A brief history of the toilet

What is better on a Saturday evening than watching a documentary about toilet history. Being a wiping father of 3 kids, it is in my interest field. I know some of you know more about toilets than me, but I found it intriguing enough to summarize the history here. It was my former colleague Dr. Wouter Naessens who recommended me that YouTube BBC documentary.

From Roman toilets (with resource recovery!) back to ‘the fields’

We can be a few centuries off, but it seems like around 2000y ago the first toilets were installed in different ‘civilized’ parts of the world. One of them is Rome, where around 20 to 30 people could sit next to each other behind the theatre. What’s interesting is that a continuous water flow was flushing the excrements away. But even more interesting is the fact that grey (eg shower) and rain water were used for the flushing. That’s at least better than flushing with precious drinking water.


Picture: an ancient public Roman toilet (waste channel covered; clean water channel in front)

In the middle ages, knowledge degraded in Europe, and people went back to the fields for the next 1000 years.

The first toilets in homes

In the middle ages,  excrements fell down on the street or on someone’s head. Only few homes (of wealthy) had toilets with a septic tank. The wealthy apparently used dyed wool and textile to wipe. The dye had beneficial properties.

After a while people started ‘bringing the river under the home’ through pipes and channels. This flow was similar to that of the Romans 1500 years earlier. This was the first notion of the flushing toilet.

The first real water closet

In 1594 the first water closet was invented. The inventor’s godmother was Queen Elisabeth I. However, only two were build, as it needed a continuous supply of water, and it was expensive and smelly. The figure below shows the S-bend below the toilet to avoid smell.


Real commercial breakthrough came with the 1st patented design in 1778. That one had the S-bend integrated in the toilet (and not in a pipe below). That design was significantly improved in 1778. It got evenused until the second world war.

Real mass market commercialisation of an affordable WC started in the 1880s. This brings us to the paradox of the toilet:

While it first started as a real luxury and exception, toilets became generally accepted and acccessible. The taboo and shame associated with it only came then. Probably as with any invention, it became less spectacular after a while.

To wash or to wipe?

Different parts of the worlds have different habits. As a Belgian, I can say we are wipers. However, as an engineer, this is a question I already thought about. The question I had was: what is most hygienic and environmentally friendly?

  • If you are a ‘washer’, it cleans the bottom part much better. However, now it is even more important to wash your hands.
  • If you are a ‘wiper’, dry paper will clean less, but your hands get less dirty. Wet paper is excellent, but has engineering and environmental challenges.

It seems like both can be viable, but in either case it is important to wash your hands. Form an environmental engineering standpoint, I can say that it’s a challenge to remove and break down the cellulose fibres of toilet paper.

Sitting vs squatting?

Also here, both have pros and cons. Sitting is probably more comfortable (if you’re not used to squatting), but squatting might be more hygienic due to the absence of contact with the toilet.

Japan is an interesting one. When I visited it the first time, I was impressed. They initially were squatting, but since world war 2, they installed the sitting toilets. Since then they perfectionised design and operation. They not only have advanced flushing, but also a whole bunch of sounds to enhance experience.

The future of the toilet?

It’s clear that the environmental footprint of very modern toilets is huge due to their water consumption. On the other hand, there are many people with very poor sanitation which were not discussed here. There is a lot of disruption possible, and a lot of scientists are working on viable solutions to solve both. Really curious how a toilet within 50y will look like. Toilet engineers, let me hear your voice!

Do you think it’s worth sharing? What is your opinion?


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