The History of the First Toilet

There's a reason why call it "the John."


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For civilization to come together and function, you’d think people would need toilets. But ancient records that date back to around 2800 BCE have shown that the earliest toilets were a luxury afforded only to the most affluent households in what was then the Indus Valley settlement of Mohenjo-Daro.


The thrones were simple but ingenious for its time. Made of brick with wooden seats, they featured chutes that transported the waste toward street drains. This was all made possible by the most advanced sewage system of the time, which featured several sophisticated water supply and sanitation technologies. For example, drains from houses were connected to larger public drains and sewage from a home was connected to the main sewage line. 

Toilets that used running water to dispose of waste have also been discovered in Scotland that date back to roughly the same time. There’s also evidence of early toilets in Crete, Egypt, and Persia that were in use during the 18th-century BCE. Toilets connected to a flush system were popular as well in Roman bathhouses, where they were positioned over open sewers. 

In the middle ages, some households fashioned what was referred to as garderobes, basically a hole on the floor above a pipe that carried the waste out to disposal area called a cesspit. To get rid of the waste, workers came during the night to clean them out, collect the waste and then sell it as fertilizer. 

In the 1800s, some English homes favored using a waterless, non-flush system called the “dry earth closet.” Invented in 1859 by the Reverend Henry Moule of Fordington, the mechanical units, comprised of a wooden seat, a bucket and separate container, mixed dry earth with feces to produce compost that can be safely returned to the soil. You can say it was one of the first composting toilets that are in use today at parks and other roadside locations in Sweden, Canada, the U.S., the U.K., Australia, and Finland. 

First Design

The first design for the modern flush toilet was drawn up in 1596 by Sir John Harington, an English courtier. Named the Ajax, Harington described the device in a satirical pamphlet titled “A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, Called the Metamorphosis of Ajax,” which contained insulting allegories to Earl of Leicester, a close friend of his godmother Queen Elizabeth I. It had a valve that let water flow down and empty a waterproof bowl. He would eventually install a working model at his home in Kelston and for the queen at Richmond Palace. 

However, it wasn’t until 1775 that the first patent for a practical flush toilet was issued. Inventor Alexander Cumming’s designed featured one important modification called the S-trap, an S-shaped pipe below the bowl filled with water that formed a seal to prevent fold smelling odors from rising up through the top. A few years later, Cumming’s system was improved upon by inventor Joseph Bramah, who replaced the sliding valve at the bottom of the bowl with a hinged flap. 

It was around the middle of the 19th century that “water closets,” as they were called, started to gain a foothold among the masses. In 1851, an English Plumber named George Jennings installed the first public pay toilets at the Crystal Palace in London’s Hyde Park. At the time, it cost patrons a penny to use them and included extras such as a towel, comb and shoe shine. By the end of the 1850s, most middle-class homes in Britain came equipped with a toilet. 

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Nguyen, Tuan C. "The History of the First Toilet." ThoughtCo, Jan. 26, 2021, Nguyen, Tuan C. (2021, January 26). The History of the First Toilet. Retrieved from Nguyen, Tuan C. "The History of the First Toilet." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).