The toilet: The history of this underappreciated luxury

Despite its importance in daily life, the toilet often goes unappreciated. (AFP pic)

PETALING JAYA: It’s something that everybody does every day but no one wants to talk about. It’s an important part of staying healthy and is a natural process that every living creature experiences.

The average person generates about 130 g of droppings each day, and given that Malaysia has about 31.5 million people, that’s over 4,000,000 kg of poop floating in the country’s sewers every day.

That’s an astounding figure that most people don’t want to think about, much less imagine. Thankfully, most Malaysians get to keep their eyes and noses away from this unpleasant side of nature thanks to an invention that rarely receives the thanks it deserves.

As a dog would say, there is nothing wrong with doing one’s business in the grass, or a bird would happily take a dump on a windscreen to prove its point.

In fact, many people do not have access to proper, clean toilets. Unicef estimated that 60% of people worldwide, or 4.6 billion people, lack the luxury of a toilet.

People tend not to realise it, but the toilet is what keeps Malaysians safe from horrible bowel-related diseases such as dysentery and typhoid.

But before the porcelain throne came into being, people in ancient societies really did have to do their business in the open – in the streets, rivers and grass.

A row of public latrines that were found in an ancient Roman town. (Wikipedia pic)

The idea of specially designed rooms for defecation purposes came about 5,000 years ago. In the UK, the Neolithic era village of Skara Brae has what archaeologists believe to be some of the first indoor toilets.

Across the world in the Indus Valley, the ancient city of Mohenjo Daro had toilets with drains washing waste products into the Indus River.

While ancient peoples may not have had the scientific knowledge of today, they correctly associated smelly or disgusting sights with dangerous diseases.

Hence, many religions touch on matters of bodily cleanliness, with the Torah ordering the Hebrews to do their business in a hole outside their encampment before covering it up.

Islam also has a set of rules on toilet etiquette, with the Qadaa’ al-Haajah recommending silence while on the toilet and cleaning after oneself with the left hand.

In ancient Egypt, toilets were surprisingly commonplace. They were usually stools with a bucket filled with sand underneath. These buckets would later be dumped into irrigation canals or the fields to fertilise the crops.

For many centuries, people used chamber pots to store their waste which they then threw out onto the streets. (Pixabay pic)

In China, the word for toilet is “ce”, which in some regions, also means, “pigsty”, hinting at a connection between the two. In Han China, toilets were built next to pigsties, with droppings sliding into the sty for the pigs to munch on.

Strangely enough, toilet habits would later come to differ in the northern and southern parts of the country, with northerners favouring squatting toilets and southerners, sitting toilets.

Paper is a Chinese invention, and it should be no surprise that paper not being used for printing ended up being used as the first toilet rolls.

Mass production of toilet paper was recorded in the 13th century, and during the Ming dynasty, the Hongwu Emperor reportedly ordered a shipment of thousands of perfumed paper sheets.

The Romans, on the other hand, were fond of public toilets and had complex sewerage systems that drained into the Tiber River.

Rather comically, going to the toilet was a communal thing and people could happily discuss their day with friends while relieving themselves together.

And since toilet paper was not invented yet, the Romans used a sponge on a stick to wipe when they were done.

Most modern toilets come with a S-trap beneath them to prevent foul smells from escaping the sewers. (AFP pic)

There’s a theory that the idiom, “grab the wrong end of the stick” originates from this practice. Pity the poor person who had the misfortune of doing so.

However, most Romans were more inclined to defecate into a pot and throw it’s contents out onto the street. Unsurprisingly, this practice resulted in plagues and the Romans wrongly believed it was the stench of the faeces causing the outbreak.

Even after the Roman Empire collapsed, the misconception persisted, which led to toilet innovation stalling for a long time.

Sewerage continued to be collected in chamber pots before being thrown out into the street or the nearest river, which often resulted in unhygienic conditions.

The flush toilet that people are so familiar with today, strangely enough, came about as the result of politics.

Sir John Harrington, who had fallen out of favour with Queen Elizabeth I, invented the flush toilet in 1596 and invited her majesty to try it out. She was apparently impressed by it, but the public continued using the chamber pot anyhow.

Toilet paper was rapidly sold out in many cities worldwide due to the Covid-19 pandemic. (Reuters pic)

Another important development in toilet technology would arrive in 1775 when Alexander Cummings added the S-trap.

This trap can be seen beneath most sitting toilets today, and it prevents foul stenches from escaping from the sewers.

The lack of sanitary facilities was still a problem in the early modern period and cholera pandemics broke out on a regular basis, killing many.

When it was discovered that water sources tainted by sewerage was the cause of these outbreaks, governments began to build sewer lines to keep waste products from contaminating drinking water.

Modern sewerage systems would come into existence as treatment plants were set up and, in many cities, people could for the first time walk about freely in poop-free streets.

Toilet culture continues to differ from place to place, with some Westerners unfamiliar with the concept of bidet showers commonly found in Malaysian and other Asian households.

While it might be easy to take the toilet for granted, it should be remembered that many people still do not have access to what they consider a luxury.

International organisations are working hard to change this and perhaps, one day, everyone will be able to enjoy the satisfying sensation of a clean behind and a good flush.