Toilets, earth closets, and house plumbing (1)
(Click on thumbnails to enlarge image)


Modern toilet design began in 1596, when Sir John Harington invented a device for Queen Elizabeth (his Godmother) that released wastes into cesspools. Harington invented two elements of the modern toilet: a valve at the bottom of the water tank, and a wash-down system. (See Poems and Articles for writing by Harington, and an article about Harington.) In 1775, Alexander Cummings designed a toilet with a water trap under a bowl. In the late 1800s, the first recognizably modern toilets were developed by entrepeneurs like Thomas Crapper, a plumber who brought toilet design and modern manufacturing technology together. (His name has became synonymous with toilets; our troops came home from World War I calling toilets "crappers.") Other names associated with the development of modern toilets are George Jennings, Thomas Twyford, Edward Johns and Henry Doulton.

As can be seen in the illustrations below, the late 1800s was the heydey of toilet design, with models following the earth closet, pan closet, and water closet designs. Modern design was complemented by the invention of toilet paper by American Joseph Cayetti in 1857. The main toilet designs were:

1. Earth closet - Dry earth is used to cover waste material for later removal. Henry Moule patented one design in 1869, advertising it as a great improvement over the cesspit. A photo of an antique Moule earth closet and accompanying text can be found at the Outhouses of America website.

2. Pan closet - A simple but fairly unsanitary design featuring a basin with a pan at the bottom. This pan could be tipped to discharge its contents into a receptacle.

3. Valve closet - An opening at the bottom of a pan was sealed by a valve. When flushed, the valve opened and water was released into the pan by some mechanism. As noted above, Sir John Harington is credited with designing the first valve closet. Modern airplane toilets are often a version of the valve closet.

4. Hopper closet - This inexpensive design featured an inverted cone as the receptacle, with a squirt of water released for (generally inadequate) flushing. Because of its low cost, it was used mainly by poor people.

5. Wash-out or flush-out water closet - Water was used to seal the drain tube, as in the modern trap. Combined with a flushing mechanism and siphonic action, this evolved into the modern toilet.

See Tracking Down the Roots of Our Sanitary Sewers, Part 2 and Part 5, and Links to toilet history sites.

   


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Also on Sewer History

Sanitary Engineering by Baldwin Latham (1884) for a number of illustrations of house plumbing. Posted under Articles/Design - Before 1900

Plumbing article in the Cyclopedia of Civil Engineering (1908) for a number of illustrations of house plumbing.

See Reid's Practical Sanitation (1948), chapters 5, 6, and 7, for a large number of illustrations of early toilet and house plumbing designs.

Brief History of Wells and Toilets by Juuti Petri & Wallenius Katri for numerous unusual photos. Located in our Articles section under Finland and at a University of Tampere website. Written in both Finnish and English. Thanks to Petri Juuti, Ph.D., University of Tampere, Finland.

Sewerhistory.org Toilet Links

For Reference

For extensive information about Victorian London, see www.victorianlondon.org. There is a large section about Sewers and Sanitation under "Health and Hygiene." Information on baths and bathing is also found under "Health and Hygiene." A huge thanks goes to Lee Jackson, the creator of the website, for this impressive collection of original materials.

For a good reference about the history of toilets, see Roy Palmer, The Water Closet - A New History (Newton Abbot, Devon: David & Charles Limited, 1973).

The New York Public Library has a large collection of digitized graphics, including several plumbing catalogs from the late 1800s and early 1900s. See the Cities and Buildings > Collection Guide > Contents for a list of links. Of particular interest:

  • Catalogue 'G,' Illustrating the Plumbing and Sanitary Department of the J.L. Mott Iron Works. (1888)
  • Catalogue D. The bath room illustrated, also fixtures for laundry, kitchen & butler's pantry, by the J.L. Mott Iron Works ... New-York. (1884) (1884)
  • Illustrated circular [advertisments from J.L. Mott Iron Works] (1877-1893)
  • Modern plumbing, no. 6. (1911)

See the Smithsonian Institute Library's collection: Plumbing and Bath Equipment

Toilets in the Middle Ages
Graphic

Medieval wooden toilet seat, Turku, Finland

Source: Juuti Petri & Wallenius Katri, Brief History of Wells and Toilets (Tampere University Press, Finland, 2005). Thanks to Petri Juuti, Ph.D., University of Tampere, Finland.

Indoor toilet in Hame Castle, Finland. Hame castle The only indoor toilet of the main castle still exists and is located near the clerk's office on the middle floor. Only a few privileged people had access to this indoor toilet with a wooden seat - such as the clerk, who was among the highest ranks in the castle.

Source: Juuti Petri & Wallenius Katri, Brief History of Wells and Toilets (Tampere University Press, Finland, 2005). Thanks to Petri Juuti, Ph.D., University of Tampere, Finland.

King's Privy, Turku Castle, Finland. From the 15"' century onwards there were three toilets: the privy in the gatekeeper's chamber (located in the corner of the gate tower), one in the prison, and the other was located in the north wing. These three were connected to the same toilet drainage system and formed an independent system. The king, other noble residents and high officials had their own privies. One is still left in the medieval great hall. These privies were usually constructed on top of the corbels or supportive beams, as sort of a bay toilet, being located partially outside the wall. However, in the Turku castle, most of these privies in the quarters of the aristocracy were built completely inside the walls.

Source: Juuti Petri & Wallenius Katri, Brief History of Wells and Toilets (Tampere University Press, Finland, 2005). Thanks to Petri Juuti, Ph.D., University of Tampere, Finland.

Prison privy, Turku Castle, Finland

Source: Juuti Petri & Wallenius Katri, Brief History of Wells and Toilets (Tampere University Press, Finland, 2005). Thanks to Petri Juuti, Ph.D., University of Tampere, Finland.

"Bay privies" at Olavinlinna Castle, Finland (two are visible). Olavinlinna castle with its five towers was built from the point of view of defense. The towers of the main castle were extended upward during the second main building era in the mid-16" century. These round artillery towers or rondels were occasionally used as living quarters for the aristocracy - and were even originally designed to do so." Attached to the walls are the "bay privies" made of stone. Originally there was only a "riuku" (the horizontal log) for seating, but later on proper wooden seats were built. At times, ventilation might have worked even too effectively. An old anecdote describes these privies as the first water toilets in Finland - bay privies were above the water and the height of the drop was great: the towers of the main castle were over 20 metres high.
Three of these privies still remain. Walls and three-slope roofs were built of grey granite on supporting console beams. The choice of building materials has preserved these examples to our day, for usually they have been destroyed in fires - the frequent threat of castles.

Source: Juuti Petri & Wallenius Katri, Brief History of Wells and Toilets (Tampere University Press, Finland, 2005). Thanks to Petri Juuti, Ph.D., University of Tampere, Finland.

"Bay privies" at Olavinlinna Castle, Finland. Exterior view (left) and interior view (right). See information above.

Source: Juuti Petri & Wallenius Katri, Brief History of Wells and Toilets (Tampere University Press, Finland, 2005). Thanks to Petri Juuti, Ph.D., University of Tampere, Finland.

   


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