was rampant throughout this period and even beyond. A slow and agonizing demise caused by a bacterial infection carried by animal and human waste-tainted foods and water, the disease resulted in countless fatalities.

The 1850 death of President Zachary Taylor is among the numerous cases that poor waste disposal had created. Although originally believed to be the product of an assassin’s poison, it was indeed cholera based on a secondary investigation following his exhumation in the 1990s.

After presiding over the dedication of the Washington Monument (then under construction), Taylor returned to the White House in the summer heat, where he drank a pitcher of milk and ate a bowl of cherries. Medical experts believe that the cherries—either handled with dirty hands or washed with contaminated water—were the culprit. 

What’s more, the great Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky also met his end thanks to cholera, and that was in the 1890s.

The question is, why? And the simplest answer is two-pronged: first, our minimal understanding of bacteria at that time; and second, ineffective waste disposal measures.

But the toilet itself is quite old. 

Variations on a theme

Throughout the years, people have used everything from earthen ditches to outhouses, flush toilets, vacuum toilets, portable toilets, dry toilets, and chemical toilets. The point is getting rid of the nastiness in a better way than merely dumping it in the street.

In fact, toilets and sewers actually date back to ancient history and, more specifically, around 3,000 B.C. Historians believe that the world’s first public sanitation system popped up in the Indus Valley Civilization of Pakistan and India. 

And yet, the idea didn’t catch on so quickly. 

As earlier mentioned, England was somewhat slow to grasp the importance of full-scale toilet and sewer systems (the two of which go hand-in-hand in sprawling urban environments).  

In nineteenth-century London, the public’s business poured right into the main stretch of the Thames River, causing widespread outbreaks of cholera, typhoid, dysentery, and by the 1850s, a stench so foul that it defined an era known to Londoners as The Great Stink. 

The solution came thanks to civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette, who designed a network of sewers and pumping stations that moved pollution away from the city. Bazalgette’s system significantly reduced the number of cholera cases and, in the 1870s, served as a model for similar sanitation improvements in American cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York. 

The flush toilet

The singular component to this innovation was the flush toilet, and it didn’t come into common use until the late 1800s. That said, the significant development in the life of this critical household tool was something called “the S-trap.”

Invented in 1775 by Scottish mechanic Alexander Cummings, the design exists on just about every water-flush toilet to this day. Much like a sink trap that blocks harmful fumes from running back up a sewage pipe, the trap utilizes water as a seal, and relies on gravity and an upper water tank to flush the toilet’s contents. 

Despite Cummings’ brilliant creation, the Victorians continued to use relatively primitive methods for bathroom breaks, including a wooden seat that held a chamber pot. They called it “the thunderbox.”

Even in the United States, earthen privies existed into the twentieth century. With this in mind, there can be no doubt that the flush toilet and its variants are inventions that we should not only appreciate but cherish.

While unpleasant, the subject is both a symbol of innovation and a monument to the power of human invention.