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A Brief History of Toilets: Waste Disposal Through the Ages

By some measure, toilets are a fairly recent innovation. Humans and their ancestors have been eliminating waste for millions of years, after all, and the first toilets only appeared around five thousand years ago.

Still, that makes the toilet nearly as old as human civilization itself. As early humans began living together in larger and larger groups, an organized system for waste disposal quickly became a necessity. The original and most important purpose of a toilet was the promotion of hygiene, and that’s as true today as it was in 2800 BC.

The first toilets

The earliest known toilets were found in the Indus Valley Civilization in northwestern India and Pakistan, dating to around 2800 BC. The indoor toilet was still a few thousand years away, so these were built into the outside of homes and had vertical chutes that emptied into cesspits or street drains. These toilets served the simple but valuable purpose of carrying waste away from homes.

Roman public toilets

Ancient Rome employed flowing water toilets as part of some public bath houses. Roman public toilets were often elevated to chair height and are thought to have been used in a sitting position. While Roman toilets did keep waste out of the streets, their hygiene left something to be desired. Historians believe that the Romans likely wiped themselves with a sponge or stick, which, like the toilet itself, was shared by everyone. Yikes.

Han China pig toilets

Starting around 200 BC, during China’s Han Dynasty, rural areas often employed pig toilets. As the name implies, a pig toilet involves an outhouse that is placed over a pigsty, into which it deposits its waste. The pigs would then eat the waste in addition to their other food. Pig toilets were an efficient waste disposal system for areas without plumbing infrastructure, but one imagines the pigs would have preferred just about any other solution.

Garderobes

“Garderobe” was the common name for a toilet room in a medieval European castle. Originally meaning simply “small room,” the word eventually became a euphemism for the toilet because our ancestors were just as uncomfortable talking about their bathroom habits as we are. Garderobes were constructed to stick out over the edge of a castle structure and deposit their waste directly into the castle moat or an adjacent river. Great for castle hygiene, perhaps, but not so much for the town downstream.

Chamber pots

The chamber pot, common in post-medieval Europe, in some ways feels like a step backward in terms of toilet technology. It was, quite simply, a pot. That’s it. As the name implies, it was kept in a personal chamber or bedroom and used to eliminate waste. Once it was full (or, hopefully, before) it would be carried to a central latrine and emptied. The chamber pot reflected a growing need in toilet evolution: convenience. Keeping a pot in your chamber meant not having walk over cold castle floors (or worse, outdoors) in the middle of the night.

Water closets

Around 1850 in Europe, we see the development of what would eventually become the modern bathroom: the indoor water closet. It came about as a result of two major developments: running water and middle-class homes with enough space for a room devoted entirely to waste elimination. The water closet used a plumbing innovation called the “S-trap” to create a one-way waste elimination system, preventing foul odors from sewers from traveling up the pipes into a home.

The flush toilet

The vortex-flushing toilet bowl, still the global standard, was invented in 1907 by the Canadian Thomas MacAvity Stewart. The 20th century saw the rapid adoption of flush toilets in homes throughout the world. While global toilet styles differ, they all share the goal of being a hygienic, convenient waste elimination system.

The bidet and hygiene

Believe it or not, even after five thousand years, toilets still have room for growth. The bidet, a fixture which uses water to cleanse you after using a toilet, has been in common use in parts of Europe and Japan for decades, but is only recently catching on in the United States. Today, with innovations like the Coway Bidetmega, you can easily replace your existing toilet seat with a fully functional smart bidet. A bidet seat can make your toilet more hygienic — “water is the best and healthiest way to clean just about everything” — and more convenient, with features like remote control operation and a heated seat.