La Toilette: A Tasteful, Delicate and Polite Historical Study
by Marjorie Dorfman

page 2

The first patent for a "modern toilet" belongs to Alexander Cumming, who invented the "S" trap in 1775. It had a sliding valve underneath to hold the water. In 1848, England passed the National Public Health Act, which became a model plumbing code for the world to follow. It mandated some kind of sanitary arrangement in every house, whether it be a flushing toilet, privy or ash pit (or loo, or john or commode etc etc). The government also provided significant funds for sanitary research and engineering, and began to build a sound sewer system. With this new incentive, pottery makers including Josiah Wedgewood, Thomas Twyford and John Shanks began to team with inventors as they replaced brass and metalwork with ceramic parts.

toilet paperAcross the Atlantic, New World settlers would copy the native Indians’ casual discharge of waste and refuse into running water, open fields, shrubs or forests. Like their European counterparts, the colonists also tossed garbage and excrement out the front door and windows onto the street below. (Pity the poor passersby!) The country’s first garbage disposers were hogs and scavengers. Early Americans found their own ways to deal with necessities. It is actually documented that they used corncobs in lieu of toilet paper (which hadn’t been invented yet.) Later, because they were creative as well as rebellious, they switched to old newspapers, catalogues and almanacs. (Poor Richard and his ilk now take on a new and different meaning.)

How to bring a workable water closet into the house without mess or odor was as yet an uninvented challenge. Thomas Jefferson, the great statesman, architect and inventor, devised an indoor privy at his Monticello home by rigging up a system of pulleys. Servants used the device to haul away chamber pots in his "earth closet" (a wooden box enclosing a pan of wood ashes below and a seat with a hole cut out at the top). He also built two octagonal outhouses at his retreat at Polar Forest in Virginia. The first Americans awarded a patent for a water closet are James T. Henry and William Campbell. In 1875, their plunger closet resembled some of the English twin basin water closets developed earlier in the century, but until the invention of a one-piece toilet with no metal parts, the closet remained a source of contamination and a health hazard. For the most part, American water closets paralleled the experience of England.

In the early 19th century, American production of the water closet was inferior to the English, and most were imported. By 1873, forty-three British firms, including Twyford, Doulton and Shanks, were exporting high quality closets to the United States. By century’s end, American manufacturers caught up with the Europeans and their products soon swamped this market. The American sanitary industry was said to have been born when pottery maker and designer Thomas Maddock teamed up with his friend, William Leigh. The timing was perfect, as importing English materials was very costly. Maddock carefully stamped each of his creations with a lion, a unicorn and the following inscription: "Best Earthenware Made For the American Market".

No historical study of either the toilet or La Toilette could ever be complete without some mention (honorable or otherwise) of Sir Thomas Crapper. For an individual who had little or nothing to do with inventing the water closet he has become a modern age folk hero. The phantom plumber with the significant surname did actually live and was born in September of 1836 according to baptismal records. He did have a successful career in the English plumbing industry from 1861-1904. His biography, Flushed With Pride, deals with his contribution to England’s plumbing history which includes nine patents for improvements to drains, three for water closets, one for manhole covers and one for pipe joints.

The legend of Thomas Crapper lives on despite all proof to the contrary. As far as the word and its connection to his name, well, the origins are still being debated in circles, polite and otherwise. Possible sources include the Dutch Krappe; Low German Krape, meaning a vile and inedible fish, Middle English crappe and last but not least, Thomas Crapper. It is more than likely, however, that World War One doughboys passing through England brought together Crapper’s name and the toilet. They saw the words: T. Crapper-Chelsea printed on the tanks and coined the slang "crapper" meaning toilet.

society ladyAnd so the beat goes on, not only for Sonny and Cher, but for the rest of humanity as well. The whole truth about the invention of the toilet may forever lurk in the shadows, but one can only imagine what life would be without one. Speaking of you know what, I would love to stay and chat a bit more, but I have to…well, check on something. Before I resume writing I may visit the necessary, but I assure you it’s only to inspect the wallpaper. See you later for this will never, ever end!

Did you know . . .

A great selection of bathroom furniture and cabinets!

Bathroom Furniture

home humor repair

Clean is good. Cleaning is not.
Kathryn Hammer, Nature Abhors a Vacuum

Housecleaning is like Chekov; it starts slow and then tapers off.
Henry Alford, The New York Times

Click to print
Click for a printer friendly version of this article.