A Tale of Ten Toilets Around the World (And How to Use Them)
Updated: 4 days ago
From ancient Rome to Futuristic Japan, this list takes you on a historical and cheeky journey through the toilets of our time and offers helpful tips on how to properly use them.
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Ye Old Roman Toilet
In the ancient Roman city of Ephesus in Turkey, long rows of familiar looking holes throne from the ground, cast in marble and stone glory, as a visual reminder that even in ancient times, people needed somewhere to poop. Very similar to our modern day toilet, these toilets were housed in communal style rooms, albeit without the privacy of individual stalls. They did, however get to luxuriate with one another accompanied by mosaic tiles and even a small pool – at a cost, of course. You typically had to pay to enter these toilets. But before getting too jealous, understand that there was no toilet paper. Instead, Romans shared a sea sponge on a stick (a tersorium, if you’re interested)– used for wiping all your bits, sometimes with the added need of vinegar or salt water to help things tidy up. And if you didn’t have the ancient coin to afford such luxuries as the tersorium, you got to use small stones to wipe up with.
On the other hand, many historians believe these communal bathrooms to be filth pits. With no janitorial staff to clean up – the places stunk of excrements and methane – people feared fires would blaze and women would be mugged or raped under the stench filled, low hanging roofs that covered these sordid places.
Spiders and rats would lurk in waiting under the marbled holes where aqueducts helped in ‘flushing’ and carrying the waste into the city sewers. So which was it? Was it a house of horrors full of bludgeoned buttholes from all the sponging and stoning?! Or were the Romans truly ahead of their time?
Not impressed by the Roman’s plumbing and flushing system? That’s fine, because naval men dating back as far at 1485 discovered their own brilliant way of flushing: stick the toilet in the bow of the ship and let the waves wash it all away for you. Not too bad, Popeye.
The Chamber Pot
The Chamber Pot has been around for thousands of years and can still be seen today, at least in antique stores. Dating back to nearly 1300 BC, the Egyptians used a vessel for urinating that is believed to resemble the chamber pot. Despite their plumbing advancements, even the Romans used these simple toilets. Some chamber pots were built in to chair, resembling toilets we know today, and others had a lid to very literally “keep a lid” on the odors. Most chamber pots were kept under or near the bed, for quick mid-evening relief. Lucky households had a pot for each bedroom, but it would be a shared pot regardless of how many people slept in that room.
When it was time to discard the waste, outhouses served as the most hygienic waste receptacle – brought out by the servants of the house or the residents – but typically anything goes. Pee would be dumped in the garden, the pond out front, or out the window. The Romans really take the cake though, they would save up that bucket o’pee for the weekly laundromat visit. Lo and behold, the ammonia agents in urine helped to eliminate stains in their clothing. I guess they weren’t ready for Tide Stick yet.
Dating back to around 1500, the Outhouse is best known for it’s backwater locales (Deliverance anyone?) and the cute little moon cut in to the door. Interestingly enough, the moon had a counterpart as well – the sun, both symbolizing whether it was a female or male toilet, respectively. The Roman goddess Luna and the Greek god Apollo were the inspirations for this largely American tradition.
Inside the small outhouse hut, at the base of its hole in the floor architecture, lived the grand ole chamber pot, or other similar tin bucket. The perk of the outhouse was that it offered residents a private place to pop a squat, at least 200 feet from the rest of the house so no one else had to hear or smell your business. Like the chamber pot, these buckets would also be disposed of regularly.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt famously initiated a nationwide movement to modernize and clean up outhouses in America, soon revering the simple hut as “The Eleanor”. Good job, Lady Roosevelt, you’ve got a crapper named after you. (Not to be confused with English plumber Thomas Crapper, who did NOT invent the toilet but really had a thing for ballcocks - the tank valve, of course.)
The Hole in the Ground
Found from Nepal to China and everywhere in between, this humble commode offers typically a few items of which can cause great confusion:
You can expect that these toilets often come encased in tiles, wet muddy ones at that, with no flushing mechanism and a ‘drain’ that looks to be about as deep as you can dig until you hit water. Fear not, westerners may still use their pocket tissues to wipe – no one will be the wiser – because the next guy will literally flush it down the hole with his own pee, or cover it in mountains of brown.
So the real question is – how do I use this primeval device properly without insulting the local culture? First of all – master the ‘squat’. Remember the game limbo? Just think, “how low can you go?” The lower the better. The squatty potty and other “As Seen on TV” hacks have it figured out. Next, make sure your clothes are out of the way and face the door (if there is one). Finally, after completing your work, observe – is there a ladle or spigot? If so, use it to splash water on your nether bits, wiping the rest clean with your hand. Give a little shake of that booty, because you’re air drying at this point.
Originating in France in the 1600s, the bidet, although not a toilet, did carry the job of cleansing the private areas after a trip to the chamber pot. The bidet, in short, is a wash basin. An individual would simply do their deed and waddle over to the basin for a quick rinse with a hand and water flow, and perhaps towel off. Think of it as a more eco-friendly approach to the Dude Wipe or any other flushable wipe.
Esteemed among aristocrats and higher-breds, the bidet was a symbol of wealth, though never adopted by the puritanical Americans, who would disagree of its affluent affect on society. Back in the developing times of the bidet, people found all sorts of creative ways to prevent pregnancy, and it was rumored that bidet could be used as a form of birth control. After all, all that douching and splashing (I guess very vigorous splashing) had to erase the possibility of childbearing. With this, the bidet also became a symbol of sin and debauchery, while still remaining the object of opulence for others. No one could make up their mind back then.
Wilderness Toilet – Aka The Cathole
Grab that portable shovel (called a trowel). Dora the Explorer keeps one in her backpack, and you should too, if you venture in to a primitive situation. Although plopping your bowel movement anywhere in the woods sounds adventurous, Mother Earth would prefer if you compact your biodegradable bio break in to something called a Cathole.
This natural fertilizer hole is super simple – according to the “Leave No Trace” concept, you’ve got to get digging - 6-8 inches deep and 4-6 inches in diameter. Be mindful of water runoff areas and proximity to a trail or other frequently passed upon location. The concept of “Leave No Trace” is just that – leave only footprints, not toilet paper. So, bag it up in a Ziploc. Also, don’t pee on vegetation – animals are attracted to the salt in your urine and may go grubbing away at the once unmarked plant.
The RV Toilet
The RV toilet is typically a basic plastic bowl with a seat and lid, and the flusher is operated by foot. RV’s and boats can only accommodate certain types of quick dissolving toilet paper, so don’t dump anything else down the drain. As an RV or boat owner, you must often check the levels of the ‘black tank’ as it is called – doesn’t take much to wonder why – and ensure that it is not overly full. If you have a full tank, you’re looking at waste backup – that’s right, back up the toilet and in to your camper.
The Future: Japanese Toilets
Tokyo houses some of the most insane toilets known to mankind. If you thought your first smart phone was confusing, imagine a toilet with emoji buttons. If you hit the wrong happy face, you might get a shot of bidet water up your wazoo unexpectedly.
The public bathrooms offer intelligent markings above the doors indicating how many available spots are free in that ‘lane’ – just like in the newer parking garages. “Look, there’s 3 stalls open to the left!”. As you scurry in, the fear is insurmountable. What. The. Eff. Which button opens the lid? Which musical melody should accompany my sit-down? Do I want my seat warmed up for me? These futuristic Japanese toilets also offer an air dry button for those who don’t prefer toilet paper and a deodorizer button. This one hits you with a fresh scent of evergreen, or mountain wildflowers. A perfect ending to what should have been a quick pee stop on the roadside journey to Mt. Fuji.
Space Station Toilets
“Get me a napkin quick. There’s a turd floating through the air”
yelped Tom Stafford on his Apollo 10 mission. Mishaps, floods, diapers and urine bags were the norm for early astronauts. It wasn’t pretty, and there were often close encounters of the turd kind on these missions. Luckily today, NASA has excelled in toilet advancement, developing a “dual-ops” gender accepting coffee pot of a potty. The tiny camper-toilet inspired design accommodates both male and female maneuvering when it comes to where the holes are supposed to line up. Being “dual-ops” further accommodates for situations when you’ve got to uno and due at the same time. The device, which resembles an appliance you’d stick on your kitchen counter, accepts about 30 bags of goodies a day, stacked in to a canister. It is the responsibility of the astronaut to ensure a fresh baggie gets loaded for the next round of business and essentially ziplocked and stored in the canister. It is a suction based system slurping up what you’re expelling like a vacuum. There is a hose for pee and a little seat for pooping. Eventually once the canister of poop baggies is filled, a small number of samples go home for scientific review (that sounds like a fun job) but ultimately most are blasted out in a cargo ship until burned up on re-entry to Earth. The urine is filtered with a highly acidic additive and gets recycled in to their water supply . I guess it really is a little coffee machine, as NASA astronaut Jessica Meir quotes
“We recycle about 90% of all water-based liquids on the space station, including urine and sweat,” so “when it comes to our urine on ISS, today’s coffee is tomorrow’s coffee!”