The Bathroom: An Epic

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There was a water closet in Osterly House near London by about 1730 and presumably in other such homes of the very wealthy, and it was to a water closet that King George II retired in 1760 when he collapsed and fell, striking his head and dying before physicians could reach him. These must have been nearly identical to the inaugural American water closet installed at Whitehall in Annapolis.

This was state of the art until 1775, when Alexander Gumming, a London watchmaker with a broad knowledge of mechanics, secured the first English patent for a water closet. (Thomas Crapper, that object of so much jocose folklore, did exist, but this nineteenth-century plumber had nothing to do with the invention of the toilet.) Cumming’s principal innovations were a valve mechanism to replace the plunger device and an S trap in the waste pipe to inhibit sewer gas from backing up through the water closet into the house. The S trap (or “stink-trap,” as Gumming called it) has been an essential part of plumbing ever since. Furthermore, the cistern that supplied water was no longer remote but elevated above the device itself. The major shortcoming of Cumming’s closet, however, was the same thing that made it modern, its valve mechanism. It was a sliding valve and was highly prone to sticking, from either corrosion or cold weather.

In, the Summer of 1799 Elizabeth Drinker took a shower and got “wett all over att once” for the first time in twenty-eight years.

JUST THREE YEARS LATER, IN 1778, JOSEPH BRAMAH, a British inventor whose numerous creations included the hydraulic press and the Bramah lock (for fully half a century considered the world’s best), patented a substantially improved water closet. He got rid of the balky sliding valve and substituted a flap valve operated by a crank; the same lever that flushed the closet simultaneously actuated a valve in the overhead cistern, causing water to refill the bowl. Bramah’s valve closets, refined and improved, and soon imported to America, remained in use for the next hundred years.

The 1880s marked the beginning of the transition to the modern toilet. The key was the realization that a siphon could greatly increase the effectiveness of the flushing action. There was nothing new about the principle—an inverted U-shaped tube or pipe, its columns unequal in length, set up so that atmospheric pressure forces liquid to flow from one level to another. The ancient Greeks made extensive use of siphons in their water-supply systems.

In the water closet siphonic action can be utilized both in the tank and in the bowl. A siphon tank remarkably close in design to that of a modern toilet was in use in England bv 1884. Bowls with siphon action began to appear at the same time; the first was patented in the United States in 1890. One of the earliest manufacturers, the Syphon Closet Company of Trenton, New Jersey, in 1890 explained that the virtue of siphon design was “the exceedingly simple and natural working of its parts—its freedom from springs and unreliable valves . . . the complete and perfect working of all its parts, in compliance with natural laws.”

Siphonic action had become common by the turn of the century, and by 1910 the modern water closet looked and worked essentially the same as the toilet of today. Nevertheless, the use of water closets remained far from universal. Existing houses more often than not continued to make do with the privies of old, and it was more commonly the house being built that had such a modern convenience as a water closet. (Nor was there a consensus on what to call it. Water closet remained by far the most common usage in America until the 1930s. The word toilet itself only emerged in this century, as toilette in the pages of a 1914 House & Garden , and it did not start to gain currency until the late 1920s. Webster’s defined toilet only in its dressing and grooming sense until the 1930s, when the plumbing definition was added as a subsidiary meaning. In between there was a brief fling with flush closet . Of course, both water closet and toilet are euphemistic; in fact this particular fixture never really has had a name all its own, specific to its function.)

Its cost, meanwhile, had come down dramatically. One of the earlier documented water closets in America was installed by the Massachusetts governor Christopher Gore at his summer residence, Gore Place, in Waltham, Massachusetts. There is a record of its purchase for $103.75 in 1807. With the cost of installation added, this would have represented something on the order of 70 percent of a carpenter’s wages of roughly $312 a year. By 1926 the Sears catalogue was offering water closets for $21. Even with installation, this would have taken only about 3 or 4 percent of a machinist’s annual wages of $1,771.