Contrary to popular belief, bathing and sanitation were not a lost practice with the collapse of the Roman Empire. Soapmaking first became an established trade during the Early Middle Ages. Also, contrary to myth, chamberpots were not disposed of out the window and into streets in the Middle Ages — this was instead a Roman practice. Bathing in fact did not fall out of fashion until shortly after the Renaissance, replaced with the heavy use of sweat-bathing and perfume, as it was thought that water could carry disease into the body through the skin. Modern sanitation was not widely adopted until the 19th and 20th centuries.
The bathtub’s modern spouse, the toilet, had problems gaining acceptance. Sir John Harington invented the first flushing toilet for himself and for his godmother, Queen Elizabeth I, in 1596. When Harington published a book describing his invention, he was roundly chided by peers, embarrassing him to the point of retirement from plumbing. His two toilets were the only ones he ever produced. The next water closet would not be seen for 200 years when it was introduced by Alexander Cummings in 1775. This event would mark the very beginnings of the modern bathroom.
This is not to say that toilets, or indeed bathrooms were common fixtures in Regency homes. They were very much the exception to the rule, owned by only a very few more forward thinking, wealthy elite. More common in Austen’s day would have been the chamber pot, conveniently stored under the bed and privy or outhouse located somewhere outside, away from the home. Popular wisdom held that lilacs planted by the outhouse would disguise the smell– at least for a few weeks while they were in bloom—and if you see a stand of lilacs in the middle of a field with nothing else around it, you can take a good guess as to what used to be there!
The word “toilet” came to be used in English along with other French fashions. It originally referred to the toile, French for “cloth”, draped over a lady or gentleman’s shoulders whilst their hair was being dressed, and then (in both French and English) by extension to the various elements, and also the whole complex of operations of hairdressing and body care that centered at a dressing table, also covered by a cloth, on which stood a mirror and various brushes and containers for powder and make-up: this ensemble was also a toilette, as also was the period spent at the table, during which close friends or tradesmen were often received.
These various senses are first recorded by the Oxford English Dictionaryin rapid sequence in the later 17th century: the set of “articles required or used in dressing” 1662, the “action or process of dressing” 1681, the cloth on the table 1682, the cloth round the shoulders 1684, the table itself 1695, and the “reception of visitors by a lady during the concluding stages of her toilet” 1703 (also known as a “toilet-call”), but in the sense of a special room the earliest use is 1819, and this does not seem to include a lavatory.
Through the 18th century, everywhere in the English-speaking world, these various uses centred around a lady’s draped dressing-table remained dominant. In the 19th century, apparently first in the United States, the word was adapted as a genteel euphemism for the room and the object as we know them now, perhaps following the French usage cabinet de toilette, much as powder-room may be coyly used today, and this has been linked to the introduction of public toilets, for example on railway trains, which required a plaque on the door. The original usages have become obsolete, and the table has become a dressing-table.
The origin of the (chiefly British) term loo is unknown. According to the OED, the etymology is obscure, but it might derive from the word Waterloo. The first recorded entry is in fact from James Joyce’s Ulysses(1922): “O yes, mon loup. How much cost? Waterloo. Watercloset”.
As with many inventions, the flush toilet did not suddenly spring into existence, but was the result of a long chain of minor improvements. Therefore, instead of a single name and date, there follows a list of significant contributors to the history of the device.
circa 30th century BC: A primitive dual channel, fresh water and waste, toilet system was in use in the houses at Skara Brae, Orkney, Scotland
circa 26th century BC: Flush toilets were first used in the Indus Valley Civilization. The cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro had a flush toilet in almost every house, attached to a sophisticated sewage system.
circa 18th century BC: Flush toilet constructed at Knossos on Minoan Crete
circa 15th century BC: Flush toilets used in the Minoan city of Akrotiri.
1st to 5th centuries AD: Flush toilets were used throughout the Roman Empire. Some examples include those at Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall in Britain. With the fall of the Roman Empire, the technology was lost in the West.
1596: Sir John Harington is said to have invented ‘The Ajax’, a forerunner to the modern flush toilet, for Elizabeth I of England, who wouldn’t use the contraption because it made too much noise. His design was ridiculed in England, but was adopted in France under the name Angrez. The design had a flush valve to let water out of the tank, and a wash-down design to empty the bowl.
1738: A valve-type flush toilet was invented by J. F. Brondel.
1775: Alexander Cummings invented the S-trap (British patent no. 814?), still in use today, which uses standing water to seal the outlet of the bowl, preventing the escape of foul air from the sewer. His design had a sliding valve in the bowl outlet above the trap.
1777: Samuel Prosser invented and patented the ‘plunger closet’.
1778: Joseph Bramah invented a hinged valve or ‘crank valve’ that sealed the bottom of the bowl, and a float valve system for the flush tank. His design was used mainly on boats.
1819: Albert Giblin received British patent 4990 for the “Silent Valveless Water Waste Preventer”, a siphon discharge system.
1852: J. G. Jennings invented a wash-out design with a shallow pan emptying into an S- trap.
1857: The first American patent for a toilet, the ‘plunger closet’, was granted.
1860: The first watercloset installed on the European continent was imported from England. It was installed in the rooms of Queen Victoria in castle Ehrenburg (Coburg, Germany); she was the only one who was allowed to use it.
The first popularized water closets were exhibited at The Crystal Palace and these became the first public toilets. They had attendants dressed in white and customers were charged a penny for use. This is the origin of the phrase “To spend a penny”.
1880s: Thomas Crapper’s plumbing company built flush toilets of Giblin’s design. After the company received a royal warrant, Crapper’s name became synonymous with flush toilets. Although he was not the original inventor, Crapper popularized the siphon system for emptying the tank, replacing the earlier floating valve system which was prone to leaks. Some of Crapper’s designs were made by Thomas Twyford. The similarity between Crapper’s name and the much older word for excrement is merely a coincidence.
1885: Thomas Twyford built the first one-piece china toilet using the flush-out siphon design by J. G. Jennings.
1886: An early jet flush toilet was manufactured by the Beaufort Works in Chelsea, England.
1906: William Elvis Sloan invents the Flushometer, which uses pressurized water directly from the supply line for faster recycle time between flushes. The original Royal Flushometer is still in use today in public restrooms worldwide.
1980: Bruce Thompson, working for Caroma in Australia, developed the Duoset cistern with two buttons and two flush volumes as a water-saving measure. Modern versions of the Duoset are now available in more than 30 countries worldwide, and save the average household 67% of their normal water usage.