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How infectious diseases helped shape the evolution of toilet design

Toilet design is borne out of hygiene, safety, convenience, and accessibility considerations. But did you know that infectious diseases also have an impact on the evolution of toilets and washrooms?

Here is a quick peek into toilet history.

In the U.S.

In the 1800s, indoor water plumbing was considered a privilege of the wealthy, amid a hodgepodge of sanitation and sewer systems in urban areas. Most upper-class residents opted for chamber pots and outhouses because they believed “sewer gases” would spread diseases. These chamber pots were stored in wooden chair-like cabinets. These commodes were made to look like furniture. 

As tuberculosis and influenza ravaged the population, medical experts convinced the public that it was best to connect indoor toilets to the public sewer system. Open plumbing fixtures replaced wood. Wooden bathtubs, lined with zinc or copper sheets, were also replaced with enamel-coated cast-iron tubs that were easier to clean and were then deemed more hygienic. 

At the turn of the century, the all-white aesthetic of hospitals and sanatoria were adopted by homeowners, and bathroom fittings like soap dishes, towel bars and toothbrush holders became a standard in home bathrooms. For those who could afford it, second bathrooms also became the new design innovation in multi-story homes. These were located near the bedrooms on the second floor. But homeowners worried about the influenza outbreak felt that bringing visitors upstairs would be a health risk. And so came the powder room—a small half-bathroom specifically for non-residents of the house.

After the 1918 flu pandemic and the first World War, many people wanted their homes to be a haven from the trauma of the world outside. Aside from being easy to clean, bathrooms were “cocooning.” Imagine being able to run hot water, get into a tub and just experience pure bliss. 

Subway tiles with thin grout lines were popular in the 1920s because they were sleek and easy to clean. Clawfoot tubs were also common, albeit tricky to wash and dry thoroughly. After the pandemic, bathtubs were built into alcoves, with the edges sealed against the tiled wall. The wooden water tank mounted on the bathroom wall was replaced with the tank-and-bowl design with lacquered toilet seats. This classic toilet version is still used in some homes today. 

Sanitation was, of course, still a top priority. But as soon as antibiotics became accessible, disease avoidance became a secondary design concern. Carpeted floors, wall papers and fuzzy toilet seat covers became popular. 

In the UK

In Medieval England, most people used “potties,” the contents of which were thrown through a door or window into the street. The wealthy would use a “garderobe.” This is “a protruding room with an opening for waste.” There was a public garderobe in London that emptied into the River Thames. Expectedly, it became a breeding ground for disease. Eventually, this was replaced by the commode—a boxed seat with a lid. Inside, there is a porcelain or copper pot to catch the waste. 

The invention of the flush toilet in 1592 is credited to Sir John Harrington. He invented a water closet with a raised cistern and a small downpipe. The pipe is where the water flushes the waste. He initially built two—one for himself and one for his godmother, Elizabeth I. His invention did not gain traction until 1775 when watchmaker Alexander Cummings created the S-shaped pipe. This helped keep the foul odours out. 

As the population grew during the 19th century, so did the demand for toilets. However, densely populated cities could not keep up. Sewage spilled onto the rivers and streets. Soon, the drinking water supply was contaminated. Thousands of people died due to water-borne diseases. 

In 1848, the government mandated that each new house should have a water closet and “night soil men” were hired to empty the pits. Eventually, the government had a sewage system built in London. As a result, deaths due to water-borne disease declined significantly. 

In 1861, soon-to-be King Edward VII commissioned Thomas Crapper to build lavatories in the royal palaces. He patented some inventions and was the first to display his toilet wares in a showroom. His contemporaries began mass producing the toilets that we use today. 

Evolving lifestyles 

Of course, it’s not just infectious diseases that influence toilet design. General lifestyle, economic factors and consumer behaviour in each generation also drive innovation and adoption. 

Take the shower, for instance. It started out as a novelty, but as middle-class suburb residents settled into the hustle and bustle of the city, it became a necessity. Showers are quicker than a full bath. And time is of the essence because people have to commute. By the 1930s, in the U.S., showers became a staple in every middle-class home. 

Around this time, and through clever marketing, the bathroom evolved from being a “sanitary necessity” to an actual room in the house that needs to be decorated. Like the bedroom or the kitchen, aesthetics was, and still is, a prime concern. 

What can we expect post-pandemic?

Today’s washrooms reflect the technological innovations of our times. We have underfloor heating, touch-free taps, steam-free mirrors, and intuitive lighting. Sanitation has always been a given. But now that we are in the midst of a pandemic, we can expect lasting changes in the way we design and use toilets

Sensor taps, already a common feature in many public washrooms, could and should be standardised. Other touch-free options include foot pedals and motion sensors. Layout is also another key area of consideration. Instead of standard entry and exit doors, turn-around corner entryways can help further minimise interaction. Like sensor taps, this is not exactly new. You can see this in airports or leisure parks. 

Floor-to-ceiling partitions can also be customised and installed to create individual stalls with its own sink, paper towels and hand dryers. 

In a public setting, implementing these disease prevention features should be assessed together with other considerations for vulnerable members of society like the elderly, people with disabilities and children. 

In the meantime, as we wait and see how this global health crisis will end, keep in mind the golden rule of toilet use: Wash your hands.