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.

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. Toilet Links

For extensive information about Victorian London, see 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

Early methods – pails, pan closets, earth closets, and cesspits

Water closet designs

House plumbing

The Shone, Liernur, and Berlier Systems as applied to house plumbing

Illustrations of correct and incorrect house plumbing (Cyrenus Wheeler, Jr.)