Travel back to the mid-1800s and you’ll understand why the porcelain contraption sitting in your bathroom marks a breakthrough in the history of inventions.
As Historic Preservation Lecturer Gail Winkler explains, the combination of flushing water and centrifugal force generated by toilet bowls that were round, not oval, made it just as likely for contents to spew up as to swirl down. Early toilets were even outfitted with trays to catch unwanted surprises. Oval bowls were invented in 1877, not because they fit your bottom better, but to break up centrifugal force.
The bathroom, which for many is seen as a place to do your business and then leave, has held Winkler’s attention for more than a decade. Winkler, who teaches the history of the American domestic interior, became an expert on indoor plumbing by invitation; in 1989 she was asked to write the introduction to “The Well-Appointed Bath: Authentic Plans and Fixtures From the 1900s.” Since then, she has pored through old plumbing catalogs, diary entries and countless historical documents to glean information about a room with which everyone is familiar.
And what she has learned is that flushing toilets, bubble baths and ceramic tubs haven’t always been around; things used to be a little more crude.
“There’s a wonderful engraving—I think it’s dated in the 1740s—showing somebody in London literally tossing the contents [of a chamber pot] out of the second floor window on the hapless pedestrians below,” said Winkler.
With the overcrowding and dirtying of American cities in the 1840s and 1850s, city boosters, who had money tied in real estate, began pushing for an integrated sewage system. Public health officials made similar cries in the 1870s when the notion of the germ theory of disease began gaining acceptance.
Once municipal water systems took root, bathrooms, which had been a monopoly of the rich, became more common. Still, rural residents didn’t enjoy these amenities until the 20th century.
Winkler said her grandmother, an Illinois farm girl born in 1885, bathed once a week and shared the same bath water with other members of her family. Every Saturday, three tubs of water were divided among 14 individuals, just in time for Sunday-morning church. “And she said, after she recounted the story to me, ‘And we didn’t consider ourselves dirty.’”
With the dawn of plentiful water supplies came a change in attitude.
“Water slowly switches from something that is nice for keeping clean to something that is good for medicinal purposes to the sense that if you don’t bathe frequently you are not a hygienic person,” said Winkler.
People also began bathing regularly because toilets and washbasins became easier to operate, Winkler said.
From toilets with moving parts that had to be boxed in to iron tubs with ceramic-glazed interiors to full enamel tubs, bathroom fixtures have evolved quite dramatically.
“Houses today are outfitted with the kinds of fixtures that could only have been dreamed about 150 years ago,” said Winkler.
Originally published on September 5, 2002