Toilet Reading Episode 1: A History of Plumbing

Toilet Reading is a new series we will be doing here at the Valentine blog, in which we will strive to keep the bathroom masses educated by providing important information about the world of plumbing in enough time to tackle while you use the bathroom. So sit back. Relax (as much as you can) and plunge into the thrilling world of plumbing!

One of the few luxuries for which it is difficult to imagine modern life is indoor plumbing. The fact that, according to the US Census Bureau, 25% of United States houses didn’t have indoor plumbing in the 1950’s sounds crazy to most of us.

Though plumbing is overlooked, it is a luxury that humans have not always had. Like the pipes that now account for the foundation of plumbing, its history has been long, twisty and covered a lot of ground.


People have been creating systems to get and carry water since the earliest recorded history. Possibly the first real system, though, belonged to the Minoan civilization of Ancient Greece. The Minoans used underground clay pipes to carry clean water into and waste water out of the capital City of Knossos.

The first flush toilet showed up around this time and dates back to the 18th Century BC. The toilet was made out of an above ground opening in stone with buckets of water nearby with which to “flush.”

Like the Minoans, the Roman Empire also had indoor plumbing. For the Romans, this meant a system of aqueducts and lead pipes going from houses to public wells and fountains for people to use.

Known by their Latin “Grossus Expellus”

The Middle Ages (The Smelly Time)

Due to the lack of cow manure, both China and Japan utilized human waste as late as the middle ages

Over in Europe, outhouses became important in the production of saltpeter (an important ingredient in gunpowder), as human waste would be collected by commissioned wagons and taken to nitrite beds to be sown into the soil.

Waste was not just waste. Every time you fired a cannon, you were igniting the contents of your city’s outhouses. It’s theorized that this is where a certain, less-than-family-friendly term for casual conversation comes from.

In 1206, the Kurdish inventor Al-Jazari invented a flush mechanism for a hand-washing device that filled a bowl and discharged the bowl to clear the contents of the cistern. This of course is the foundation for modern flush toilets.

During this time, the Mayan civilization were using toilets similar to the ancient Romans. They had also developed water filters that work nearly similar to modern ceramic models.

European European

Perhaps there is no term as tied to the idea of the dark ages as a chamber pot, and rightly so. The remainder of the medieval saw little progress in water sanitation. The enlightenment period, however, would see great advances in plumbing.

Fresh water was introduced to the city of London by Hugh Myddleton’s New River (completed in 1613). The New River Company became the largest private water company of the time, providing clean water to London and other central areas.


“Honey. The water is clear…and less crunchy.”

Throughout the 18th and 19th century in Europe, waterworks companies sprang up faster than holiday meals after the start of a diet.

Modern Age (The Less Smelly Time)

The famous S-bend pipe (like the one beneath your toilet now) was invented by Alexander Cummings in 1775. It became known as the U-bend, after the U-shaped trap was patented by Thomas Crapper in 1880.

1880 was the same year that Thomas Crapper’s plumbing company began full scale production of a more-modernized flush toilet. Although Crapper’s name would suggest that it is the source of a modern term for the action done with toilets, the word is much older and the similarity is purely a coincidence.

Still, if you want to talk about destiny…

In 1906, William Elvis Sloan invented the technology for the Flushometer, a pressurized flushing system that is still in use in public bathrooms today.

Just a year prior, permanent water chlorination had begun in the English borough of Soho to combat the typhoid fever epidemic in Lincolnshire, England.

Meanwhile, across the pond, the United States saw the first instance of continuous chlorination, beginning in 1908 at the Boonton Reservoir in New Jersey.

Recent Developments

You may have a toilet in your house that has two different flush settings for liquid waste or solid waste. This was invented in 1980 by Australian, Bruce Thompson. On average, these toilets save households that have them 67% of their normal water usage!

Though it has not yet been accomplished, society is moving closer to the Millennium Development goal of every person having access to fresh water.

There is a lot of research and technology brewing today in the world of plumbing. Next month, we will feature the brave horizons that lie ahead as we examine plumbing’s bold future.

About Shannon Ferg

In 1973, Bob Valentine opened Valentine Inc. to be the best provider of your plumbing and heating needs throughout northeast Wisconsin. Since then, we’ve built our business on value, trust and reliability. Let us prove it to you.
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