“I didn’t know that about toilets!”

Man getting dirty bogwash
Heading down the toilet - quite literally
"Going to the public latrine became quite the social occasion"
  • | by Kristian Dando

The toilet. It might not be the heart of the home, but most of us couldn’t live without it. Well, save perhaps for those who’ve gone hermit and opted to live in a cave or some woods somewhere.

So, join us on a journey down the u-bend of history as we discover some tod-droppingly fascinating facts about the humble bog.

Scotland has the oldest known indoor toilets in human existence

Image of Skara Brae

In the 19th century, a storm on the Orkneys uncovered an ancient Neolithic settlement, Skara Brae.

The dwellings there contain what’s thought to be the earliest indoor toilets in human history - well, you’d need them facing the full force of the North Sea, wouldn’t you?

Going to the khazi was a social event in ancient Rome

Image of roman toilets

Toilet tech came on leaps and bounds in ancient Rome, where the first actual flushing ‘john’ was pioneered.

In fact, going to the public latrine became quite the social occasion, with long wooden benches giving ample opportunity for chatting or thrashing out deals and plots over a ‘numeros duo’.

Evidence of Roman toilets for soldiers are visible at Hadrian’s Wall, so you don’t even have to travel too far to take a glimpse at them.

The Romans’ relatively advanced toilet tech was all but lost during the dark ages, but its legacy lived on in the luxurious walls of Constantinople in the eastern Roman Empire.

What a Ming!

Image of place in Nanjing

Lavatorial innovations were taking place all over the world.

The use of toilet paper was first documented by the scholar Yan Zhitui in 589AD.

The ancient Chinese certainly got through a lot of it - apparently, an annual supply of 720,000 sheets of toilet paper (a whopping two by three feet in size) were produced for use at the imperial court at the capital of Nanjing for the Ming rulers.

Getting medieval on your ass

Image of Caerphilly Castle

Toilets in Europe during the middle ages weren’t up to much.

Rich folk were partial to using lavs called ‘garderobes’, which jutted out the side of their castles. Their effluence would just sort of plop into a moat or pit below. Nice.

Ordinary people just had to make do with a pit in the ground

All change in the industrial revolution

Image of Victorian London

Fast forward a few hundred years to the industrial revolution.

People in their thousands, nay, millions, flocked from the countryside to towns, to work in mills, factories and the like.

New towns and cities shot up… and the sanitation was appalling. In fact, the grotesque drainage situation led to the invention of our modern sewers, to stem the spread of deadly waterborne diseases like cholera.

Thomas Crapper didn’t invent the flushing toilet

Image of a Crapper system

While we’re dwelling in the Victorian age, let’s take a brief detour and put paid to myth that Thomas Crapper invented the flushing toilet.

He didn’t. But he certainly helped to popularise it.

No, the groundwork for modern flushing bogs was laid in 1596, when Sir John Harrington first engineered a valve that could release water from the water closet (WC) when pulled.

Then, great steps were made in 1775 when Thomas Cummings developed the so-called ‘S-trap’, which used trapped water to create a seal against foul sewer gases, which were highly also combustible and made for a lethal pairing with naked flames. Pardon!

Crapper, however, took this idea and ran with it, turning it into the more robust u-bend we all use and abuse today.

In fact, the word ‘crap’ isn’t actually derived from the Yorkshireman’s name - it dates back to the middle ages.

What a con!

A toilet revolution

Image of a modern toilet

‘The privy’ – the outdoor toilet which was a feature of Victorian houses - began to die out after building regulations were introduced in the 1890s which required homes be built with facilities indoors.

Everyone could now enjoy the warmth and comfort of doing their business indoors.


Bright ideas

Image of man having an idea on the toilet

Have you ever noticed that some of your best ideas come to you on the throne?

You're not alone - a 2007 study by National Express found that two-thirds of people they surveyed came up with their best ideas on the bog.

Creativity is fuelled by the chemical dopamine, which is produced when we're relaxed. Distraction also helps come up with ideas. And what activity could be more relaxing?

The toilets of the future

If you’ve ever been to Japan, you’ll see some truly mind-boggling technological innovations, which could hint at how our toilets of the future might look. Behold!

But aside from luxurious washing features, future toilets will have to respond to challenges like a population boom and scarcer water supplies.

Enter the NoMix toilet, which offers a peek into what the future of pan design might look like.

It has two separate bits - one for liquids, and one for solids - as keeping them apart requires less water.

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