Toilets: Then and Now, Part 01; Toilet History

(Latin: toile to toilette in Middle French)

English borrowed the Middle French word toilette in the sixteenth century and eventually settled on the spelling toilet. The English word has at one time or another reflected most of the French senses; the "grooming" sense is still used, especially in expressions like "to be at one's toilet". All of these have tended to be transformed from "dressing room" through "dressing room with bath facilities" through "lavatory" and finally to "water closet", "women's room", "men's room", etc.

While English uses a French-word form to euphemistically designate this necessary facility, French repays the compliment by calling it le water-closet or le w.c.

Based on information from Webster's Word Histories

If you consider the contribution of plumbing to human life, the other sciences fade into insignificance.

—James Gorman
1. A fixture for defecation and urination, consisting of a bowl fitted with a hinged seat and connected to a waste pipe and a flushing apparatus; a privy, latrine, water closet, lavatory, etc.
2. A room or booth containing the fixtures as described in number 1, above.
3. The act or process of dressing or grooming oneself, including bathing and arranging the hair; such as, "to make one's toilet"; "busy at his/her toilet".
4. Archaic: A dressing table.
5. In medicine, cleansing, as of an accidental wound and the surrounding skin, or of an obstetrical patient after childbirth.
6. Etymology: from about 1540, "a cover" or "bag for clothes", from Middle French toilette, "a cloth, bag for clothes"; diminutive of toile, "cloth, net". The evolutionary sense is the "act" or the "process of dressing" (1681); then, "a dressing room" (1819); especially, one with a lavatory attached; then it included "a lavatory" or "porcelain plumbing fixture" (1895).

A similarly functioning device, known as a water closet, is recorded as early as 1755.

Euphemisms for "toilet" abound around the world

Americans weren't the first to use euphemisms to refer to the toilet. The toilet and/or the "outhouse" have at one time or another been called the "House of Honor" (by the ancient Israelites), the "House of the Morning" (by the ancient Egyptians), the "garderobe" (literally, "cloakroom"), the "necessarium", the "necessary house", the "privy" (that is, the "private place"), the "jakes", the "john", the "W.C." (for "water closet"), "Room 100" (in Europe), the "lavatory", the "closet", the "boys' room", the "girls' room", the "mens' room", the "ladies' room"; and many other terms.

There is no "real" word for the place where one deposits one's bodily wastes. "Toilet", which is now thought of as the "official" term, is itself a euphemism.

Originally, toilet was the process of dressing, as in, "the lady has just completed her toilet".

Before toilet assumed its present meaning in the early twentieth century, the accepted technical term for the "toilet" was the vaguely disgusting but still euphemistic "bog-house". So, we have something for which there are polite terms and impolite terms, but no simply correct term.

Historical Information about the Toilet

  • Very few scholars have documented precisely the toilet habits of those who have preceded us.
  • The Nobel Prize winner for Medicine (1913) Charles Richet attributes this silence to the disgust that arises from noxiousness and the lack of usefulness of human wastes.
  • Others point out that as sex organs are so very close to the organs of defecation, those who dared to write on toilet habits were dubbed either as erotic or as vulgar and, thus, despised in academic and social circles.
  • Since the need to defecate is a necessity, so it was that a few writers who, despite social as well as academic stigma, wrote on the subject and gave us at least some idea about the toilet habits of some human beings.
  • The toilet is part of the history of human hygiene which is a critical part in history and which cannot be isolated to an unimportant aspect in history.
  • The toilet is a critical link between order and disorder and between a good and a bad environment.
  • In India, China, and many other countries, can any one ignore the subject of the toilet when people are faced with human excretions of the order of tons of fecal matter per day with totally inadequate system of its collection and disposal?
  • Societies in many parts of the world have a constant threat of health hazards and epidemics.
  • It is impossible to determine how many millions of people do open defecation.
  • Sewerage facilities are available to a very small per centage of populations in urban areas and especially of rural populations because they have no access to flushing latrines.
  • The subject of the toilet is as important, if not more, than other social challenges like literacy, poverty, education, and employment.
  • In fact, the subject of the toilet is more important because lack of excremental hygiene is a national health hazard while in other problems the implications are relatively closer to only those who suffer from unemployment, illiteracy, and poverty.
  • As long as mankind did not have an established abode, he did not have a need for a toilet because people excreted wherever they felt like doing it.
  • When people learned to have a fixed houses, they moved toilets to courtyards and then within their homes.
  • Once this was done, it became a challenge to deal with smell and the need was felt to have a toilet, which can intake human wastes and dispose these of out of the house instantly and, thus, help maintain cleanliness.
  • Man tried various ways to dispose of human waste by using chamber pots, which were cleaned manually by the servants or slaves, with toilets protruding out of the top floor of a house or the castle, and disposal of wastes in the river below; or common toilets with holes on the top falling into a flowing river or stream underneath or just by going into the river or stream and disposing of the wastes from the human bodies.
  • While the rich used luxurious toilet chairs or close stools, the poor defecated on the roads, in the jungles or forests or straight into a river.
  • It was only in the 16th century that a technological breakthrough came about and which helped human beings have clean toilets in their houses.
  • This breakthrough did not come about easily and the human race had to live in unsanitary conditions for thousands of years.
  • Historical Evolution

  • An examination of literature brings home the fact that we have only fragmentary information on the subject of the toilet as a private secluded place to help human bodies relieve their wastes.
  • The archaeological excavations confirm existence of sitting types of toilets in Egypt (2100 BC).
  • In Rome, public bath-cum-toilets were also well developed.
  • There were holes in the floor and beneath them there was flowing water.
  • When the Romans traveled they constructed the toilets for their personal use.
  • The stools were keyhole type so that these could be used for defecation as well as urination.
  • Excavations in Sri Lanka and Thailand, too, have brought out a contraption in which urine was separated and allowed to flow while the other portion was used at the same time for defecation.
  • Historical evidence exists that Greeks relieved themselves out of their houses.
  • It was also popular in those days to emphasize the medicinal values of human waste.
  • Urine was supposed to have many therapeutic values.
  • In the Middle Ages, people were known to throw excreta from their houses out of their windows on to the streets below.
  • Between the period 500 to 1500 AD, it was considered a "dark age" from the point of view of human hygiene.
  • It was an era of cesspools and human excreta all around.
  • Rich man's housing and forts in many places around the world had protrusions in which defecation was done and the excrements fell into the open ground or a river below.
  • In Europe it was an era of chamber pots, cesspools, and close stools.
  • French poet Claude le Petit described Paris as "Ridiculous Paris" and in the following words:
  • "My shoes my stockings, my overcoat
    My collar, my glove, my hat
    Have all been soiled by the same substance
    I would mistake myself rubbish."
  • Public baths were quite famous in early Rome (about 200 BC).

—Compiled from several sources of information including:
"History of the toilet"; Sunday News; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; August 6, 2006.
"Toilet talk, from the scholars, The history and politics of public restrooms" by Kate Tuttle;
The Boston Globe; Boston, Massachusetts; December 6, 2010.
"It's time we declared war on our dirty toilets"; New Straits Times
by Johan Jaaffar; January 3, 2009.
"Toilets" by Judith Sims; Environmental Encyclopedia; January 1, 2003.

If you would like to see more extensive information about toilets,
click on this link: The History Of The Toilets.

Arrow pointing to words and info sections See the Toilets: Directory of Articles for more presentations.