Friday, 2 March 2012

The legacy of Thomas Crapper.

Contrary to what some might think, Thomas Crapper did not invent the flush toilet; gosh what a name, I am sure Mrs Crapper was pleased with him or as some might say his mum loved him. He did, however, increased the popularity of the toilet and held nine patents for plumbing products during the late 1800s being mostly known for the ballcock. But what happened before? 

Rome pioneered the men’s public urinal, referred to as the “pissoir” or “Vespasienne.” It was either simply out in the open or with a minimal degree of privacy; these devices collected the urine for the use as dye, which was then sold. It took 1,700 years to catch up!

You probably think I am joking if I tell you that as late as the 1700’s most commoners in Europe were using outdoor pit toilets and chamber pots, making it a family affair since there were enough seats for everyone; charming, can you imagine yourself together with the family? And although the sixteenth century was probably a turning point in toilet development it might not feel like it but believe me it was.

Yet in the Middle Ages, and the Crusades, castles were being constructed with “garderobes,” privies with a couple of seats projecting off the side, with “any business” falling into the moat below or down the sides of the castle into collectors below (yes indeed that’s how it was and Lewes where I live had a priory of Cluniac monks who were the pioneers of this ‘art’ in the 11th century). Public toilets of any sort were few and far between. 

And before that people at night, resorted to the chamber pot. Simple and effective, those filled with “liquid” would be emptied in the morning by tossing it out the bedroom window onto the street below, a tradition that carried into the Middle Ages (hmm, how lovely – and at the same time I can’t stop thinking of past movies where I have seen this happen and how it made me laugh although I am sure it was no laughing matter at the time). 

Or like in some facilities where the seats were cut into marble ledges on three of four sides, with no dividers separating the seats. One had to pay to use these toilets where socializing, politics, and business were done here.  And before that I better not tell you, you can imagine and actually you might not want to imagine since it wasn’t pretty or pleasant; fields, rivers and rock piles were used when one needed to alleviate oneself. But this was early in the human species evolution, where bathrooms were clearly unnecessary, since we wandered about without any permanent settlements. Once we settled and built dwellings, the need for facilities was necessary. And therefore primitive toilet facilities were created, firstly outside of the dwelling, and then eventually moved indoors. 

The modern toilet evolved in Britain and France in 1596, "J.D. Harrington, a relative of Queen Elizabeth I, invented the water closet. In the years that followed, "Harrington's toilet under the name Angrez was used in France; interestingly it was not introduced on a large scale in England.

And this brings me to a very important point; the idea of “privacy” while using the toilet is a very modern concept, with its origins in the 1800s. It is important to remember that the notion of “personal privacy” has evolved over the last couple of hundred years due to economic prosperity.

It might seem incredible to us today that Kings, princes and even generals treated it as a throne at which audiences could be granted. And apparently Lord Portland, when Ambassador to the Court of Louis XIV, was highly honoured to be so received, plus it was from this throne that Louis announced his marriage (now one would be shocked seeing either the queen or even PM Cameron doing so, in this case one could say it was a smelly affair).  

It wasn’t until in the 1960s that more than one bathroom per household became the norm and in the 1970s the home bathroom was seen as more than an essential, which lead to larger bathrooms and more elaborate designs.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s functionality not design, was the ethos. And it was about then that the privy was brought indoors. Today there is more of a balance between both; fortunately privacy is one of the guiding principles of bathroom design.

Nowadays we accept it as normal but you will be amazed to know that only in the early 1900s one hotel entrepreneur in New York State began advertising “A Room and a Bath for a Dollar and a Half.”

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