All images: Shutterstock

Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation

a short history of the toilet

10 surprising facts about the smallest room in the house

By hannah rochell
11 FEBRUARY 2021

It's something that many of us take for granted, but for more than half of the global population - 55% in fact - simply using a clean, safe toilet at home is a nothing but a pipe dream. For women, access to a toilet is a safety issue and has an impact on equality (studies have shown that women who do not have a toilet at home earn less than those that do), and when you consider that it is one of the most important human inventions when it comes to stopping the spread of disease, clean lavatories and effective sewage systems are vital in protecting our health and well-being. 

But where did it all start? Here are 10 things you probably didn’t know about toilets....

1. Number one

The earliest known toilet in the world is in Uruk, formerly known as Mesopotamia, where an indoor pit toilet that dates back to c.3200BCE has been found in the city. A pit toilet is one that uses no water and collects excrement in a pit or trench. 

2. Water works

Early civilisations to install toilets that used water to flush away waste include The Indus Valley Civilisation in northwest India and Pakistan, where cities such as Mohenjo-Daro and Lothal used the first known urban sanitation systems, including sewers, in the 4th century BCE.

ancient public toilets

3. Scottish potties

In addition to the well documented toilets of Minoan Crete and Pharaonic Egypt, you might be surprised to learn that Scotland was also one of the first locations to adopt toilets. Skara Brae, a Neolithic settlement in the Orkneys that was occupied between c.3180BCE and c.2500BCE and which is often referred to as Scottish Pompeii, had cubicles in houses with a drain running directly below them.

4. Dirty words

There are myriad words in the English language used to describe the smallest room in the house, including lavatory, privy, latrine, dunny, loo, water closet, commode and the john. Toilet is derived from the French toilette meaning ‘little cloth’ and was originally used as a euphemism to describe a room used solely for the purpose of urinating or defecating, similarly to powder room.

5. The power of sewers

Sewerage systems were, and still are, vital in helping stop the spread of waterborne diseases. They also make our urban environments far more pleasant to live in, transporting the waste - and its odour - away from our homes. Many of us take them for granted, but in Mexico only half the population has a clean, safe toilet at home, according to 2017 figures we’ve interpreted on ‘safely managed sanitation’ from UNICEF and the World Health Organisation (WHO).

6. Biofilms

We now know that this waste - specifically collectives of microorganisms called biofilms - actually corrodes away older sewage concrete pipes over time, leading to at best, costly repairs and at worst, flooding. However, it’s now thought that biofilms can be used positively within modern sewers; for example coating sewer surfaces with biofilms could prevent methane formation, and in turn reduce the sewer’s contribution to climate change.

7. Pump action

Between 1846 and 1860 there was a worldwide cholera outbreak. At this time in London, the population was growing faster than the sewage system, which hadn’t yet reached Soho - the location of a serious outbreak in August 1854. It killed 616 people - 127 of them in the first three days alone. The physician John Snow identified a single water pump as the source of the outbreak, and his work is viewed as the founding event of modern epidemiology. 

toilet in a wooded hut

8. 100 years of Harpic

Learning more about the spread of disease brought with it the knowledge that cleaning is an essential part of toilet use. Household name Harpic celebrates its 100th year of toilet hygiene in 2020 - November 1920 was when the first registrations were made in the company name. Harpic is also committed to the Global Goals; in 2020 it is removing black plastic from its packaging to make it more easily recyclable as well as launching a biodegradable toilet bowl cleaner.

9. Which came first...?

It’s a chicken and egg situation when it comes to Thomas Crapper, the English plumber who made flush toilets popular in the 19th Century. It’s believed that the slang crapper in reference to the toilet was actually already in use as far back as Middle English, well before the famous sanitary equipment company Thomas Crapper & Co was established in London. But it was Crapper, who supplied toilets for King Edward VII, who really cemented the word in the English language.

10. Golden thrones

You might expect the most expensive toilet in history to be made of pure gold; in fact, the Hang Fung gold toilet, which cost around $5 million to install, only comes in second place and isn’t even a functioning lavatory. Instead, you’d have to head to the International Space Station to use its $19 million super-loo, complete with leg braces (because, gravity) and a filter capable of turning pee into drinking water.