Toilet History: Be a sweetie – close the seatie!

17:17 Oct. 7, 2016

Be a sweetie – close the seatie!

Kyiv History of Toilet Museum (Anna Azarova)

Kyiv's Toilet History Museum traces evolution of modern flush water closets

Any civilization starts at the… toilet. It is where we spend on average up to three years of our lives.  

Going to the bathroom is a very private and extremely delicate matter. Still, to many of us, it is such a simple act – if you need to go, it is just there.

The modern device, as we know it today, is one of the most vital inventions in human history.  Nevertheless, have the toilets been always around? How did early Man manage to perform this basic bodily function?

The toilet had a very humble beginning.

To learn more about how it all started and progressed, let us make a guided tour around Kyiv's Toilet History Museum, which is one of the world's largest and most comprehensive museums dedicated to this issue. 

The Museum evolved from a private collection of toy toilet bowls, which belongs to Maryna and Mykola Bohdanenko. The married couple launched their bathroom business in the 90's. Consequently, their friends and colleagues started giving them toilet-related souvenirs found and purchased all over the world.


Currently, Bohdanenko's miniature collection boasts more than 500 items. Last year it even entered the Guinness World Records.


Opened in 2007, the Museum is headquartered in the 19th-century Fortress, which was built on Kyiv's highest peak – Klovsky hill – as part of the city's fortification system. The Museum exhibits numerous replicas of ancient chamber pots, squatting pans, urinals as well as sophisticated modern flush devices.

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During the Early Stone Age, there was no such thing as a toilet – early humans relieved themselves anywhere they could. However, nearly 13000 years ago, as excavations and findings prove, people started dividing their caves dwellings into various zones – where they slept, where they ate, where they ‘did numbers one and two'.

It is impossible to say where exactly the world's oldest toilet was invented.

However, some historians believe the Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae in the Orkney archipelago of Scotland boasts the first indoor toilets and drainage system, dating back to around 3,000 B.C.  Farmers' huts were equipped with drains installed underneath. When it rained or the tide rose, waste from open cubicles was washed away – ‘flushed' – out to sea. By the way, in old English, the word sewer means 'seaward'.


Some historians argue that the earliest toilets and sewers were erected in the city of Mohenjo-Daro, a large settlement of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization, which was built around 2500 BC (the territory of present-day Pakistan). The city had a network of sewers dug beneath the streets and lined with bricks. All toilets, built in the outer walls of houses, were connected to the sewage system and manually flushed with water. Waste did not go to rivers but to special reservoirs to be used as fertilizers.


This is an exact replica of a wooden toilet discovered in the tomb of some ancient Egyptian architect. A bucket with sand was placed underneath.


People in Ancient China favoured the use of squat toilets over sit-down toilets. They built their lavatories over cesspits dug a few yards away from their houses.


There is strong evidence that Chinese also used urinals made of porcelain. As a rule, these pots were tiger-shaped and predominantly intended for use by men. However, there were also wide-necked urinals designed for women.  


Ancient Greeks used sewers that carried away waste to the surrounding rivers. Small wonder, the Greek mythology features Hygieia – the goddess of good health, cleanliness and hygiene, daughter of the god of medicine, Asclepius.

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It was Romans who built the first public lavatories as part of bath complexes where citizens spent a lot of time. Affordable only for noble and affluent men, the public toilets (forica) were stone (marble) seats in a row, without partitions of any kind. They could accommodate between 10 and 20 people at a time who continued socialising while relieving themselves.

Richly adorned, throne- or chariot-shaped, marble toilet seats were invariably cold. Therefore, special slaves sat down on them to warm them up for their masters. After using the toilet, Romans wiped their behinds with a sponge on a stick.


This is the miniature of the Cloaca Maxima, Rome's main sewer, constructed to collect and flush much of the waste the city produced.


In the medieval times, Europeans used chamber pots or buckets kept in houses. Streets in big cities had open gutters running downwards. Once the pots were full, people would fling their contents out of the window … Just like that. Inevitably, those walking down the street would often have their clothes stained. Bathing or washing clothes was a rare occurrence then.

Mess, stench, squalor reigned everywhere. Small wonder that medieval cities were so vulnerable to deadly diseases – plague, cholera, dysentery, typhoid fever.

By the way, the English word ‘loo' originates from the cry in French ‘gardez l'eau!' or ‘watch out for the water!' Before empting chamber pots, people had to warn passers-by on the street below.608xX

Believe or not, but in the medieval times for a small fee you could buy services of a ‘human lavatory' who worked as ‘street toilets'. The person would provide you with a bucket and shield you with a black large cape.


When the Spanish expedition led by Christopher Columbus reached the Americas, Europeans started exploring and colonizing the New World. They were astonished to find out that ‘barbarian' Incas, Aztecs and their predecessors Mayans went to the toilet in specially designated areas, which were afterwards carefully cleaned.

In the 15th century, Italian painter, sculptor, architect, and engineer Leonardo da Vinci drew plans for a flushing water toilet for his patron, King Francis I. Yet his plans were rejected. This is the replica of a toilet made according to Leonardo's drawings.


Sir John Harrington, godson of England's Queen Elizabeth I, is credited with inventing the first flushing lavatory with a cistern in 1596. That is why a bathroom even today is sometimes called ‘John'. Though a major breakthrough in the toilet history, the device had a serious drawback – it used a straight up-and-down pipe which made the horrible odour spread indoors after flushing the toilet. Some sources say the Queen did not like the invention, some sources say that it was installed in one of her palaces – anyway, people overall remained faithful to chamber pots.

In 1775 a Scottish watchmaker and instrument inventor, Alexander Cummings created an S-shaped trap (or bend), as we know it today, which prevented bad smells from entering the house. He was granted a patent for a flushing water closet.

A couple of years later, Joseph Bramah improved Cumming's flushing system and invented a 'hinged valve' sealing the bottom of the toilet bowl. His closet system is still used on trains.


In the 19th century, it took three experts to produce a water closet – a ceramist made a bowl, a mechanic was responsible for a flushing system, and a cabinet-maker created a wooden frame. Only wealthy citizens could afford such a luxury as an indoor flash water closet. 

In Victorian Britain, English sanitary engineer and plumber George Jennings invented the first public flush toilets, which were connected to a common sewage disposal system.

In the late 19th century, British pottery manufacturer Thomas Twyford started producing one-piece ceramic toilets named ‘the unitas' in Latin (the word is still used in Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian languages). Twyford is said to have given his first ceramic toilet to Queen Victoria. The Museum features a similar Victorian-epoch toilet


This is how the toilet system looks like inside:


Another British plumber Thomas Crapper contributed to developing toilets by improving a ball cock (an automatic valve), the mechanism for filling water tanks.


In 1909, the Spanish company Unitas began mass-producing toilets. Well, only 100 years ago – a comparatively short span of time – conventional flush toilets became part of our lives…

Remember your modern facilities have come a long way since ancient times.  And don't forget to flush the toilet.


Anna Azarova for Ukraine Today

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