Curiosities in Odd Places: The Flushing Toilet

People might wonder what is curious about flushing toilets. After all, most advanced countries have them and many less advanced countries have at least some. The history of flushing toilets is curious and interesting, though. In fact, in some ways, it is also ironic.

* When do you suppose that the first flushing toilets went into use? Would you say the 1700s, 1800s, or 1900s? Flushing toilets were actually in use 2,000 years before Jesus was born! The Minoans of Crete were the first known people who had flushing toilets, complete with cisterns to hold the water and levers to release the water for flushing.

* After the fall of the Minoan civilization, flushing toilets were forgotten for a very long time. Then, in 1589, Sir John Harington of England devised and built a flushing toilet for his residence in Kelston, Summerset. He published details of his toilet in 1596, but people weren’t interested. The reason they weren’t interested could have been due to a problem, though it wasn’t with the toilet or how it functioned. You see, at the time, there were no sewer systems or septic tanks, so there really wasn’t anywhere for the waste to go.

* Almost 200 years later, in 1775, Alexander Cumming of England designed, built, and patented a flushing toilet. This was the first patent for flushing toilets. Three years later, Joseph Bramah improved on the design and began making flushing toilets. These toilets were apparently extremely well built. One of them was installed in the House of Lords in England. It is still in use today, some 230 years after it was installed.

* In 1857, 79 years after Bramah flush toilets were first built and sold, an American, Joseph Cayetty, invented what many people would consider to be essential for using toilets; the first toilet paper. The first toilet paper on a roll wasn’t invented for another 26 years.

It is interesting to note that nearly all of the major inventions regarding toilets in the past 400 years have been made by Brits. This could be proof that the English are and were full of…well, you know. (Of course, I jest.)

People might wonder what people did when they had to relieve themselves, prior to the widespread use of the flushing toilet. Well, in some poorer countries even today, people often simply stop at the side of the road and go, then continue on their way. This might be disgusting to people in wealthier nations, but in many places, it is still common and there really isn’t a lot of choice. Not surprisingly, these locations are also known for the amount of disease and illnesses that are present. 

Sanitation is a different topic, but it got a slow start, too. Some people made fun of Queen Elizabeth I because she was considered to be unusually hygiene-conscious because the was a stickler for taking a bath once a month, as they said, “whether she needed it or not”. Incidentally, Queen Elizabeth I was the grandmother of Sir John Harington, who built a flushing toilet in 1589. However, the Queen refused to give Sir John a patent for his invention.

A final bit of trivia here. In the US slang, a John is a toilet. In the time of Queen Elizabeth I, the British slang for a toilet was a jakes.


What do you think?


Written by Rex Trulove

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    • Some of the toilets in the US are pretty shoddy for that matter. I also didn’t mention the fact that by law, all toilets in homes and businesses in the US can’t hold more than 1.6 gallons in the tank for flushing. Tanks holding 3.5 are smuggled across the border from Canada because a lot of people don’t like the small tanks, which are meant to conserve water. It is a toilet-tank black market. Other people get around the smaller tank by flushing twice, which rather negates the advantages of water-saver tanks.

      Can you imagine what would happen if a special police task force was put together to check every toilet tank in the US? It would be a rather silly police force, so the law, in this case, is pretty meaningless.


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