Bathroom Reader: A Brief History of the Toilet

And how come such a small room has so many different names?

Having your gut microbiome tested by uBiome is an epic adventure, which for most people begins in the bathroom, a room in which we spend a remarkable amount of time.

Although this depends on whether you’re a man or a woman.

You see, a Scottish survey in 2008 found that women spend an hour and a quarter a week sitting on the toilet.

But Scottish men linger longer, clocking up an impressive hour and three quarters every seven days.

For something that occupies such a large amount of our time, many are actually pretty shy to talk about it.

wc

In fact using the word “toilet” at all is something a lot of people steer clear of, preferring instead “bathroom” or “restroom” in the USA, “washroom” in Canada, and “WC (water closet)”, “loo”, or “cloakroom” in Britain.

Actually even the word “toilet” is itself a euphemism.

The word was originally used to describe the early morning routine of getting ready for your day by washing, combing your hair, and applying lotions.

Nothing about defecation in there.

And of course, “eau de toilette,” or toilet water, is actually a dilute form of perfume.

Hopefully nothing about defecation in there, either, particularly if you think about someone pausing to delicately dab a little toilet water behind their ears.

Best make sure it’s the right sort.

Archaeologists have discovered what may have been the first sitting toilets in Egyptian excavations, dating back to 2100 BC.

For a couple of millennia, if people did indeed sit down on a toilet, it was common for them to be situated immediately above a stream, allowing the waste to be flushed away naturally.

No thought for those downriver, of course.

Contrary to popular opinion, the first flushing toilet was not invented by the Victorian Thomas Crapper (although more of him in a minute) but by a godson of Queen Elizabeth I, named John Herington.

In 1596 Herington invented a device he called the “Ajax,” a toilet with a valve that allowed water from a tank to wash down and empty the bowl.

The name Ajax apparently came from “jakes,” ancient slang for toilet, and the reason that “The Jacks” is still a slang term for toilet in Ireland.

Incidentally, some have suggested that the American use of “John” in a similar regard may have come from Herington, but this is almost certainly incorrect.

After Herington, it was still a couple of hundred years before flushing toilets caught on.

The first patent for a siphonic flush was issued to a Joseph Adamson in 1853, but the world had to wait for the arrival of Thomas Crapper (at last) before flush toilets began to become popular.

If ever there was a man born for his career, the plumber Crapper had to be it.

Even more popular opinion assumes that the word “crap” came from this gentleman’s name, but not so.

In fact, “crap” seems to have a Middle English origin, probably combining the Dutch “krappen”, which means to pluck off, cut off, or separate—and the old French “crappe” which was used to describe siftings, waste, or rejected material—from the same root as chaff.

The first mention of crap to describe bodily waste was in the Oxford English Dictionary which, in 1846, defined a “crapping ken” as an outhouse, the “ken” meaning house.

Crapper’s name was immortalised, since to this day there are manhole covers in London’s Westminster Abbey which bear the legend “T. Crapper and Co., Sanitary Engineers.”

Abbey visitors enjoy using wax crayons to produce rubbings of these covers.

For a facility which has such everyday use, the toilet does have an extraordinary range of names.

In an American airport terminal, for example, you’ll look for a sign to the bathroom, restroom, or men’s or women’s room.

But then board your plane, and it suddenly becomes the lavatory—an often-used word in Britain which came from the Latin term Lavatorium, itself from Lavare which means “to wash”.

Toilets on planes are still called lavatories probably thanks to some of the first commercial aircraft being British.

The word stuck.

One final thing, staying in Britain.

If you do visit the UK and are in need of “the facilities,” best not to ask for the restroom.

In many workplaces it’s the spot where employees go to eat their lunch.


Further reading

Aircraft lavatory

History of Toilet Habits

How long do we spend in bathroom?

Thomas Crapper

Thomas Crapper and the Toilet

Toilet

Washroom, restroom, bathroom, lavatory, toilet?

Why do they call it the loo?

Why is a bathroom sometimes called a john?