Gardez L’eau! Or, The Toilet

Gardez L’eau! Or, The Toilet

To Americans this is the plumbing fixture itself. To the British it is both the actual flushing device and the room it sits in. In a moment I will give more details regarding the history of flushing toilets.

Etymology-wise, it comes from the French toile> the cloth that was draped over a lady or gentleman’s shoulders while their hair was being dressed. By extension this term eventually applied to the cloth or doily that covered all the dressing table elements, the whole ensemble called the toilette.

Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries the word usage continued to evolve, always relating to beautifying items and processes, but it was in 1819 that the first reference to ‘toilet’ as a separate room was noted. Even then it did not include washing or waste disposal, but rather what we would call the dressing room. Much later it would come to be used for a bathroom as such, but was probably initially as a coy euphemism along the lines of ‘powder room’ or ‘restroom.’ The use of ‘toilet’ for the porcelain bowl itself is still today not readily accepted in all cultures, many preferring commode or some other nicer sounding word. Generally English written commentaries will boldly talk about ‘toilet history’ while discussing the flushing appliance and human waste disposal; however, no one prior to some hundred years ago would ever have done so.


Privy: An old fashioned term for the outhouse or toilet. Originating in Scotland and the north of England around 1225, the term was an alternative for ‘private.’


Water closet: Strictly speaking this phrase only refers to a flushing toilet in its various incarnations over the centuries, and then in a broader sense to the room where the toilet would reside. As mechanisms for flushing human waste were invented, the people involved would have called it a ‘water closet’ and not a ‘toilet.’


Chamber pot: A bowl shaped container of varying materials (usually porcelain), with a handle that was kept in the bedroom under the bed or in a cabinet or in the dressing room.  The one to the right is dated 1860. Most often, until Victorian times, the chamber pot was nearby, in the bedroom or dressing area. Although eventually replaced in most parts of the world with indoor water closets, chamber pots are still utilized in extremely rural environments. It is from this basic gadget that we get the humorous term ‘potty.’

Commode: From the French and Latin word commode meaning ‘convenient or suitable.’ Until roughly 1850 it referred to a cabinet specifically serving as a washstand with drawers to store soap and towels, only then being built with an enclosed area to store a chamber pot. You can see the idea of combining the place to relieve oneself with the notion of washing afterwards, all conveniently located in one spot, took another step here.

Pan closet: A 1750 invention where a chamber pot with a hole was situated over a sealed pan to trap the odors. Nice idea, but apparently not all that effective as it was difficult to clean the sealed pan!

Cesspit: A chamber of various types in which sewage was collected. In the country these pits were often part of the moat or located under the privy or in a location fairly close to the house. In London they were in the cellars! The cesspits were part of the city’s archaic sewer system, which had existed for centuries. But before you get the idea in your head that these sewers were very functional, think again!

Here is a short essay on the Sewers of London if you want to know the brutal, smelly truth. Aside from the fact that the drainage was into the streets or directly into the rivers, the pipes were frequently clogged with dead animals and other unmentionable products. Yuck! I will allow your individual imaginations to envision the result of so much standing sewage. Even worse, many houses did not have collection pits so the waste was tossed out the window onto the street.

Loo: This chiefly British word for the toilet/bathroom has an etymology that is debatable. The most common belief, and the one that is the most fun, is that it is a corruption of the French phrase gardez L’eau. Translated: “Watch out for the water” – this would be yelled to warn any passersby that a chamber pot was about to be dumped into the street!

Garderobe: These were small rooms in medieval castles that jutted out from the stone walls with holes in the bottom so waste would fall into the moat or cesspit below. Wooden planks would serve as the sitting surface and sometimes there would be chutes for the waste, but typically it would fall freely. Basically a latrine/toilet/privy….or whatever name you like! Word etymology is of French origin with garder> to watch or guard, and robe> for clothing because these tiny chambers also served as the storage place for their finest clothing. Why would this be, you ask? Believe it or not it was because the stench would keep moths away, thus preserving the garments!

Gong farmer: Also called a gongfermor, this was the Oh-so-lucky guy who emptied the cesspits. The waste, known as ‘night soil’ was collected and taken to places outside the city boundaries. Sometimes it was sold for fertilizer and people could actually make money off their own waste! No doubt this must have been one of the worst jobs ever. Apparently they earned a decent wage, but were only allowed to work at night, had to live sequestered with other gong farmers, and frequently died from the noxious fumes or by falling into the pit. Yeah, too much information! As for the name, all I could find was one reference to ‘gong’ being a term similar to ‘dung.’

Saltpeter man: These men extracted the nitrates from the collected excrement so it could be used to make gunpowder. Frankly, that is enough information for me!


OK, terminology is out of the way! As with many facts I have discovered while studying history, it seems that our ancient ancestors were quite intelligent and forward thinking. Then the centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire with the subsequent plagues that nearly wiped out all of humanity led to an ignorance and stupidity that has only recently been overcome. Sadly it was a time of filth and squalor all the way around. So it is with bathroom habits. Archeological evidence shows that the concept of a flush toilet goes as far back as King Minos on the Island of Crete around 1700 BC and in India around 2000 BC! The Romans and Persians also have extensive evidence of sophisticated systems for washing away human waste. Plumbing in all its applications was something these cultures did very well. In all of these civilizations, however, the bathrooms were public and connected to water drainage structures that were enclosed and separate from other water sources. As I said, very sophisticated and hygienic, but not to the point of commonly appearing in individual houses.

Roman toilets at Ostia

Although various inventions would crop up now and again, it seems that the intervening centuries were primarily ones of the chamber pot or just squatting behind a bush. The medieval garderobe (1000 – 1480s) was a huge step forward, believe it or not, in that no potty emptying was required! Outhouses with deep holes were typical. The age of the Tudors and Stuarts (1485 – 1700) began to see some advancement, especially with creating toilet pots that were comfortable and pretty! Sewer systems, as I noted above, were created and if they emptied into the Thames, so what? Right? At least the act of elimination was a bit more pleasant if the waste was immediately washed away. In time, of course, this would prove to be a tragic problem. London was still a small city, comparatively, but that would change with the Industrial Revolution of the late 1700s onward. The influx of people led to rising disease, stench, and death. But you can read about that on your own.

The first real water closet is attributed to Sir John Harrington in 1596. He was an inventor and also the godson of Queen Elizabeth I. No one knows precisely how his device worked, but it is recorded that his godmother loved it and insisted on having one installed in her palace. She would use it until the day she died, as did Sir John, but the trend never caught on. The story goes that he was ridiculed for his absurd invention, although probably not in front of the Queen, and never built any others. His water closet was later destroyed and it would be nearly 200 years before anyone else tackled the idea.


While creative folks produced elaborate chamber pots with cushioned seats and lovely cabinets to hide them in, other clever men began again considering the concept of a flushing device. The simple fact is, the flushing toilet is literally one of the greatest inventions of all time. Think about it: Without a truly functioning toilet and sewer system, highly populated cities could not exist. London during the Industrial Revolution was the largest city in the world, no debate. It would take nearly a hundred years to catch up, waste management wise, but the rapid increase in human bodies that must relieve themselves led to the serious contemplation of how to fix the problem. Therefore, a ton of men over those decades came up with all kinds of ideas, some that worked and some that did not, and no one person can be given total credit. One thing that is certain is that England was the center of the toilet industry!

I want to give an honorable mention to the earth closet. While some were looking at water as the logical way to deal with waste, others were looking at soil. It would be a battle, of sorts, and we know who eventually won. But for some years the war raged. The earth closet was essentially a kitty-litter type device using absorbent clay or plain old-fashioned dirt to cover the excrement. Various devices were patented.  Outside earth closets were similar to cesspit type outhouses except that buckets of dirt were kept handy to throw onto the waste. Indoor fancier models, like the ones shown here, included dirt reservoirs that dumped into the pot/bucket once used. Queen Victoria preferred the earth closet and installed one at Windsor Castle.

As for the water closet, well, the information is too extensive to do justice to here. Instead I will post the numerous links I found at the end of this essay. Since I primarily am trying to answer the question as to what the Darcys may have used, I will keep to that. In 1738 JF Brondel introduced the valve type flush toilet, but it was Alexander Cummings who improved upon the device and received the first patent in 1775 for the ‘strap’ – basically a chamber pot with a sliding valve between the bowl and the water trap. Others soon followed Cummings lead in rapid succession. The plunger closet was patented in 1777 by Samuel Prosser, and one year later Joseph Bramah patented his version with a more secure hinge valve and in 20 years had installed 6000 of them. I am not a plumber, so am unclear what all this means, but I sure am glad these guys were on the job! These early toilets were self contained and still needed to be manually emptied and cleaned, but did solve some of the issues regarding odor while paving the way for toilets that would be linked to sewer or septic systems. That would be an ongoing problem that would not be truly resolved and a standard in most parts of the world until well into the 20th century. With those improvements came the concept of elaborate bathrooms as we have today.


So you can see that the Regency fell smack in the middle of these exciting years of water closet invention! Admittedly, the vast majority of average folks, and even the wealthy, used their porcelain chamber pots. The poor would have no option but to stick with an outhouse or inside pot. The rich could afford something cushy, decorated, and probably hidden away in some capacity. But, it is also quite obvious that the water closet was now an accepted mechanism, not open to the laughter and ridicule of Sir John’s gadget. Personally, before doing all this research, I imagined Lizzy and Darcy having an individual commode type cupboard or closet in their dressing room where their nice porcelain chamber pot was kept. Generally speaking this is probably still possible and not at all unlikely, even though it could just as easily be right in their bedroom. But, considering the Darcy I have written who is enamored with modern inventions, I can actually now see Pemberley sporting a real water closet with a flushing device of some kind! Probably not attached to piping and a septic tank, but maybe one of those Bramah versions. What do you think?


Thomas Crapper – This guy gets a lot of credit in the toilet world, but not for what he really did. As cool as it is to think a man with his unfortunate surname invented the flush toilet, he had absolutely nothing to do with it. Rather his claim to fame is as the founder, in 1861, of the Thomas Crapper and Co. Ltd. in London, a plumbing supply business. He was a shrewd businessman and a master plumber who heavily promoted sanitary plumbing and pioneered the concept of the bathroom fittings showroom. He received several Royal Warrants from both King Edward VII and George V. There is not a shred of evidence that the slang terms ‘crap’ or ‘crapper’ are related to him.


Toilet paper – Much to my shock, I discovered that paper for the use of wiping one’s backside was available in China in the 6th century AD! In 589 AD the scholar-official Yan Zhitui (531–591) wrote about the use of toilet paper:

“Paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from Five Classics or the names of sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes.”

In 851 a Muslim traveler wrote:

“They (the Chinese) are not careful about cleanliness, and they do not wash themselves with water when they have done their necessities; but they only wipe themselves with paper.”

By the 14th century massive quantities of sheeted paper was being produced in China. Still, in other parts of the world cleaning up after doing one’s business was accomplished with whatever was handy. Paper, maybe, but also cloth, moss, wool, hemp, wood shavings, shells, sticks, leaves, grass, hay, feathers, catalog pages, snow, or even a hand! Eew!! Water, of course, when available was the preferred cleaning substance. The Roman public bathrooms kept a sponge adhered to a stick soaking in a bucket of saltwater that would be reused by everyone. Blech! In 1857 Joseph Gayetty sold the first factory-made paper in the US; loose, flat sheets with instilled medicated aloe! Nice. But the first patent for rolled, perforated paper (branded ‘The Standard’) goes to Seth Wheeler of Albany, NY. Between 1871-1883 he obtained a number of patents including ones for the dispenser tubes and brackets, and his company is the first of its kind. The rest, as they say, is history!


Wikipedia: Toilet – start here and follow the links for tons of info

Toilet History

History of the Toilet



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Sheila L. Majczan

My grandfather in Mississippi kept a pee can under the bed so we didn’t have to walk out in the cold to use the outhouse. When we moved into our present home the “powder room” had a sign on it, Water Closet. I left I on.


Fabulous research and information/ Thanks.


Another reason for not wanting to live in regency times. A burst water pipe near me a few months ago meant I had no water all day and that was enough of an ordeal for me. It was such a relief when it came back on. I love some of the decorated chamber pots in your pictures and the actual painted toilet at the top is far too lovely to use.
Some of the commodes look way too complicated so thank goodness I’m not relying on one of those.

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