Bathroom Breaks That Changed History

Bathroom Breaks That Changed History

Shannon Quinn - November 19, 2022

Bathroom Breaks That Changed History
King William III and his velvet-lined toilet stool. Credit: Atlas Obscura

The Groom of the Stool’s Job Was to Talk to the King on the Toilet

A lot of people like to occupy themselves when they’re on the toilet by either reading a magazine or scrolling through their phone. Throughout history, there wasn’t much for people to do while they pooped. From the 1500’s to the 1700’s, British Kings appointed servants called the “Groom of the Stool” to talk with them while they sat on the toilet. Believe it or not, this was a highly coveted position in the royal court. They were able to talk to the King on a daily basis, and give advice when it came to important matters in the kingdom. Of course, it was also part of the job to make sure the King’s velvet-lined toilet stool was clean and ready for him to use. They also had to help the King bathe, get dressed, and even worked on some secretarial duties throughout the day.

Bathroom Breaks That Changed History
Portrait of Bridget Holmes by John Riley. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

One Chambermaid Became Famous For Cleaning The Toilets of Five Consecutive Royal Reigns

A woman named Bridget Holmes worked as a domestic servant for the English royal family throughout the 17th Century. One of her main jobs was to clean out the chamber pots of the royals. She worked for Charles I, Charles II, James II, and William III and Mary II. Jobs like this are normally thankless, but Bridget Holmes was honored by having her portrait painted by an artist named John Riley in 1686. This was a huge honor, since portraits were usually only made for incredibly rich people and members of royalty. Bridget died when she was 100 years old, and she was honored by being allowed to be buried in Westminster Abbey.

Bathroom Breaks That Changed History
Sir John Harington and his sketch of the first flushing toilet. Credit:Wikimedia Commons

The Invention of the First Flushing Toilet

One of the most important things about modern toilets is that they flush. After all, we need to keep them clean. ​​The first mention of a flushing toilet came from Sir John Harington in 1596. He was the godson of Queen Elizabeth I of England. Harington’s device included a 2-foot-deep oval bowl. It was waterproofed, and fed by water from an upstairs cistern. This design required 7.5 gallons of water to flush. Since this was before indoor plumbing, Harington suggested that up to 20 people could use the toilet before it was time to flush. He even installed a working version of the flushing toilet for Queen Elizabeth at Richmond Palace.

Bathroom Breaks That Changed History
Circa 1955: A baby sits on a toilet and pulls toilet paper from a roll. Credit: Mac Gramlich

Toilet Paper Was Invented in Ancient China, And It Took An Incredibly Long Time For The Rest of the World to Catch Up

Toilet paper is something that people rely on every single day. But it wasn’t always around. In fact, for the longest time, the western world had to come up with other creative solutions to cleaning themselves. They used sea shells, sponges attached to sticks, leaves, and newspapers to clean themselves. The first written account of toilet paper came from ancient China in 589 A.D from a scholar named Yen Chih-Thui. He wrote, “Paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from the Five Classics or the names of sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes.” In the 14th century, the Chinese manufactured 10 million packages of 1,000 to 10,000 sheets annually. In 1393, thousands of perfumed paper sheets were also produced for the Hongwu Emperor’s imperial family. Mass produced toilet paper as we know it today didn’t come around until the 1800’s.

Bathroom Breaks That Changed History
A women’s public restroom from the 1950’s. Credit: The Week

The History of Workplace Bathrooms

When factories first started cropping up in England in the 1800’s, factories didn’t have actual bathrooms for their employees. They would provide an area outside where people could relieve themselves. To be fair, this wasn’t much different than what people had available to them at home. For the longest time, there were only male bathrooms. In 1919, the UK law changed to end discrimination against hiring women. However, many of these factories used the excuse that they didn’t have space for a female bathroom, and therefore couldn’t hire women. It wasn’t until 1974 that the law changed, demanding that there need to be both male and female toilets.

Bathroom Breaks That Changed History
An illustration depicting a woman tossing her waste out of the window. Credit: Ancient Origins

People in the Middle Ages Tossed Their Waste Out in the Streets

There is a popular idea that in the middle ages, people tossed their waste out of the window. While we can’t prove that this happened often, what we can look at are some of the written laws that were passed during this time. For example, in the early 14th century, tossing anything out your window into the streets of London meant that you would have to pay a 40p fine. With modern inflation, that’s closer to $142. Around that same time, there was a case of a woman named Alice Wade who connected a pipe from her privy to the outside gutter. This would get stopped up with filth, and smell so horrible that her neighbors complained. She was ordered to remove it.

Bathroom Breaks That Changed History
A 5th-century mosaic in the Great Palace of Constantinople depicts two gladiators fighting a tiger. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A Gladiator Once Killed Himself With a Toilet Brush

Being a gladiator was a tough gig. They were prisoners who were forced to fight to the death. Seneca the Younger wrote about this story, “In a training academy for gladiators who work with wild beasts, a German slave, while preparing for the morning exhibition, withdrew in order to relieve himself – the only thing he was allowed to do in secret and without the presence of a guard. While so engaged, he seized the stick of wood tipped with a sponge, devoted to the vilest uses, and stuffed it down his throat. Thus he blocked up his windpipe and choked the breath from his body… What a brave fellow. He surely deserved to be allowed to choose his fate.”

Bathroom Breaks That Changed History
Thomas Crapper has several patents associated with plumbing. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Crapper Helped Design The Modern “Crapper”

At first, the name “Crapper” sounds like a joke about poop. But there truly was an inventor named Thomas Crapper. He is often mistaken as the inventor of the flushing toilet. We already mentioned earlier that the credit actually goes to Sir John Harington in 1596. He held 9 plumbing patents associated with toilets and sewers, including water closets (early flush toilets), manhole covers, pipe joints, and drain improvements. Crapper opened the first bathroom showroom in 1870, where people could test out different toilets they could buy for their homes. He also worked as the royal plumber, visiting various palaces to help fix any problems they may have had with their toilets.


How did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

How a Luckily Timed Bathroom Break Saved LBJ’s Life During WWII. History. 2019.

Designers on acid: the tripping Californians who paved the way to our touchscreen world. Oliver Wainwright. The Guardian. 2017.

Milestones in the history of diabetes mellitus: The main contributors. National Library of Medicine. 2016.

Lavatory and Liberty: The Secret History of the Bathroom Break. Corey Robin. 2012.

The Weird History of Gender-Segregated Bathrooms. Stephanie Pappas. Live Science. 2016.

Phosphorus Starts With Pee In This Tale Of Scientific Serendipity. NPR. 2016.

The Glamorous, Sexist History of the Women’s Restroom Lounge. Elizabeth Yuko. Bloomberg. 2018.

10 Bathroom Breaks That Changed History. Nate Yungman. Listverse. 2022.

Believe it or not, gas station bathrooms used to be squeaky clean. Here’s what changed. Nathaniel Meyersohn. CNN Business. 2022.

A Brief (and Very British) History of Workplace Bathrooms. Linda Rodriguez McRobbie. Topic. 2018

It Was Once Someone’s Job to Chat With the King While He Used the Toilet. Natalie Zarrelli. Atlas Obscura. 2017.