The Crapper: Crap About the Innovator of Toilets

The loo, W.C., privy, latrine, potty, and Crapper; all are a variety of euphemisms and monikers that are used in place of saying the toilet or bathroom. Most notable is the Crapper; whose origins are debatable and the subject of this blog post. Many propose that the term “crapper” originated from the branding on toilets in the nineteenth century. It was during this period of time that toilets, typically in Britain, were branded and read “Thomas Crapper & Co.,” hence the moniker of the invention “crapper.” Others, however, debate that this was not the case, and that crapper is rooted in etymology and goes back many more centuries; krappen is a Dutch word that means “to cut off,” and crappe is an Old French word that means “waste.” Either it is a strange coincidence or even perhaps the true origins, the term “Crapper” is still widely known to refer to a toilet.

Interestingly enough, Thomas Crapper who lent his namesake to his company, Thomas Crapper & Co., was the founder of the famed company who emblazoned their titles on toilets in the nineteenth century and into the late twentieth century. Crapper’s company produced toilets until 1966 when it closed. Thomas Crapper himself was a plumber, or sanitary engineer, and held nine different patents relating to plumbing. Most of his patents were improvements to toilets, or water closets (WCs). One of Maymont Group’s patents is a one that he filed in Britain for such an improvement to the pipes that dealt with such equipment.

Thomas Crapper came from South Yorkshire, England and was born in 1853. He established his widely marketed toilet company in 1870s and 1880s when he established a high-quality showroom to showcase his plumbing services; because he was known for his esteemed services, Prince Edward proposed a Royal Warrant to Crapper to supply his country seat of Sandringham House with thirty toilets and enclosures. Crapper continued to work with royalty and much of his work was done in Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, and Windsor Castle. Sadly, it is an urban legend, and it is untrue that he was knighted as Sir John Crapper, and he never received such as title.

Crapper, like most inventors, can be noted for his ingenuity and concern for sanitary disposal and attention and desire to improve plumbing during the time in which he lived. He made many improvements to toilet fittings and pipes, including a U-Bend trap, that was designed to prevent pipes from frequently clogging and overflowing. The U-Bend trap was an improvement to Alexander Cumming’s 1775 innovation, that kept gases from waste from travelling through the pipes and allowed bathrooms to smell cleaner and less malodourous. He is also the known inventor of the “ballcock,” that keeps toilets from overflowing. One of his greatest improvements was a flushing mechanism that allowed for waste from toilets to be flushed away through the pipes, and made bathrooms and issues of bodily waste, more easily managed and hygienic.

Thomas Crapper Patent from 1888

While Thomas Crapper is often mistakenly thought of as the inventor of the toilet, he never actually did such a feat. Although this is a common mistake, he did come up with some very revolutionary and modernizing inventions for the toilet, and thus, his innovations such not be overlooked. Crapper was an accomplished plumber from 1861 to 1904, and without his innovations, toilets might have never flushed (although he did not invent that either, but he did improved and made it automatic), and his attention for waste disposal and services are still worth noting (and something most people should be grateful for!). He helped popularize the technology, and for that alone he should be honored and appreciated! Crapper made toilets that were known to use water efficiently, be reliable, and looked stylish, and this technology took off in England.

Prior to the implementation of the toilet, people commonly used chamber pots (eww!). Many of which were called so because they were kept in the night stands of one’s bedroom (or “chamber”). Supposedly people kept herbs and flowers nearby to disguise the smell. If you have never seen one of these devices, think of a “training potty,” for children learning to use the bathroom (not quite the ideal situation for adults). It is believed that men stood towards the right of ladies because people emptied their chamber pots from windows, and it was perceived that it was better for men to face these outcomes than ladies. Reportedly, flush toilets were invented in 1596 (a couple hundred years before Crapper) by Sir John Harington who came up with the device for his godmother, Queen Elizabeth I. Even though it might have been England’s first flushable toilet, it was quite inefficient and required 7.5 gallons of water (toilets today use less than 1.6 gallons of water), so it was not a toilet for the masses and probably used only by the Queen herself. This first was installed at the Queen’s palace in Richmond, and it was not until 200 years later when Alexander Cummings designed a more accessible model to be used by the regular person.  Although Crapper did not invent this cherished invention, his innovations did help perpetuate their use, that in turn made for a much cleaner and germ-free world. Fortunately, in the nineteenth century, the spread and advancement of modern-day plumbing made such devices obsolete and unnecessary.

Crapper was not only known for the toilet, but his company was also known to label manhole covers. In fact, one of the many sites and landmarks at Westminster Abbey in London, England, are manhole covers that attract many tourists and photographers. Supposedly, Crapper not only improved and invented flush toilets, but he also helped invent manhole covers, and many of the modern conveniences related to plumbing can be attributed to his creativity and resourcefulness as a plumber and inventor.

After the popularization of toilets and plumbing, many other innovations and inventions regarding those types of “business affairs,” followed suit. Toilet paper was invented in 1857 by Joseph Gayetty (don’t ask me what people did prior). By the 1900s, going to the bathroom is gladly much like we know how it is today. The flushing toilet and running water should be some of the most appreciated and celebrated inventions that we know and use today.

O.H. Hick Toilet Paper Patent from 1889

Further Reading

Emily Petsko, “5 Facts About Thomas Crapper,” January 25, 2019, Mental Floss, access June 6, 2019, http://mentalfloss.com/article/570387/thomas-crapper-facts.

Kat Eschner, Three True Things About Sanitary Engineer Thomas Crapper,” September 28, 2017, Smithsonian Institute, Smart News, accessed June 6, 2019, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/three-true-things-about-sanitary-engineer-thomas-crapper-180965008/.

Amber Kanuckel, “Lavoratory Legend: The Real Story of Thomas Crapper,” April 30, 2018, Home and Garden, accessed June 6, 2019, https://www.farmersalmanac.com/thomas-crapper-story-31372.

Nate Barksdale, “Who Invented the Flush Toilet?” August 22, 2018, History Channel, accessed June 6, 2019, https://www.history.com/news/who-invented-the-flush-toilet.

Claire Suddath, “A Brief History of Toilets,” November 19, 2009, Time Magazine, accessed June 6, 2019, http://content.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1940525,00.html.