A Description of a Privy Design, by Sir John Harington, late 1500s,
from A New Discourse of a Stale Subject; Called the Metamorphosis of Ajax, Written by Misacmos to his Friend and Cousin Philostilpnos

Sir John Harington invented the first known valve closet (a precursor to the modern toilet) in the late 1500s. Queen Elizabeth I (a relative of Harington's) had the device installed in Richmond Palace. A New Discourse of a Stale Subject was a book he wrote about the device, giving practical advice for construction in a fictional setting. See Roy Palmer, The Water Closet (Newton Abbot, Devon: David and Charles Limited, 1973). See also two poems by Sir John Harington.

My master having expressly commanded me to finish a strange discourse that he had written to you, called the Metamorphosis of Ajax, by setting certain pictures thereto…. Wherefor now to instruct you and all gentlemen of worship, how to reform all unsavoury places of your houses, whether they be caused by privies or sinks, or such like (for the annoyance coming all of like causes, the remedies need not be much unlike) this shall do.


In the privy that annoys you, first cause a cistern, containing a barrel, or upward, to be placed either in the room or above it, from whence the water may, by a small pipe of lead of an inch be conveyed under the seat in the hinder part thereof (but quite out of sight); to which pipe you must have a small cock or washer, to yield water with some pretty strength when you would let it in.

Next make a vessel of an oval form, as broad at the bottom as at the top; two feet deep, one foot broad, sixteen inches long; place this very close to your seat, like the pot of a close-stool, let the oval incline to the right hand. This vessel may be of brick, stone or lead; but whatsoever it is, it should have a current of three inches to the back part of it (where a sluice of brass must stand); the bottom and sides all smooth, and dressed with pitch, rosin and wax: which will keep it from tainting with the urine.

In the lowest part of the vessel which will be on the right hand, you must fasten the sluice or washer of brass, with solder or cement; the concavity or hollow thereof, must be two inches and a half.

To the washers stopples must be a stem of iron as big as a curtain rod; strong and even, and perpendicular, with a strong screw at the top of it; to which you must have a hollow key with a worm fit to that screw.

This screw must, when the sluice is down appear through the plank not above a straw's breadth on the right hand; and being duly placed, it will stand about three or four inches wide of the midst of the back of your seat.

That the children and busy folk disorder it not, or open the sluice with putting in their hands without a key, you should have a little button or scallop shell, to bind it down with a vice pin, so as without the key it will not be opened.

If water be plenty, the oftener it is used and opened, the sweeter; but if it be scant, once a day is enough, for a need, though twenty persons should use it.... And this being well done, and orderly kept, your worst privy may be as sweet as your best chamber.

But to conclude all this in a few words it is but a standing close-stool easily emptied. And by the like reason (other forms and proportions observed) all other places of your house may be kept sweet.

Your worships to command,

T.C., Traveller.


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