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Give a Crapper: The history of the modern flush


April, 2017

M. DeHart

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Ancient bathroom were a public affair.

Source: Michael Darter at English Wikipedia

chamber pots were popular for centuries before the modern toilet.

Bourdaloue chamber pots

Source: David Monniaux

Going to the bathroom shouldn’t be a difficult task.

Using privies or outhouses is unheard-of in modernized areas. Sewer systems rarely come to mind, much less as part of the average person’s daily routine. However, it was not until recently that sewer systems were implemented, and only in the past fifty years in the U.S. that sanitation acts were passed.

Wastewater treatment has been around since ancient times. The Old Testament of the Bible even mentions the proper steps for relieving oneself (Deuteronomy 23:13), and primitive versions of toilets have been found as far back as circa 4500 B.C.E. India. In Ephesus the Greeks created public toilets. Three benches consisting of a series of seats lined the building’s walls where, for a fee, richer individuals could do their business. The sewage would then flow away under the city. The ancient Romans are perhaps the most well known for their elaborate bathhouses and public latrines, where water continuously flowed in from aqueducts and out to nearby rivers.

During the middle ages these technologies were largely lost.

People dumped refuse out of buckets into the street, outside of windows, or wherever was generally convenient. Outhouses and chamber pots were present at all levels of society, and castles had bathrooms which emptied out into moats. It was not until the mid-1500’s that Sir John Harrington, godson of Queen Elizabeth I, invented the first flush toilet. Unfortunately it was not popularized at the time, and flush toilets sank into anonymity.

Chamber pots maintained popularity from the middle ages into the mid-19th century. Despite the implementations of outhouses, chamber pots kept under the bed remained popular for those who could not afford indoor amenities. The late 1800’s saw the popularization of the “Crapper” flush toilet, and 1907 saw the creation of the vortex flushing bowl in use today.

Sewer systems had to keep up with population waste.

The first public water works in the U.S. was founded by Hans Christopher Christiansen in 1755 Pennsylvania. Generally cities used nearby wells as water sources, but as populations boomed wells became increasingly contaminated. Diseases ran rampant through cities, largely due to inefficient water systems. While decades of debates went on considering whether the government or private companies should supply city water, private companies regularly aided municipalities with lacking infrastructure. Pre-WWII systems involved large septic tanks which had to be cleaned out regularly. Houses had their own septic tanks. Unfortunately cleaning the tanks did a poor job, leading to groundwater contamination.  

Although chlorine treatment of waste was common since 1915, thorough water treatment barely existed well into the 1950’s. It was only in 1972 that the Clean Water Act was passed, enforcing the necessity of secondary treatment at water treatment plants. Since then, careful treatment of wastewater has improved to the multi-step process it is today.

Of course, the water treatment process still has a way to go. Treating water to the point of reuse is important for the exponentially growing population, and finding ways to better wastewater systems remains a priority.

  1. https://www.nap.edu/read/10135/chapter/4
  2. http://ehs.ncpublichealth.com/oet/docs/cit/oswpmod/HistoryOfOSWW.pdf
  3. http://wvwv.sewerhistory.org/articles/whregion/urban_wwm_mgmt/urban_wwm_mgmt.pdf
  4. http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/ephesus-public-toilets
  5. http://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/The-Throne-of-Sir-John-Harrington/
The first popularized flush toilet

Crapper flush toilet


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