ISSUE 40  |  The DIY Bath

Object Lessons: The Old-Fashioned Loo

October 07, 2014 11:00 AM

BY Megan Wilson

Arguably the most nicknamed piece of plumbing in domestic history–and certainly one of the most life improving–the flush toilet was invented by John Harrington, poet and godson of Queen Elizabeth I, in 1597. His creation was promptly installed at Richmond Palace for royal use but remained unavailable to the general public for another 250 years. In 1778 a US cabinetmaker acquired a patent for the flush toilet and Thomas Jefferson installed three at the White House.

Still, this modern convenience remained exclusive–and notoriously unreliable–until it was exhibited at London’s Great Exhibition of 1851. There, 800,000 visitors queued to see, use, and marvel at the attraction. What set the new version apart from its processors was the addition of a U-bend pipe and cistern that used its own tank of water for each flush. We have Thomas Crapper to thank for this added refinement (his name purportedly became popular slang when American GIs saw it emblazoned across toilets in Great Britain during WWII). Crapper went on to introduce the ballcock to the cistern, helping to conserve water. Toilet looks haven’t changed a great deal over the centuries. Here’s a selection of traditional shapes and styles that pay homage to the golden age of plumbing. 

Above: A flush toilet beside a window with red privacy glass at Canterbury Shaker Village in Canterbury, New Hampshire. Photograph by architect Rafe Churchill, a member of the Remodelista Architect/Designer Directory.

Five to Buy

Above: Baileys Home & Garden in the UK offers the 1930s Bathroom Kit, which includes a pedestal sink with chrome faucets (shown left), a toilet with an oak seat (shown right), plus a steel bath; £998 ($1,603.74 USD) for the ensemble. Read about Baileys in our post Beauty & Utility.

Above: Deborah Bowman, winner of the 2014 Remodelista Considered Design Award for the Best Amateur-Designed Bath Space, sourced her Deco-inspired toilet from Kohler. The Kathryn Elongated One-Piece Toilet is $1,039 and comes in a range of colors, including black. A more affordable option is the American Standard Portsmouth Champion Elongated Toilet, which starts at $357.99 at Vintage Tub & Bath. 


Above: The Universal Elongated Watercloset Seat from Waterworks has a mahogany seat and is available with chrome, nickel, and other hardware fitting finishes; prices start at $993.

Above: The 1930 Floor Standing Toilet from Duravit has a Deco appeal–it was first presented in 1930; $490 from Plumbtile (bidet sold separately).

Above: The Vintage Connector Toilet Suite incorporates design details from the Australian Federation period with a dual-flush system; $1,460 AUS ($1,279.40 USD) from Caroma, an Australian company with a global reach.

Stay tuned: Later this week in our Faucets & Fixtures column, we’ll be presenting five favorite water-conserving toilets.

Object Lessons columnist Megan Wilson is the owner of Ancient Industries and curator of the Remodelista 100, a collection of essential everyday objects presented in the Remodelista book. Watch for her column every Tuesday, and have a look at her past lessons, including the Hardware Store Porcelain Socket, the British Great Cloakroom Basin Tap, and the Aga and Its Lookalikes.