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Our toilets: a brief history

About the blog

Paula Sánchez
Content Manager at iAgua and Smart Water Magazine Sometimes I write.

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Every time we think about our ancestors, we wonder what they ate, what they drank, where they lived, etc. But we do not often ask ourselves how did they relieve themselves.

It seems trivial, because for many of us it is something of the past and we cannot think of relieving ourselves anywhere else than in a toilet; however, 4.2 billion people still do not have basic sanitation facilities, and 673 million people still practice open defecation in fields, rivers, banks or sewers, according to the last report on safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene by the WHO.

That is why World Toilet Day, celebrated on 19th November every year, is inspiring action to tackle the global sanitation crisis and foster measures to address it.

If we take into account that, according to a UNU-INWEH report, published in 2015, one person can produce almost 4 tonnes of excreta over their lifetime and together we generate around 300 million tonnes of faeces each year... The bill for sanitation is negative.​ 

But, was it always like this? Have we really made progress concerning sanitation?

Let us take a look at the toilet's history. 

A brief history of the toilet

In ancient times, primitive people used to squat to defecate outdoors, a position that, by the way, is more natural and effective, because the capacity on the intestinal cavity is reduced and, by increasing pressure on the abdomen, we stimulate the bowel movement.

At the time, humans would defecate anywhere: in a field, by the river, behind a tree, or before it, because at the time we did not feel embarrassed about such things.

That feeling came later, almost 4,000 years ago, when in the Greek island of Crete they thought about inventing something to sit comfortably and wait for nature to call without other people looking.

In the 1st century, the Romans decided to undertake some urban works so that citizens could relieve themselves. The 'columnas mingitorias' were openings in walls, important during the Roman times to both urinate and defecate. The Romans used a sort of 'wipe', consisting of a cloth tied to a pole, to clean up after defecating, proving that everything in life has already been invented. The idea was a good one: finally Roman citizens had a high quality toilet. But they went further, and installed community fountains to wash the cloth they used to clean themselves, and that may not have been the best solution for sanitation.

Public urinal in Ostia Antica. (CC/Wikipedia)

The truth is people continued to defecate anywhere, because when nature calls...

After many comings and goings, and streets full of poo, the modern toilet finally came to be in 1597, when John Harington, a nephew of Queen Elisabeth I of England, built the first toilet in history, made up of a wooden box with a hole that led to a porcelain container. The queen was not fond of it, so it stayed as a modern throne that her nephew did use. 

John Harington (CC/Wikipedia)

Later on in 1884 Thomas Crapper, an English plumber with lots of free time, improved the S-bend plumbing trap by inventing the U-bend connecting the toilet with the water outlet, thus eliminating waste and any trace of a bad smell.

Thomas Crapper & Co toilet at the Sir John Soane Museum, London. (CC/Wikipedia)

From that point on, the toilet has undergone many changes, depending on regional habits and tastes, from the most striking toilets to more minimalist ones, but, do you know what toilets look like in different countries?

Going to the toilet without feeling embarrassed in China

We talked earlier about embarrassment and about public toilets during the Roman times as if they were things of the past, but in China things could still be quite similar. Some public toilets in China still have this kind of facilities, where the place to defecate is just an opening on the floor, with no separation. And even though for some westerners it may seem unbelievable, the Chinese are quite used to it.

Public toilets in China. (CC/Wikipedia)

Toilets (or lack thereof) in India

In many regions of the world, a lot of work remains to be done concerning sanitation. That is the case of India, where almost half the population have no access to a safe toilet. New Delhi residents only have running water one hour per day, so sanitation conditions are awful. To the extent that diarrhoea causes the death of 315,000 children every year, according to 2016 data from WASHwatch. More than 600 million people across the world still practice open defecation, something that contaminates water supplies.

Girls defecating outdoors in India. (CC/Wikipedia)

Work place sanitation in Guatemala

In Guatemala, only 60% of the population has access to sanitation facilities. The workplace is where diseases spreads faster and more frequently, because of the bad sanitation and hygiene conditions. Sanitation causes 17% of all work-related deaths according to 2003 data from the International Labour Organisation.

Photo: Andrea Bruce.

A luxury toilet

The dreadful hygiene conditions in these countries contrast with those in the western and developed world. At the Doha Airport, in Qatar, toilets are extremely luxurious and pretty much always impeccable.

 Photo: CC/Wikipedia.

Turkish people never sit down

Turkish toilets are not only found in Turkey. You can also find them in some places of Greece or Italy. This type of toilet consists of an opening on the floor with two markings to place your feet, so you do not slip while using it. Also, it has a railing, and, as we mentioned earlier, is designed to be used in a squatting position, as prehistoric people used to do.

Water jets in Japan

We cannot finish this post without talking about Japanese toilets. In comparison with other world regions, in Japan hygiene is taken very seriously, to the point that toilets have a water jet system to wash and dry yourself after you are done.

Image: CC/Wikipedia

We can appreciate that in many countries the evolution of the toilet, which for many of us has been a natural thing, is at a standstill, and millions of people endure poor sanitation conditions on a daily basis, which also contribute to poor nutrition.

Thus, it is important to raise awareness about the need for safe sanitation, and commit to the financing and development of sanitation and education programmes, to show the importance of proper hygiene and a safe toilet.

Because, regardless of where you are from, and where you are, you need a toilet.

We all have the right to a safe toilet with water jets.

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