A short history of toilets and new directions for bathrooms

In Western culture, we take many parts of our daily life for granted. Food, shelter and clean water – these are necessities that we may not think much about, but that billions of people struggle to find each day.

The toilet is perhaps one of the most luxurious – and wasteful – “necessities” we have today. For those who use the flush toilet, we literally are going to the bathroom in clean drinking water – about 3.5 gallons every flush. Yet 2.5 billion people do not have access to adequate water, forcing them to walk hours to find what we can have in a fraction of a second. How necessary then is this flush toilet of ours, and how did it originate?

Humans have been using different kinds of methods for going to the bathroom for centuries. Although the true origin of the toilet is unknown, many people in the ancient times had quite elaborate sewer systems. The Indus created a sewer system under their streets, and the Romans had rainwater collection systems and impressive public baths. Most famously, the baths at Caracalla could hold up to 1,600 people. In the middle ages, a simple wooden seat over a pit in the ground was common. And their “toilet paper” ranged from the luxurious sponge-on-a-stick to the more common rags or plants.

The modern world introduced the chamber pot, which ranged from very simple to more elegant designs. In the 16th century, a cistern was created that emptied the contents with water and through the pipes. But the real invention came in 1775 when Alexander Cumming created the first flushing toilet. These toilets were a true luxury, and were not common until the 19th century. Even then, most people in the 19th century used outhouses. And how could we talk of toilets without mentioning Thomas Crapper? Crapper constructed elegant indoor toilets in many of England’s palaces during the 1880s. His legacy lives on: a shortened version of his name is used as a slang term for our waste.

Today, most Americans and many other countries use the flushing toilet. It may be convenient for us, but it is damaging to our environment and contaminating our water supply. An average flush toilet will use over 7,000 gallons of clean water a year – literally flushing away water and money. The dual-flush toilet is a more sustainable option, cutting down water usage to about 2,300 gallons each year.

At Blue Rock Station, the compositing toilets do not use any water. The conditions of the toilet allow the contents to decompose. The outcome, also known as humanure, provides a nutrient-rich fertilizer. They come in a variety of shapes and colors, and some look just like a regular toilet.This website has great basic information on the composting toilet.

Annie and Jay decided on their privy location because of its million dollar view:

 They constructed the original structure out of rammed-earth tires, straw bale, leftover beams from a horse barn and a ladder from an old playground that leads to a  living roof. The roof collects rainwater and also deflects some of the sunlight that would otherwise overheat the house. Glass bottles were used in the wall to create a cresent moon design. Old outhouses also sported a cresent moon – it served as a small window to let in light while providing privacy, and it also signified a woman’s bathroom. This past spring, an addition to the privy was added which includes an overhang for protection from the elements and a bamboo entrance way.

The flag serves as in indicator the privy as in use. It can also be fun for games or a nice cleaning.

People are always entranced with the composting toilet – but why? Although it is more advanced, it is similar to what our ancestors have used and does little to no harm on the environment. Would you consider a composting toilet as a way to make your life more sustainable?

~ Posted by Julie Ramaccia


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Writer, farmer, activist, world traveler from Ohio

3 thoughts on “A short history of toilets and new directions for bathrooms”

  1. I guess there is a lot of “history” to the evolution of the toilet – thanks for the information!!!
    I think I still prefer our inside edition ! ! ! !


    1. i am most interested in the composting toilet as we have land in the UP of MI that is currently undeveloped and putting in plumbing would be expensive and raise the taxes. There is a typical outhouse there, but i would one day like to make it more eco-friendly. the site is at the top of a hill overlooking a small river. do you know if special permits are required to put one in?


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