Wednesday, September 28, 2022

A Treasured Historic Myth Flushed Down the Drain

Thomas Crapper & Co. toilets are still in common use in the United Kingdom.

As a blogger who covers historical events and personages both great and small, it is my sad duty to occasionally disabuse you of your most cherished illusions.

Like this one:  The standard flush toilet was invented by Sir Thomas Crapper in the Britain in the 19th Century, lending his name to human solid waste disposal, the waste itself, and anything else that stinks for any reason because it was emblazoned on his products.

Wrong on two or three major counts but containing the kernel of truth.

On the other hand, the self-appointed myth busters who claim that the whole thing is a lie and that there never was a Thomas Crapper are also wrong.

Thomas Crapper, plumber and "sanitary engineer" became a very successful manufacturer in  the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

The very real Thomas Crapper was baptized on September 28, 1836 in Thorne, Yorkshire. The exact date of his birth is unknown, but babies were typically christened about two weeks after birth.  He was apprenticed to his older brother George as plumber. After completing his training and spending three years as a journeyman, he set up his own first shop near his brother’s Chelsea establishment in West London in 1861.

In addition to plumbing services Crapper advertised himself as a sanitary engineer and a brass foundryman.  He began manufacturing plumbing fixtures and obtained several patents that improved the already existing flush toilet.

The ancient Romans had continuously flushing toilets in their elaborate baths and in villas of the extremely wealthy.  The Dark Ages, however, had pretty well wiped out memory of them.

Elizabethan courtier Sir John Harrington and a sketch of his Ajax flush toilet invention.

Elizabethan courtier Sir John Harington was credited with a developing a flush toilet called The Ajax around 1596 which had a water shut off device.  The clever devise became the object of political controversy when Harington wrote a book about it, A New Discourse upon a Stale Subject: The Metamorphosis of Ajax in which he also satirized one of the Queen’s favorites resulting his banishment from court and the languishing of his invention.

Alexander Cumming obtained a patent on an improved flush toilet in 1775.  In 1778 Joseph Bramah obtained a patent on an improvement that replaced Cumming’s slide valve at the bottom of the tank with the familiar flap valve still seen in most toilets. By the late 18th Century water closets, as they were called, were being manufactured and installed in the homes of the wealthy.

Edward Jennings got another patent for further improvements on the flush toilet in 1851.  Thus when Thomas Crapper began producing and marketing his own water closets, he was joining an already established line of business.

In the 1880’s Crapper got the distinction of having Royal Warrants when he won a contract to install several Thomas Crapper & Company water closets in the country seat of Prince Edward.  He also supplied Edward as king and his successor, George IV.  The prestige boosted the sales of his appliances.

But Crapper did hold several patents, including two for key improvements.  The Silent Valveless Water Waste Preventer was actually invented by Albert Giblin 1898 who was either an employee of Crapper or from whom the manufacturer obtained a license.  Crapper also held a patent, probably invented by his nephew on the ballcock or float valve that automatically closed the flap valve of the supply tank when the siphon filled it with water.

An advertisement for the Thomas Crapper & Co improved Water Closet.

Taken together, these improvements made the familiar flush toilet that can still be seen and used throughout Britain—an over-head, wall mounted reservoir tank whose flush mechanism is engaged by a pull chain releasing water through a pipe into the bowl below.  These were the models were proudly emblazoned with the badge of Thomas Crapper & Sons.

Thomas retired in 1904 and died in 1910.  He was a respected businessman but was never knighted.  The company passed into the hands of his brother and nephew.  Under a succession of owners, it continued to produce Thomas Crapper toilets until 1966.

The legend that World War I Doughboys popularized the term crap for excrement based on seeing Crapper’s name on their facilities make so much sense that it is hard to deny.  But entomologists trace the use of the term as far back as the 1840’s when it first appeared in print.  It was probably in casual slang usage long before that.  Experts believe that it derives from the Old Dutch and German krappe for a “vile and inedible fish” and the Middle English crappy.  Still, it is hard to believe that Crapper’s name, ubiquitous on British porcelain, did not at least contribute to the popularization of the term.

Whatever the case, be grateful for you comfortable indoor plumbing facilities which whisk away your waste to a distant treatment facility.  Life would truly be full of crap without it.


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