In modern times, toilets are an essential fixture in homes and buildings around the world. And while we use them every day, we may not necessarily know how they came to be. The flush toilet was created in around 1596 in England, but civilizations had their own forms of toilets long before this time.
If you want to see what was possibly the first toilet, travel to Skara Brae, an island off the coast of Scotland. This island was home to a Neolithic settlement from 3180 to 2500 BC and is now considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Stone Age farmers who occupied Skara Brae built stone huts to live in that had a small drainage system underneath. Within their homes, they had small cubicles over holes that connected to the drainage system. This discovery makes the concept of the toilet older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids in Egypt.
Ancient Egyptians also benefitted from having indoor toilets. Their toilets had seats made of limestone that looked similar to modern toilet seats; however, instead of having a drainage system, they had pots filled with sand under the seats that needed to be emptied manually.
The first “flushing” toilet came on the scene somewhere between 2600 and 1990 BC in the Indus Valley. Members of this community benefited from a sewer system built on a grid. Toilets were placed over the sewer system, which had water running through it. The waste would then be “flushed” away by the rushing water. A similar system was used in Crete from 2000 to 1600 BC.
During this same time period, Ancient Rome was also benefiting from having a sewage system and was pioneering the idea of a public restroom. While the rich had their own private bathrooms, the general population made use of public lavatories that seated multiple people. There were no dividers, so privacy was out of the question.
The Middle Ages were also known as the Dark Ages, which reflects what a dark time it was for toilets. In Europe, many toilets were simple holes in the ground. In some posh areas, there were wooden seats over the holes. Many monasteries were better equipped and had lavatories built over rivers or the sea to wash away human waste.
Those who lived in castles during the Middle Ages had a couple of options. Chamber pots were used throughout this time period up through the 1800s. They were emptied manually — a task typically left to servants. The other option was the garderobe, a small room with a seat situated above a vertical chute, where waste fell. Sometimes garderobes emptied out into the moat surrounding the castle, making garderobes not only a bathroom but possibly a significant contributor to the castle’s defenses.
Sir John Harrington invented the first modern flush toilet in England in 1596. He built a lavatory with a cistern that would empty water into the bowl of the toilet and then flush the contents out of the bowl. Although this was one of the most significant advances in toilet history in centuries, Harrington’s toilet failed to impress England’s courtiers.
In 1775, Alexander Cumming received the first patent for a flushing lavatory. He used a concept similar to Harrington’s but designed the toilet so that water would stay in the bowl. This innovation helped prevent the smell of the sewer from entering the home through the pipes. This design became very popular in private homes and was referred to as the “water closet.”
Joseph Bramah made some improvements to Cumming’s design in 1778, to prevent the water in the toilet and pipes from freezing in the winter. Flushing toilets were mostly regarded as a luxury reserved for the wealthy. In the 1800s, the homes of many wealthy Europeans had flushing toilets, while the general population relied on public restrooms or the still popular chamber pot. Homes and businesses today use the pedestal toilet, which was first made in 1884.
Toilets have come a long way since Skara Brae. Most innovations since that time not only showed a higher consciousness for how we dispose of human waste but also showed a move toward more cleanliness in society — except maybe during the Middle Ages. These advances haven’t only made going to the bathroom a more comfortable experience, but have also limited the spread of diseases. So, next time you find yourself in the bathroom, be sure to thank each inventor who took the time to make the modern toilet what it is today.