Blog > A Very Private Marvel of Engineering – The History Of The Toilet

Toilets have added years to our lifespan, civilized our domestic habits and cleaned up our act. They have evolved over the years, reaching their current apex of reliability and style. Though things can go wrong, as a rule they handle our needs for years with few problems.

The history of the toilet

A timeline for the toilet would show major activity starting a century ago. Before that, few homes had a room dedicated to personal care and sanitation.

Families used an outdoor toilet, usually a bench with a cutout placed over a hole in the ground, housed in a small shed. For indoor use, a ceramic chamber pot was used, which was emptied each morning.

The modern toilet is said to have been invented by Thomas Crapper, who gave his name to the appliance, although even the dissenters admit that he played a prominent role in its development. It’s not recorded how he felt having his name so intimately attached through the years to the device. He took the existing technology for a flushing water closet and improved on it.

Rudimentary technology was around even in the time of Queen Elizabeth I who used one designed by Sir John Harrington. Since sewer systems were rare, it was never feasible for common use.

By the early 1800s, health practitioners and government officials understood the direct link between disease and lack of domestic sanitation. Big cities like London, Liverpool and Birmingham didn’t have the land and soil available to safely dispose of so much human waste. The larger the populations became, the more often urban areas had to deal with outbreaks of disease like typhoid and cholera.

But until sewer systems were built in major cities, not much progress was made. That took hold in the late 1800s when the push for cleaner cities became a battle cry of social workers and doctors. As a direct result, a number of flushing water closets were designed and patented during this period.

Real progress happened when a design using a cistern mounted on the wall was engineered. For the first time, a water closet had adequate water pressure. The next big steps were dealing with sewer gases efficiently and making toilet bowls from vitreous china – it was Briton, Thomas Twyford in 1885 who built the first.

Hundreds of patents were applied for in both the UK and the United States in this period, each with a slightly different approach for draining waste and preventing the buildup of methane gas.

Crapper’s 1891 solution was clearly the best of a crowded field, using a system of siphons and valves. City dwellers quickly took to the new fangled invention. At first, most people used communal water closets that served entire neighborhoods.

Only the rich could afford to dedicate a single room to the new appliance. But within three decades, indoor plumbing and the water closet as we know it became common even in middle class homes.

Refinement of the toilet design is ongoing. Fresh, clean water is harder to come by every year. This has lead to the design of toilets that use less water.

What can go wrong with your toilet

Though they are models of reliability, there is always a chance something can go wrong. When it happens, your best approach is to call a plumber. Toilets are dependable, but complex. Possible problems include:

  • The flush mechanism breaks. On newer toilets, the entire apparatus is usually replaced. You can try doing it yourself with components from the home improvement store. Often it is cheaper to have a plumber fix it. They do it right the first time.
  • Leaking around the bottom of the toilet. You need to definitely call the plumber for this one. It can be a problem with the siphon or the overflow tube. It also might indicate a crack in the bowl or tank.
  • It blocks. This is by far the most common problem people have with a toilet. Try using a plunger to break through the clog. If this doesn’t work, call a plumber. He has the skill and the special tools that will get rid of the problem quickly, without damaging the bowl or pipes.

To prevent blockages:

    • use the thinnest possible toilet paper that is adequate for your needs.
    • don’t put anything in the toilet other than waste or toilet paper. It was never meant as a garbage disposal.  Fats, Oils and Grease (FOG), sanitary waste and wet wipes are major no-nos!  There are over 35,000 pipe blockages in the Essex region every year and over half of these are avoidable!
    • if your body has a great deal of waste to get rid of in one sitting, flush the toilet about half way through. Too much waste can cause problems for the drainage.

Check out this infographic on the evolution of the lavatory!

If you’re home or office is based in EC1, EC2, EC3 or EC4 postcodes in London, we have plumbers who can resolve your toilet problems.

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