Toilet Talk with Phil

by Phil Plummer


What can we say about the old commode? Is it an acquaintance, friend, or is it something more? Most of the time we take it for granted we stand before or sit upon it giving the handle a pull or push and walk away never really thinking about the marvelous piece of vitreous china we just soiled. There are those times of course where the toilet was our best friend, you know those times when you were glad you just cleaned it as you stared into the not so placid pool in the bottom of the abyss and found comfort in the coolness of the glassy smooth porcelain god. Sorry! I didn’t mean to bring up bad memories. In any case the toilet has served you and I well, it has always been there to attend to us as the need arose.


Such has not always been the case prior to the advent of the modern toilet we have come to love and respect there was all manner of contraptions from the bedpan to outhouse from chamber pot to water closet and in biblical times it was an implement and a hole in the ground to name a few. Fortunately for us as man came out of the middle ages science and the realization that cleanliness leads to better health it spurred the need for better hygiene and the toilet became an integral part of that growth. The toilet however is not a modern invention in fact the forerunners of the toilet go back to the times of the Greeks, Romans and even the Chinese had a version of it hundreds of years ago. For the sake of our sermon today we will focus briefly on perhaps the last 150 years of the toilet. As for the past let’s leave that to the annals of history.


First we must point out that John Crapper was not the inventor of the modern toilet (despite his name being synonymous with the contraption). He was just one of many who contributed to its development. His influences were remarkable in that it was his invention and patenting of the pull chain flush system, the air tight seal at the floor connection and several venting systems which solved the major hurdles of noxious fumes of sewer gas and water leakage. It was during these 18th -19th centuries that the hard work of men like John Crapper made the toilet what it has become today. During his time there were basically 2 types of toilets being produced the wash down toilet and the wash out toilet. The washout variety generally had an under floor p-trap so there was no pool of water no built in p-trap in the bowl so it was difficult to keep clean and still allowed some sewer gasses to enter the home, imagine the smell. By 1890 these had mostly become obsolete with few exceptions. The “wash down” variety of toilet means they have a built in p-trap (which developed into more of an S-shape as we see in toilets today) and a pool of standing water in the bowl which locks out the release of sewer smells that were so common and because of this pool are much easier to keep clean.


If you own an old home with these original fixtures you know the toilets of the time were big, in fact you could call them water hogs by today’s standards many of them flushing anywhere from 5 to 7 gallons of water! Keep in mind that water saving wasn’t a consideration during those times. Most of these tanks were either connected to the bowl by an elbow into the back of the bowl by a straight or offset pipe into the top of the bowl. Occasionally you will see a high tank toilet where the tank is approximately 5-6 feet off the floor, an interesting look, even with a smaller pipe and a bit less water it still created a really good flush. These elevated tanks create a significant push of water that would fill the bowl and force the water in it up and over the top of the built in p-trap. Basically as the water fills the bowls and flows over the top it drops downward thru the pipe into the floor thus creating a siphoning effect pulling the remaining liquids and solids up and over. There is also a slight narrowing of that downward pipe which enhances the effect so with five gallons of water it could flush just about anything including small pets “Just kidding”.  What you have left then is a nice clean bowl ready to take on the next challenge.


I wish we had more time for toilet talk today but the bathroom is calling. Please tune in again when we will discuss” why keep the old toilet and repair versus replacement”. So the next time you enter your bathroom why not stand or sit in a moment of silence thanking those intrepid travelers into the swirling abyss for necessity was laid upon them to help solve mankind’s health crises. For by their designs and imaginations and hard work that not only beautified the bathroom but has saved millions of lives by raising the standards of cleanliness to a level never before experienced.


So is the toilet something more? I would say yes with relief and a resounding flush…


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