Modern toilet design began in 1596, when Sir John Harington invented a device for Queen Elizabeth (his Godmother) that released wastes into cesspools. Harrington 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.) 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 articles below, the late 1800s was the heyday 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.

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).

For Reference

For extensive information about Victorian London, see  the comprehensive website at 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 book about the history of toilets, see Roy Palmer, The Water Closet – A New History (Newton Abbot, Devon: David & Charles Limited, 1973).

See toilet and plumbing links 

The Toilet Paper Museum. In particular, view the Vintage Collection.

Baldwin Latham, C.E., M. Inst. C.E., Sanitary Engineering, A Guide to the Construction of Works of Sewerage and House Drainage with Tables for Facilitating the Calculations of the Engineer (New York: Engineering News Publishing Company, 1884).

See pages 45-48.

PDF of all chapters (17 MB)       PDF of map of Dantzic (Gdansk, Poland) (Plate I, 5 MB)       PDF of illustrations only (Plates II to XIX, 4 MB)

Juuti Petri & Wallenius Katri, Brief History of Wells and Toilets (Tampere University Press, Finland, 2005). Text is in Finnish and English. Thanks to Petri Juuti, Ph.D., University of Tampere, Finland.

PDF version. Also found on a University of Tampere website.

Jon C. Schladweiler, “1300’s – Late 1500’s: Sir John Harrington’s New Ajax (The True Roots of the Modern Day Flush Toilet) with Impetus Provided to           John Harington by Queen Elizabeth, ‘The Schoole of Salerne,’ and ‘The Englishmans Doctor’,” 2004.

PDF version.

Sir John Harington, A New Discourse of a Stale Subject; Called the Metamorphosis of Ajax, Written by Misacmos to his Friend and Cousin           Philostilpnos, published in the late 1500s. From Roy Palmer, The Water Closet (Newton Abbot, Devon: David and Charles Limited, 1973). See also a poem by John Harington.

The section quoted describes Harington’s toilet design in the fictional setting of a letter to “M. E. S. Esquire.”


George E. Waring, Jr., “Village Sanitary Work,” Scribner’s Monthly, Vol. XIV, No. 2 (June 1877), pp. 176-187. Courtesy of The Making of America Digital Collection, Cornell University Library.

See pages 185-187 for section about earth closets.

PDF version (printer-friendly).

“Improved Sewer-Gas Check-Valve,”The Manufacturer and Builder, Volume 10, Issue 4 (April 1878), p. 92. Courtesy of The Making of America Digital Collection, Cornell University Library.

PDF version (printer-friendly).

“Improved Flush Tank,” The Manufacturer and Builder, Volume 10, Issue 12 (Dec. 1878), p. 280. Courtesy of The Making of America Digital Collection, Cornell University Library.

PDF version (printer-friendly).

“The Latest Improved Water-Closet,” The Manufacturer and Builder, Volume 10, Issue 11 (Nov. 1878), p. 245. Courtesy of The Making of America Digital Collection, Cornell University Library.

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George E. Waring, Jr. “The Draining of a Village,” Harper’s  New Monthly Magazine, Vol. 59, Issue 349 (June 1879), pp. 132-135. Courtesy of The Making of America Digital Collection, Cornell University Library.

PDF version (printer-friendly).

“Flush Tanks,” The Manufacturer and Builder, Volume 11, Issue 8 (Aug. 1879), p. 187. Courtesy of The Making of America Digital Collection, Cornell University Library.

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Edward S. Philbrick, “Lecture XI: Apparatus Used for House Drainage,” American Sanitary Engineering (New York: The Sanitary Engineer, 1881), pp. 117-123.

PDF version (printer-friendly).

See Design – before 1900 for other lectures from this book.

George E. Waring, Jr., “Sanitary Drainage,” The North           American Review, Vol. 137, Issue 320 (July 1883), pp. 57-67. Courtesy of The Making of America Digital Collection, Cornell University Library.

See pages 64-66 for section about toilets.

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Samuel M. Gray, Proposed Plan for a Sewerage System, and for the Disposal of the Sewage of the City of Providence (Providence: Providence Press Company, Printers to the City, 1884), Appendix A, pp. 3-116 and Plates I – XVI and XXIII.

Table of Contents PDF version (printer-friendly).

Cyrenus Wheeler, Jr. (Mayor of Auburn, New York), “Sewers: Ancient  and Modern; with an Appendix,” a paper read before the Cayuga County           Historical Society on December 14, 1886. From the Collections of the Cayuga County Historical Society, 5 (1887), pp. 3-41, plates 1, 3, 7, 10, 12, 16, 17, 19, 20, 21, 22.

PDF version (printer-friendly).

“The Shone Hydro-Pneumatic System of Sewerage,” The Manufacturer and Builder, Volume 19, Issue 5 (May 1887), pp. 104-105. Courtesy of The Making of America Digital Collection, Cornell University Library.

PDF version (printer-friendly).

Cady Staley and Geo. S. Pierson, The Separate System of Sewerage, Its Theory and Construction, Third Edition (New York: D. Van Nostrand, Co., 1899), pp. 200-239.

Chapter X: “Flushing and Ventilation” (pp. 200-239) PDF version (printer-friendly).

For other chapters, see Design before 1900.

Frederick E. Turneaure, C. E., Editor-in-Chief, Cyclopedia of Civil Engineering, Volume VII, (Chicago: American School of Correspondence, 1908) – a compendium of articles including:

W. B. Gray and C. B. Ball, “Plumbing,”  pp. 383-453

PDF version (printer-friendly). See Design after 1900 for other chapters.

Colonel E. C. S. Moore, “Introduction, Chapter I, Chapter II, Chapter III,” Sanitary Engineering, Volume I, 3rd Edition revised by E. J. Silcock (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1909), pp. 1-69.

Chapter I: “Conservancy Systems” (pp. 5-15) PDF version (printer-friendly).

For other chapters, see Design – 1900 and later.

Henry Lemmoin-Cannon, Sewage Disposal in the United Kingdom (London: St. Bride’s Press, Limited, 1912). Digitized by Google Books, thanks to Tom Bates for locating and contributing this book.

See chapters 3 and 4 for information about toilets.

PDF version (printer-friendly).

Revised and rewritten by John J. Buchan, Reid’s Practical Sanitation, 24th Edition (London: Charles Griffin & Company, Limited, 1948). Provided courtesy of James Joyce, P.E., Technical Director, Odor and Corrosion Technology Consultants, Inc.

Chapter 5: Sanitary Works and Appliances (pp. 65-82) PDF version (printer-friendly).

See Design – 1900 and later for other chapters.

Steven J. Burian, Stephan J. Nix, Robert E. Pitt, S. Rocky Durrans, “Urban Wastewater Management in the United States: Past, Present, and Future,” Journal of Urban Technology, Volume 7, Number 3 (December 2000), pp. 33-62. Used with permission.

See pp. 34-43 for discussion of privy, cesspool, and water closets in the United States.

PDF version (printer-friendly).

Russell A. Lanoie, “Evolution of the Septic System,” Rural Home Technology.


Article entitled “Water Closets”, Dec 16, 1882 edition of “The American Architect and Building News”, Pages 287 through 289.  This article talks of the history of latrines, privys and  cesspools  from ancient times Through to the 1880’s.

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