September 28, 1836 – Thomas Crapper:
Ah, Thomas Crapper. He’s so hilariously named, considering that he is the inventor of the flushing toilet. Right? Well, it turns out that Crapper did not invent the flushing toilet, but even better, he did invent something called a “ball cock”.
Crapper may not have invented the flushing toilet, yet he did much to increase its popularity and developed some important related inventions. He opened his company of Plumber Near Me Sydney in 1861. He was noted for the quality of his products and he received several royal warrants. Manhole covers with Crapper’s company’s name, especially the ones in Westminster Abbey are one of London’s major tourist attractions.
Thomas Crapper & Co owned the world’s first bath, toilet and sink showroom, in constant operation in King’s Road until 1966.
Crapper was born in South Yorkshire. In 1853, he was apprenticed to his brother George Crapper, who was a master plumber. After his apprenticeship and three years as a journeyman plumber, Crapper set himself up as a sanitary engineer, with his own brass foundry and workshops.
The flushing toilet was actually invented by John Harington (1560 – 1612) in 1596. Called the Ajax (“jakes” was an old slang word for toilet), it was installed at his manor. Harington wrote a book called A New Discourse Upon A Stale Subject: The Metamorphosis of Ajax (1596) about his invention. He was a prominent member at Queen Elizabeth I‘s court and was known as her “saucy Godson”. He published his book under a pseudonym. The book made political allusions that angered the Queen, and after its publication, he was banished from the court. The work itself enjoyed considerable popularity and was optioned for film, but unfortunately moving pictures were still more than three centuries away.
The forerunner to the modern flush toilet had a flush valve to let water out of the tank, and a wash-down design to empty the bowl. The term “John”, used in the USA, is thought to be a reference to its inventor.
Joseph Bramah patented the first practical water closet in England in 1778. George Jennings in 1852 also took out a patent for the flush-out toilet. In an era when bathroom fixtures were barely spoken of in polite company, Crapper heavily promoted sanitary plumbing and pioneered the concept of attractive bathroom fixtures.
In the 1880s, Prince Edward (later King Edward VII) purchased his country seat of Sandringham House in Norfolk and asked Thomas Crapper & Co. to supply the plumbing, including thirty enclosed toilets with cedarwood seats and enclosures, giving Crapper his first Royal Warrant. The firm received further orders from George V both as Prince of Wales and when he was King.
In 1904, Crapper retired, passing the firm to his business partner Robert Marr Wharam. Crapper died in 1910.
In 1966 the company was sold by Wharam’s son to their rivals John Bolding & Sons. Bolding’s business went down the crapper in 1969. It was later acquired by Simon Kirby, a toilet historian and collector of antique bathroom fittings, who relaunched the company producing authentic reproductions of Crapper’s original fittings.
Crapper was an advocate of sanitary plumbing, popularizing the idea of installation inside people’s homes. He refined and developed improvements to existing plumbing and sanitary fittings. He won a patent as the original inventor for using a “floating ball cock” as a part of toilet. He invented improvements on existing bathrooms. More amazing, he invented the manhole cover enabling easy maintenance access. That’s right boys and girls, Crapper came up with both the “floating ball cock” and the “manhole cover”, solidifying his status as a gay icon.
Crapper also improved the S-shape trap (I don’t know what it is, something to do with plumbing) by making it a U-shape. The S-shape trap in sewage systems was slow to catch on until the Great Stink of the Thames of 1858 (different than the Great Stink of The White House 2018) forced Parliament to pass laws for closed sewers to be installed. It was eventually be replaced by Crapper’s improved U-trap in 1880. The BBC named Crappers U-shaped trap as one of the 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy.
Crapper held nine patents, three of them for bathroom improvements. but none was for a flush toilet. Crapper’s advertisements implied the flush toilet was his invention; one said: “Crapper’s Valveless Water Waste Preventer (Patent #4,990) One movable part only”, but the patent was not his, but that of Albert Giblin, Crapper’s nephew.
Popular culture was long claimed that the slang term for solid human bodily waste, ”crap”, originated with Crapper. I like to think that American soldiers in France during WW I, most of whom were farm boys, that had only used outhouses, would visit restaurants, then to go and inspect the facilities, standing and taking turns watching each other pulling the chain and marveling at the toilet flush. They probably wondered what the thing was called and then they would see the word on the front of the tank (but not the ceramic toilet bowl) that read CRAPPER.
The word crap is probably really of Middle English origin. Its most likely origin is a combination of two older words: the Dutch ”krappen”, meaning to separate; and the Old French ”crappe” meaning rejected matter. In English, it became ”chaff”. Its first application to poop, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, appeared in 1846.
2.5 billion people around the world live without proper sanitation. From outhouses to water closets to POTUS’ $35,000 solid gold Twitter throne, humans have been devising creative ways to go to the bathroom since, well, the first person crossed their legs with an urgent need to go.
It’s unclear who first invented the toilet. Skara Brae, a Neolithic settlement in Scotland dating back to 3,000 B.C., features stone huts equipped with drains extending from recesses in their walls, which archaeologists believe were for residents’ bathroom needs. The Palace of Knossos on Crete, built around 1,700 B.C., features definite latrines: large, earthenware pans connected to a water supply that ran through terra-cotta pipes. Europeans had nothing that sophisticated until the 16th century.
Ancient Rome, famous for its public bathhouses, had the Baths of Caracalla which could serve 1,600 people at once, had 144 communal toilets with long, benchlike seats. They were not used every day; for the most part, Romans threw their waste onto the streets.
For pure gross-out bliss, Medieval England had palaces with a ”garderobe”, a protruding room with a tiny opening out of which royalty would do their business. The ‘garderobe was usually suspended over a moat that collected all manner of human discharge. Peasants and serfs relieved themselves in communal holes located at the end of their streets, or right into the River Thames.
Garderobes and public toilets were replaced with something slightly more recognizable: a box with a lid. France’s King Louis XI hid his toilet behind curtains and used herbs to keep his bathroom scented; Elizabeth I covered her commode in crimson velvet bound with lace.
In the early 20th century, flushable valves, water tanks that rest on top of the bowl rather than above, toilet-paper rolls (invented in 1890 but not marketed until 1902) were new but seem like necessities now.
In 1994, Congress passed the Energy Policy Act, requiring common flush toilets to use only 1.6 gallons of water, less than half of what they consumed before. The “low flow” law left a lot of consumers dissatisfied, and a lot of toilets clogged, until companies developed better models.
To quote Black Adder‘s Von Richthoven noted:
“How lucky you English are to find the toilet so amusing. For us, it is a mundane and functional item. For you, the basis of an entire culture.”