Why are Toilets Called “Johns"?

Neatorama presents a guest post from actor, comedian, and voiceover artist Eddie Deezen. Visit Eddie at his website or at Facebook.

Perhaps the one modern convenience we most take for granted is the toilet. It wasn't until very recently that the flush toilet entered our homes.

The ancient Romans invented the first sophisticated water supply and sewer systems. Back then, the Roman toilet was like those in many countries in the Far East today. It consisted of an oblong hole in the floor- without a seat, over a sewer. This original toilet never really caught on, though.

While the rich in some cultures enjoyed it's benefits, the vast majority of the world's population did not. In the absence of toilets and indoor plumbing, people would basically do numbers 1 and 2 wherever they could. Whatever was available when nature called and gave even a modicum of privacy at the time was used. Common "relief areas" were by the side of a deserted road, in the woods, in the river, behind a bush.

Toilet paper? Another recent luxury we take for granted. In earlier times, anything handy was used to clean up after mother nature called, usually nearby leaves (one, of course, had to be on the constant alert for poison ivy or oak).

Perhaps the most widespread urban legend regarding the flush toilet is that it was created by Sir Thomas Crapper (1836-1910).

Maybe because the surname fits so perfectly (and lends itself so perfectly to so many lowbrow jokes), countless millions of people over the decades have believed Crapper to be the Thomas Edison of the flush toilet. This is untrue.

Crapper was a plumber who who founded Thomas Crapper & Co. in London. Although Sir Thomas did not invent the flushing toilet, he did do much to increase its popularity and developed some important related inventions, such as the ballcock.

Crapper was awarded nine patents for plumbing innovations during his lifetime, three of them dealt with the flushing "water closet" (as it was known at the time). Crapper heavily promoted sanitary plumbing and is thought to have pioneered the concept of the bathroom fittings showroom.

The first actual water closet resembling today's toilet was created for Queen Elizabeth I. It was created by her godson, Sir John Harington, in 1596. Too far ahead of its time, Sir John's invention was ridiculed by society and Harington made no more. This is in spite of the fact that the queen was said to have loved hers.

Although his creation was rejected by the public at large, it is Sir John Harington we honor every time we say we have to go to "the john.”

But it wasn't until 1775 that a patent for a flushing toilet was issued to Alexander Cummings. This was 60 years before Thomas Crapper was born.

Cummings' patent illustration (left) and Bramah's patent illustration.

Joseph Bramah of Yorkshire patented the first practical water closet in England in 1778. George Jennings took out a patent for the "flush-out" toilet in 1852. Countless other inventions and innovations would occur before the toilet we know today would come into wide use.

Oh yes, one last thing.

Sir Thomas Crapper not only did not invent the first flushing toilet, but we can also let him off the hook for one other urban legend. The notion that crapper gave his scatological name to feces is also untrue. The word "crap,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, derives from the Middle English word crappe, meaning chaff or residue from rendered fat.

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