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

Why are toilets such a shameful subject? Why do we almost never say the word when it is exactly that which we are referring to? Learn to be proud. Read on for an interesting historical perspective on one of everyone’s most necessary "things."

A Rococo masterpiece depicting the nude goddess, Venus, and her entourage of adoring cupids may define one kind of toilette, but, alas, I speak of yet another. I refer here to the one item in everyone’s house that no one ever talks about and yet without one, where would all of us be? My sick mind cannot help but conjure the reaction of finding a house without one! What that would imply about its occupants perhaps only H. P. Lovecraft or Edgar Allen Poe could tell, but euphemisms about this "unmentionable" abound and always have.

"To go the bathroom" hardly implies a viewing of wallpaper or the inspection of towels, and yet we all say it and know exactly what we mean. Even toilet water is referred to as "eau de toilette" by the makers of expensive perfume, who assume no one can translate from the French. The chamber pot, privy, head, latrine, commode, loo, privy, john, earth closet and/or water closet (as opposed to cooler) have all developed from the "necessary" of Victorian England and the "sanitary ware" of nineteenth century America. Why are we all afraid to say the word, toilet? What would happen if we all screamed it aloud at the same time? Probably nothing, but are you willing to take the chance?

Bathroom Technology cannot and should not be ignored. Michael Telzrow, curator of "The Privy To The Past" exhibit at the Neville Museum in Green Bay, Wisconsin offers a glimpse inside the commode as it has evolved throughout the ages, beginning with Roman times, when folks wiped with a brine-soaked sponge that was fastened to a stick and used communally. (I’ve heard of togetherness, but that is disgusting!) Telzrow says: "The toilet is largely overlooked as a place where technology has been a tool to overcome disease. But advances in toilet sanitation are every bit as important as the development of the computer and the automobile. It has allowed people to live a healthy existence in cities."

Perhaps Mr. Telzrow is right, but no one ever avoids saying automobile or computer. Of course, they do not come down to us from antiquity in the same manner as the you know what does. Where and how to dispose of waste and sewage has been the bane of Man since the beginning of time. Roman engineers constructed aqueducts, lead pipes, heated floors, dams and drains. From Cloaca Maxima, largest of the ancient sewers, to the famous spas of Aquae Sulis in Bath, England, and the colossal baths of Emperors Caracalla and Diocletian, the early Roman plumbers left indelible marks on civilization between 800 BC and 735 BC. In the city of Pompeii, archaeologists discovered ancient water closets in the back of one palace, including a cistern to flush water to the different seats. Near the kitchen they also found an arched recess approximately three feet deep. Although the actual wood had long since gone with the wind, archaeologists claimed they could still see the outlines of hinges for the privy seats.

By 2500 BC the ancient Egyptians were adept at drainage construction, accentuated by the significance that water played in their priestly rituals. To die was simply to pass from one state of life to another. If the living required food, clothing and other accoutrements of daily life, so did the dead. Thus, it is not surprising that archaeologists have discovered bathrooms in some tombs of the ancient pharaohs. Harbored in the latrine of The Minoan Palace of Knossos on the island of Crete was found the world’s first flushing "water closet" or toilet, with a wooden seat and a small reservoir of water. The device, however, was lost for thousands of years amid the rubble of flood and decay. Not until the 16th Century in England would the water closet be reinvented and not until the 18th would it be patented.

During the Dark and Middle Ages, the rivers of Europe were open sewers, the Thames in London being the most foul of all. Pigs ran wild through city streets, devouring the garbage that was flung from windows and doors. The possibility of disease being transmitted through water and waste began to emerge only after centuries of ignorance. Amid the muck and the mire, scientific discoveries began to unfold. Some even believed that an open cesspool was the "probable cause of headache, sore throat and depressed health." (They forgot to mention Typhoid Fever, which killed almost as many people in Europe as the Bubonic Plague, including Queen Victoria’s beloved Albert.)

Chamber pots were the main way to go (forgive the pun) until the 16th century in England. Those made for the working class were usually constructed of copper, while those deemed for use by the rich and those of royal lineage were often made of solid silver. (I’ve heard of being born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth, but never this!) King James the First had a portable "potty," which he used for traveling. Paranoid about being poisoned, he kept his encased in a leather box and locked shut with a key. Edward VI had a padded chamber pot, and it is said, that the "seat" of Henry VIII was padded in black velvet, trimmed with ribbons, fringes and quilting, all tacked on with 2,000 gilded nails. The Victorians even invented a musical chamber pot that played when the hidden drawer in the table or commode opened. Not so far fetched perhaps, as the rich American oil tycoon of the mid-twentieth century who had the toilets in his own private castle rigged to play the song "The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You" whenever anyone flushed!

A royal flush occurred in 1596. Here, I do not refer to the most coveted poker hand, but rather to Sir John Harrington, a godson of Queen Elizabeth I, who re-invented the flushing toilet. (She was immortalized as the queen who took a bath once a month, whether she needed it or not.) It was called an "Ajax water closet" even more euphemistically classified as a necessary room. The toilet was installed for her use in Richmond Palace. Although the Queen did use it, the toilet and Harrington were subject to ridicule and derision. He never made another and it would take the passing of two hundred years before the idea took hold again.

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.

Across 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.

And 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!

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Copyright 2003