PUBLISHED: 16 November 2016      Last Edited: 16 November 2016

From Latrine to Otohime: A blog worth reading on the toilet!

By Hana Mason

This Saturday November 19th is World Toilet Day. A day dedicated to education and waste management, initiated by the World Toilet Organization, World Toilet Day seeks a world in which everyone has access to clean, safe waste management and disposal systems [1].

Sometimes the forgotten sibling of water treatment, wastewater disposal and management has been an issue for humankind throughout history. So let’s take a trip back in time to see where we’ve come from and where we’re going with this critical piece of water management infrastructure!

In Ancient Egypt, in-home latrines filled with sand (much like a human litter-box) provided a private area for Egyptians to do their business. The Indus Valley civilization of c.2600-1900BC had an advanced network of sewers. The Romans used sewer systems to collect rainwater and sewage, and even had a sewer goddess, Cloacina [2].


The Roman sewer goddess Cloacina (no image copyright information available)

During the middle ages in Europe, hole-in-the-ground latrines made way for monasteries with complicated stone and wood lavatories over rivers and oceans, letting waste fall straight into the water. Furthermore, during the castle-building boom, chamber pots and latrines turned to garderobes – vertical shafts in castles which emptied into cesspools and moats. Garderobes were some of the first waste-disposal methods integrated into architecture in Europe.

Throughout this time, though particularly in the Middle Ages, poor waste disposal methods led to widespread illness such as the plague, typhus and cholera. Problems similar to this, mostly regarding waste contaminating drinking water, still affect a third of the world’s population [3].


Stepped garderobe shafts at Langley Castle, by Viollet-le-Duc

The move towards modern-day toilets began in the 1500s. Sir John Harrington invented the flushing lavatory and cistern in 1596. Up until then, the use of chamber pots, cesspits and earth closets were popular. In fact, they continued to be popular until 1775, when Alexander Cumming received a patent for the flush toilet, and 1778, when Joseph Brahman created a better design.

“Thomas Crapper” is often cited as the inventor of the flush toilet, but that has be proven a myth.

It’s easy to say, of course, that we are much better off in the way of toilets today, but we are missing out on one thing – many chamber pots and porcelain toilet bowls in the early days were lavishly decorated. The fuzzy toilet-seat covers of the 1970s and beyond don’t really measure up to the artful works of the 1500-1700s [3].

That’s not to say toilets and waste management haven’t inspired art. Artist Wim Delvoye has created a series of pieces titled Cloaca. The complicated and artfully designed machines have one unique, seemingly useless purpose – create excrement. Replicating the human digestive system, the machines take in food and pump out waste. 100% real waste, created artificially. The meaning and reason behind these creations are not always clear, but could certainly be a talking point for your Toilet Day conversations! [4]

Modern toilets range from your every-day bowls, to dual-flush, energy efficient toilets, and advanced Japanese “smart toilets”.

In Japan and other areas in Asia, squat toilets—essentially horizontal urinals—have been popular for most of history. Historically the same as European latrines but lacking seats, modern-day squat toilets have similar internal plumbing set-ups to western flush toilets. However, western-style toilets have gained some popularity, particularly in areas with heavy western influence.

High-tech “smart toilets”, which are called Washlets by Japanese locals, include such features as heated seats, bidet functions, and blow dryers. Tourists may be intimidated, but locals love them so much, they even include them in their homes.


Smart toilet with seat-side and wall-mounted control panels (

One considerable innovation in Japanese toilet-tech is the Otohime, which plays flushing noises while the toilets are in use. This seemingly bizarre item became necessary when the popular habit of continually flushing to gain privacy began to waste too much water. In Japan, use of the Otohime and similar music-playing toilet devices has helped save an estimated 20L of water each use [5].

In modern-day Europe, you’ll find coin-operated toilet booths in the street and public toilets requiring a fee to use.

Here in Alberta, self-cleaning public toilets rooms pepper our downtown landscapes, for instance you can find some along the river in downtown Calgary, near the Simmons building. 


A pay-per-use public toilet in London, England
(“2010-10-15-09-33-35” by “zmtomako” is licensed under CC by 2.0)

Some more modern innovations in waste management are on their way to helping create healthy, clean and safe waste disposal globally. Mobile Toilets are cheap, portable toilets, often biodegradable bags which can be sealed. Composting Toilets and outhouses create fertilizer from human waste, providing a key ingredient for agriculture. Used not just in the developing world composting toilets are feasible options for everyone. Bio-energy Toilets turn sewage into clean water, electrical power and fertilizer. Solar Toilets are solar powered and break down waste for re-use as energy [6].

To encourage water conservation Alberta has used toilet rebate programs. Up until August 2016, the City of Calgary offered a rebate program for switching to dual-flush toilets, and municipalities such as Airdrie and Athabasca continue to do so. It’s worth checking out if your local municipality offers rebates on dual-flush toilets [7].

Toilet designs past, present and future aside; World Toilet Day helps us appreciate the role of sanitation and wastewater management around the world. Not a bad thing considering, on average, we spend three years of our life on a toilet…

Hana was a summer student with the Alberta WaterPortal Society in 2016. In her spare time she enjoys reading, writing, and spending time with friends. She is currently in Victoria, B.C, studying Writing at the University of Victoria.


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