Ancient records show that the first toilet might have been in 3,000 B.C.E. in a Neolithic settlement in Scotland or at the Palace of Knossos, Greece, in 1700 B.C.E. where large earthenware pans were connected to a flushing water supply. Advanced sewer systems have been found in the Indus Valley of Northwest India dating back 4,000 years.
Going to the bathroom wasn’t something people were squeamish about in the past. Poop and pee were just experiences — opportunities for relaxation and hanging out. The ancient Romans used sitting on the toilet as a time to catch up with their friends. In the year 315 C.E., Rome had 144 bustling public toiletslined with stone benches with keyhole-shaped cutouts situated all along them, where people would sit together and do their business and maybe some gossiping, too. They wiped themselves with a sponge attached to a wooden handle.
Later, in the middle ages, you could be walking down the street and someone might throw the contents of their chamber pots out the window on you. “Sorry about it,” they might say, but it would kind of be on you for walking next to their house. Fancier medieval people used a “wardrobe,” a little closet stuck onto the side of a castle with a hole in the floor that emptied into a moat or cesspit. Clothes were also kept in the garderobe because it was thought that the stench of human waste would keep fleas and moths out of the garments. Public garderobes in London emptied directly into the Thames, which was an unbelievably poor public health move.
As the population of Europe grew over the course of the 1800s, up to 100 people shared the same public garderobe, and the waste just washed into the rivers, tainting the drinking water supply, which explains why so many outbreaks of cholera, typhoid and other waterborne diseases bedeviled 19th century Europeans, resulting in more than half of the working class population dying before the age of 5. It was a mess.
As a result of a particularly hot summer in London in 1858, when the smell of rotting sewage made living in the city completely unbearable, Parliament commissioned the construction of the London sewer, which was finished in 1865. Deaths resulting from waterborne diseases plummeted, and cities all over the world followed suit and constructed their own sanitary sewers. In 1848, the British government also decreed that private homes should have their own toilets. By the end of the 1850smost middle-class homes in British cities had water closets.
Thomas Crapper (yes, his real name) ran a plumbing company in the late 19th century. Contrary to popular belief, he did not invent the flush toilet; he made some changes to the toilet design patented by Harrington. In fact, Smithsonian says that Crapper’s greatest invention was the creation of the bathroom fittings showroom at a time when toilets were seldom displayed. Crapper made sure his name was visible on all his products — which eventually became standard in houses in wealthy countries all over the world. He also patented the floating ballcock inside water tanks and the U-bend plumbing trap, an improvement over the earlier S-bend, as it didn’t jam.
Modern flush toilets became more widespread in developed countries at the turn of the 20th century with flushable valves and tanks on top of toilet bowls. Toilet paper appeared on store shelves around 1902.