November 18, 2016

My Toast to the Toilet


You knew it was coming, didn’t you? World Toilet Day on Saturday, November 19? Designated by the United Nations to draw attention to the fact that 2.5 billion people lack access to the most basic sanitation. Every year 315,000 children die of diarrhea caused by poor sanitation and unsafe water and millions of people suffer illnesses, some of them fatal, which could have been prevented entirely with proper access to a toilet. It’s sobering to think that something most of us take for granted is a lifesaver to so many others. We should never forget how lucky we are.

This year, at Thanksgiving, why not propose a toast to the toilet and give thanks to those brilliant bathroom benefactors whose inventions keep us clean and healthy every day?

Start with Sir John Harington. Born in 1560, Harington was a true Renaissance man: poet, translator, inventor, courtier and godson to Queen Elizabeth I. People had been using rudimentary versions of toilets--outhouses, chamber pots, and open pits--for thousands of years, but Harington added one essential ingredient: the flush. The mechanics of a flushing toilet were described in Harington’s most famous written work, A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, called the Metamorphosis of Ajax. (“Ajax” is a play on “a jakes”, slang at the time for a privy.) Harington’s model included a basin with a covered valve that would open and flush waste away with water from a cistern after pulling a lever. It’s worth noting that the Metamorphosis of Ajax is less a technical manuscript than a barbed and saucy political manuscript. (It’s said Queen Elizabeth I banished Harington from her court after reading his work. But not, however, before Harington was able to install one of these early flushing toilets in the homes of a few friends-including the Queen herself.)

In 1775, Scottish watchmaker Alexander Cummings invented an S-shaped trap that created a water barrier keeping foul sewage odors at bay. Joseph Bramah updated the toilet’s valve to prevent water from freezing in 1778. George Jennings installed the first public toilets in London in 1851, charging members of the public a penny for their use.

Yet, despite these advances, toilets were often considered a source of shame, to be kept out of sight from guests. Many people felt that having toilets indoors was profoundly unsanitary. Only a force of imaginative marketing changed public perception.

Enter Thomas Crapper. That’s right: Crapper.

Born in Yorkshire, England in 1836, Crapper began a plumbing apprenticeship as a young man and eventually built a successful business called Thomas Crapper & Co. While most plumbing businesses at the time appealed to Victorian prudishness by making shopping for bathroom fixtures as private and discreet as possible, Crapper took a radically different approach. Bathroom showrooms, proudly and prominently displaying toilets and other sanitary accoutrements, filled Crapper & Co.’s store and were readily visible from the street outside. These showrooms caused a sensation. Everybody knew about Crapper & Co.’s toilets and, after being installed by Edward, Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) in his palace, everybody wanted them, too. Bold marketing and royal approval helped Crapper shift public perceptions of indoor flushable toilets, setting a new standard for basic household sanitation.

Toilets, of course, have continued to change. It’s now customary that toilets have clean, white, porcelain bowls, small shiny handles, and fast, quiet flushes. We are beginning to see toilets with cutting-edge eco-friendly WaterSense technology, bidets, heated seats, nightlights, self-cleaning spray systems, and even “smart” technology to deodorize, control pressure, pulsate, massage, and dry. No matter how many additional gadgets and frills we add to our toilets, we’ll always owe a debt of gratitude to Sir John Harington and Thomas Crapper.

There you have it: an abbreviated history of the toilet. Let’s reflect on our good fortune to live where toilets are safe, clean, abundant, and modern. Far too many have lived without for far too long.

On that note, I leave you with some facts, figures, and resources to contemplate for World Toilet Day. Flush away!

  • Around the world, more people own mobile phones than toilets.
  • The UNICEF WASH Team (Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene) helps educate children and communities in more than 100 countries about the importance of proper sanitation to prevent illnesses and death.
  • 946 million people are forced to defecate openly due to lack of available toilets, increasing rates of disease and death.
  • Women in areas that practice open defecation become particularly vulnerable to attack. Nearly 30 percent of women in India’s Dalit group reported assault or harassment due to insufficient access to drinking water or sanitation facilities.
  • One third of all schools around the world do not have safe or functional bathrooms.
  • Toilet museums exist! New Delhi, India is home to the Sulabh International Museum of Toilets, while you can find the Toto Museum in Kitakyushu, Japan featuring toilet products made by Toto.

There are some great books on sanitation as well. My favorite is Rose George’s The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters. Check out her TED talk: Let’s Talk Crap. Seriously. It’s terrific.

Live from the Heartland

I will be a guest on “Live From the Heartland” radio show, WLUW88.7, on Saturday morning at sometime between 9:00 and 9:30. I will be talking about the pharmaceutical collection ordinance, resource recovery, and World Toilet Day.