The Development of Sanitation Through Toilets by Chynna Rosette

If you were part of the Royal Court at the late 16th century, you probably would have heard of Queen Elizabeth the I’s godson and courtier, Sir John Harington. He was known throughout social circles as a risqué poet, member of The Royal Court, and for his invention, the ajax.

The term ajax came from “jakes”, which was slang for toilet. Sir John Harington’s flush toilet was commonly referred to as ajax, it was a mostly exclusive but brilliant development. Around the late 1500s, Harington’s sales for his invention were blowing up in France (and renamed Angrez), yet his home country (the Great Britain) had remained faithful to the chamber pot, an object with a similar concept as a bedpan.

And it wasn’t because of tradition, even though at the time, tradition was an important factor in social dignancy for those noble and wealthy. His ajax model seemed to be mostly practical (and sanitary), yet many turned their noses at his invention and questioned the importance of it. To “remove the stench of excreta” was an unfulfilled demand.

He had invented a modern device (a water closet) used to dispose excreta in a clean and orderly fashion. Notice I mention “clean” and “orderly”. That’s because all the previous prototypes the models got too dirty and contaminated easily.

Now at 2016, a toilet , as important as it is, is still considered a luxury for a large part of the world. It’s also a household invention that is still being taken granted for, and deserves to be appreciated. Because defecating and getting rid of waste hasn’t been this easy until the midst of the 20th century.


sanitation : Conditions relating to public health. excreta : Waste matter that is removed from the body, commonly referred as faeces and urine. risqué : Slightly indecent, especially by being suggestive sexually.


Toilets Throughout Millenniums

Many other civilisations have used their own way of disposing excreta, yet there are two formidable developments throughout history that proved to be prototypes used before the modern toilet for long periods in time… For the better or worse. These are two memorable points in history that mark the development of sanitation and cleanliness through toilets.

Ancient Rome (27 BC-393 AD) : Public Bathrooms

As a notable science journalist and author, Jheni Osman had written several texts, one of which correlates to my topic. In her book 100 Ideas That Changed the World, Osman states, “The Romans were ahead of their time.” The Ancient Roman civilization is best known for its brilliant architecture, myths, culture, and inventions. They had created a system that wouldn't be rebooted until hundreds of years later.

The Romans were ahead of their time.

True to Osman’s statement, the Romans of 27 BC to 393 AD had created a system that had evolved into what we now call “the sewers”. Using the bathroom in roman times was a sociable occasion, and although the idea of it’s sanitary uses were great, it often got a little too dirty. “There weren’t any walls,” she writes. “At all.”

Scientists found ectoparasites living among the bathrooms after over a thousand years of being unused, and suggest that at the time, the romans hadn’t cleaned their bathrooms well. With modern technology, the state of it could have been bearable, but without actual cleaning, many kinds of parasites and muck had grown inside the bathrooms.

The romans weren’t the first civilisation to introduce the concept of bathrooms, but they were the first people to make a public bathroom. Still, the romans didn’t know of such crud, and so those bathrooms were used for hundreds of years.


ectoparasites : A parasite that doesn’t live inside its host. parasite : An organism that gets nutrients from a host at the host’s expense. crud : A disgusting and unpleasant substance. English Renaissance Time Period : Late 15th century to early 17th century.


English Renaissance (1550-1660) : The Chamber Pot

Sir John Harington’s discovery hadn’t improved anything for peasants and those ignoble. His flush toilet model was only available to the wealthy, as it required complicated plumbing and expensive lever work, something that wasn’t easily acquired before late 19th century. As people look back, they would see the potential danger of mishandling the chamber pot.

It’s purpose is mostly straightforward. It was created in 1530, over 60 years before the flush toilet’s existence. A chamber pot was a pot usually kept in a person’s bedrooms as a “convenient” place to dump excreta. For commoners of the Renaissance Period till after the Victorian Era (early 1900s), it had a daily use. It also was donned as a “close stool” because the pot would usually be kept close to a person’s bed for convenience. But without proper cleaning and disposing, the pot would be adept in gathering and spreading sickness.

At 1849, epidemics of cholera had wiped out about 50,000 people nationwide. Cholera is an extremely severe food poisoning that can cause watery diarrhoea and even death. It even affects millions of people worldwide today. While the chamber pot isn’t the direct cause of the diarrhoea, the overall uncleanliness of past sanitary practices had led to the overactive contamination of germs and bacteria.

A poll made by the British Medical Journal in 2013 about “What was the greatest medical milestone?” reports that most readers voted for Sanitation. Around the time the chamber pot was used, people around the world didn’t have as much information about cleansing practices. With the discovery of how cholera was mostly spread by water, people of the Victorian Era came a step closer to proper sanitation.


ignoble : With a humble origin or social status. excreta : Waste matter that is removed from the body, commonly referred as faeces and urine. epidemic : A widespread outbreak of an infectious disease. milestone : An action or event that marks a significant stage in development.


The search for cholera

Doctor John Snow was a british doctor that lived in the Victorian Era, and is best known for discovering the cause of the famous epidemics of cholera during middle 19th century. Cholera is a food poisoning that affects the small intestine when the body consumes the bacteria Vibrio cholerae. It happens when the body digests food or water contaminated with feces. Its symptoms are vomiting, diarrhoea, rapid dehydration, and at worst, death.

Throughout the 1850s, Dr. Snow had been on a search for the cause of cholera. His hypothesis was that cholera had spread through water, which was in fact, correct. Even though he first published his hypothesis, other scientists and doctors didn’t believe him. Kathleen Tuthill, author of the article John Snow and the Broad Street Pump writes, “the popular belief of that time was that cholera was caused by breathing vapors or a “miasma in the atmosphere””.

At that time, common folk had used water pumps and wells that were shared by communities. Most people in Britain couldn’t afford to have an indoor toilet and running water. The water pumps would be used for drinking, washing dirt, and cleaning, etc. If commoners had to use shared wells to wash objects, what would happen if someone washed their chamber pot?

My answer: an outbreak of cholera, and lots of death. At the last section, I had briefly written, “the overall uncleanliness of past sanitary practices had led to the overactive contamination of germs and bacteria”. The sentence had used a lot of broad terms, and this chapter serves to further explain that terse sentence.

According to the Department of Epidemiology of UCLA, Dr. Snow had determined that the water inside sherbet -a popular, bubbly drink sold around Britain made with sherbet powder and water- had been a main cause to the outbreaks. The water, he found out, was from a nearby well that had been contaminated with Vibrio cholerae.

More proof was found when in 1854, it was reported that most homes and businesses would dump waste into the Thames river and other cesspools, the same place water would be pumped or bottled from. That was because at the time, indoor toilets were connected to the sewage system, but only those wealthy had access to proper toilets and plumbing. Cesspools would get full easily, so the excreta and other waste would be thrown into the river.

Unfortunately, by the time Dr. Snow reported his findings for a second time, tens of thousands of people had died due to cholera poisoning.


miasma : An unhealthy or unpleasant smell. cesspools : A temporary, underground storage for liquid waste and sewage.


The Demand for Toilets

Yue Wang of Time wrote about some solemn statistics they had gotten from the UN after 2013’s World Water Day. The data can almost speak for themselves. It’s estimated that 4.5 billion people out of the earth’s 7 billion people have working toilets. A drastically lesser statistic points out 2.5 billion don’t have basic sanitary needs met, and 1.1 billion of that 2.5 billion defecate out in the open. It shows that even now, billions of people outside of developing countries don’t have proper sanitation needs fulfilled.

The danger of cholera increases as the earth’s population grows larger. While other countries have been prospering in recent years, other regions have also been developing, but at an incredibly slow pace.

India’s population growth wipes out any gains in sanitation or on any development front.

For example, India has one of the largest populations in the entire world. It also has the largest amount of people still open defecating, over 640 million people, and not all of those people don’t necessarily not have toilets. Some people may just find it convenient if they have an urge to relieve themselves, at any given time.

“India’s population growth wipes out any gains in sanitation or on any development front.” Nitya Jacob of WaterAid spoke on the subject of India’s growing population and its development of sanitation.

Until everyone has access to adequate sanitation, the quality of water supplies will be undetermined and too many people will continue to die from waterborne and water-related diseases.

“Until everyone has access to adequate sanitation,” Dr. Marian Neira, director of the public health department of the World Health Organisation spoke. “The quality of water supplies will be undetermined and too many people will continue to die from waterborne and water-related diseases.” Open defecation contaminates and dirties water sources with many types of germs and harmful bacteria. It is also one of the main causes of cholera today.

Diarrhoeal diseases kill 700,000 children every year, most of which could have been prevented with better sanitation.

At the 1st of July on 2015, The Guardian spoke on this subject, and stated that over 700,000 children die each year from diarrhoeal diseases, and “most of it could have been prevented with better sanitation.” Not to mention that this statistic only includes children.

The United Nations has also briefly written that they are leading efforts in coming up with “sustainable goals”, and plan to spend up to $2.5tn (trillion) through 2030 to reach them. Let us hope that by then, sanitation and other goals made by UN would be mostly fulfilled.


defecate : to discharge faeces from the body. waterborne : conveyed by, involving travel or transportation on water.


Having good sanitation is one of the many necessities humans have in order to survive long. The development of sanitation is reportedly, one of the most important medical breakthrough, and the invention of the modern flush toilet has contributed to this development. If you were part of the English Royal Court at the late 16th century, you probably would have heard about her majesty’s godson inventing the ajax. But you probably would never use one in your lifetime.

The toilet, while stinky, was an invention the people of the English Renaissance period never knew they needed. And an invention that people still need today.

Chynna Rosette - December, 2016


Created with images by avocadogirlfriend - "Water" • Smabs Sputzer - "Collection of Chamber Pots" • oldandsolo - "Prehistoric toilet block" • Dominic's pics - "Brighton Sewer Tour" • rjames1045 - "india ganges bathing"

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