8 Fascinating Facts About Toilets

Pray to your porcelain god.
Pray to your porcelain god. / Peter Dazeley/The Image Bank via Getty Images

We spend a fair amount of time on the toilet. We depend on the porcelain fixtures to move the metabolic products of our bodies out of sight and out of our dwellings. Throughout history, societies have had different attitudes, habits, and etiquette regarding toilets, and even varied destinations for their toilet outputs. Despite their ubiquity today, half of the world’s population—nearly 4 billion people—lack safe and sanitary toilet facilities. Here are a few facts to make you appreciate our lovely loos on World Toilet Day, November 19.

1. Late Stone Age humans built rudimentary toilets 5000 years ago.

In Skara Brae, a Neolithic village on Scotland’s Orkney Islands, archaeologists found “a 5000-year-old, stone-built drainage channel which connected the house to an outfall at the sea edge.” The drains had originally been lined with tree bark to make them watertight—a remarkably sophisticated system for its time. A bit later, upper-class homes in Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt had benches laid over drains that led to cesspools, where waste was collected for use as fertilizer. Some of the earliest flushing toilets appeared among settlements in the Indus Valley around 2500 BCE.

2. Using public toilets in ancient Rome was a social experience.

To prevent their big cities from drowning in human dung, the Romans built public toilets. Their remnants can still be found in the ruins of some Roman cities—for example, in Ephesus in modern-day Turkey. They were usually just a series of butt-sized holes, carved about 10 inches apart, in long marble slabs laid over open sewer gutters. They had neither stalls nor dividers, so emptying one’s bowels was a social experience. The ancient toilet-goers had significantly fewer inhibitions than we do today when it came to doing their private business—though their togas may have provided some modest cover.

Despite the lack of toilet paper—which wouldn’t be mass-produced until 1857—the Romans did wipe. They cleaned their behinds with a tersorium (literally, “a wiping thing”), a tool comprised of a sea sponge attached to a stick. Users washed the sponges in water that flowed through a shallow gutter at their feet.

Whether they washed their hands after using the toilets is unclear. If they did, it probably didn’t make much of a sanitary difference, because the tersoria were likely shared by all the butt-wipers who came and went throughout the day.

3. Ancient Chinese and Japanese societies didn’t flush—they recycled.

In pre-industrial Japan and China, excrement was a commodity too valuable to flush down the drain. Farmers used human poop as a much-needed fertilizer to keep feeding the growing urban population. Dubbed “night soil,” it was painstakingly collected in buckets by each urban household, and picked up every morning by special collectors called fenfu. They brought their carts full of crap to the ports, where it was loaded into boats and sailed out to the countryside. Farmers purchased the muck and composted it into humanure. The Japanese called it shimogoe, “fertilizer from the bottom of a person.” Farmers of the time couldn’t imagine wasting that precious waste.

4. The first modern toilet prototype was built by a poet.

The great-grandfather of our porcelain john was devised by Sir John Harington, a godson of Queen Elizabeth I. Harington, a poet who fell in and out of her majesty’s favor for his risqué verses, was eventually banished from the court and sent to Bath in southwest England. There, he traded his pen for plumbing tools and forged a flushing toilet in 1596. Named Ajax (a play on jakes, Elizabethan slang for a privy), it had a system of handles to empty water from a cistern while the user simultaneously opened the valve levers to flush the fecal contents down the pipes. (Exactly where the pipes led isn’t known, but it’s likely they went just outside the dwelling.)

Allegedly, the queen visited her naughty godson some months later, tried the contraption herself, and liked it. Harington built a similar apparatus for her at Richmond Palace.

5. British engineer Thomas Crapper perfected the flush toilet.

Harington’s Ajax didn’t catch on right away. A couple hundred years later, British engineer Thomas Crapper (yes, that’s where the technical term comes from!) refined the design to look almost like our modern throne and did more to popularize toilets than almost anyone in Victorian England. Crapper updated the plumbing in Windsor Castle, Buckingham Palace, and Westminster Abbey. He patented the ballcock, the bobbing mechanism inside a toilet tank, which prevents water from overflowing. In 1870, he even opened the first toilet showroom and allowed customers to try out the merchandise before purchase.

The Crapper name was emblazoned on the overhead cisterns of Crapper’s toilets, eventually becoming synonymous with the product. As the Thomas Crapper & Co. Ltd. says on its website, “We believe that you can’t say ‘Crapper’ without smiling.”

6. Flush toilets aren’t the only kind of toilet.

In rural areas and parts of the world without sanitation infrastructure, where flush toilets aren’t practical, many people use dry toilets. These systems don’t use water, but do dispose of human waste safely. Dry toilets can be as basic as a pit latrine, where the toilet user sits or squats over a hole in the ground and the waste is deposited to an underground pit, which may or may not be designed to be emptied. Port-a-potties, composting toilets, “treebogs” (an elevated structure and waste pile surrounded by nutrient-absorbing plants), and incinerating toilets are all examples of dry toilets.

7. High-tech smart toilets can clean themselves.

Modern smart modern toilets can do amazing things. They can lift their lids when they see you coming so you don’t have to touch them. Their seats can instantly warm up to your body temperature. They can play music to keep you occupied while you do your business. At the end, they wash your butt and blow warm air to dry it (especially helpful for people with limited mobility). Japanese manufacturer TOTO takes that aspect so seriously that its staffers test new models in special mobility-limiting suits.

American manufacturer Kohler has similarly innovative models that come with a phone-size remote control for the toilet’s full list of functions. They can play your favorite tunes and respond to your voice commands. After cleaning your nether regions, these toilets clean themselves with high-tech features: swirling the same water around the bowl multiple times before flushing; electrolyzing the water with built-in electrodes to make it more bactericidal; and even destroying germs with UV light.

8. Half of the world’s population doesn’t have access to safe toilets.

Toilets in the West may be getting as smart as their users, but nearly a half of the world’s population lacks access to toilets and proper sanitation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 3.6 billion people lack “safely managed sanitation” in their homes, such as flush toilets that dispose of waste in a sewer system or septic tank. Of those, 1.9 billion people live with only “basic” sanitation services, which often means outhouses and latrines that tend to fill up or overflow in heavy rains.

And, nearly half a billion people are forced to head out into the bush when nature calls. That’s particularly dangerous for women and girls, especially when they have to do so at night and in poorly-lit places. On top of that risk, snakes, poisonous insects, and larger predators can be lurking in the dark—dangers most of us can’t even imagine.

Yep, life without toilets is pretty sh*tty—so the next time you pull that lever, remember how fortunate you are.

Additional sources: Pillars of the Past, Volume IV; Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy; The Other Dark Matter: The Science and Business of Turning Waste into Wealth and Health;  Sir John Harington