There are a few things every home must have, and a toilet is chief among them. In the last 150 years, indoor plumbing has transformed modern lives, improving hygiene and making the daily business of using the loo, or toilet, much less squeamish of an experience. Today, nearly all toilets are made of bone-white porcelain, not designer colors, and both the color and material are largely for public health reasons.
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With smooth surfaces and a nonporous glaze, the affordable, easily made moldable clay-based toilets used today revolutionized sanitation in cities and in the home.
A Brief History of Toilets
Ancient Romans went to public baths not just for baths but for doing one's business on stone benches, which were some of the earliest public toilets. Later, squat loos, or holes in the floor — often separated from the main living space in a room called a garderobe — became the option favored for society's wealthy, but this caused a stink. Remarkably, the BBC's History Extra explains this smelly vulnerability could be exploited for sieges and castle invasions.
Outhouses, found today in public parks off the beaten path, were standard for a long, long time — often shared by multiple homes in cities.
Few know that the flushable toilet has existed since 1592, but they took 7.5 gallons of water to flush, compared to just 1.6 gallons today, and it was a certifiable cesspool despite the flushing. That's why flushable toilets didn't begin catching on until 1775 when Alexander Cummings invented the S-curve pipe, preventing sewage gases from rising up. According to History.com, it was a century later that Thomas Crapper's invention of the ballcock would revolutionize flushable toilets and is largely why "going to the crapper" has become an idiom today.
But porcelain has been part of the toilet game for a couple of centuries despite many parts being of wood or metal. As time went on, porcelain became the king of the throne.
Why Are Toilets Porcelain?
Porcelain became favored for toilet construction because nothing else offered everything it did: easy to clean, hygienic, affordable to make and comfortable to use. Wood, no matter how well sealed, was porous and expanded from water. Metal, while hygienic, affordable and easy to shape, was always cold and unpleasant to sit on. Modern plastic is conceivable as a toilet material, but it's porous and warps under repeated weight strain that toilets are subject to bearing.
The smooth surface on porcelain, with modern glazing techniques, means it's strong and easy to clean, which is critical in public health. Arguably the single biggest advancement in public healthcare of the last two centuries, other than the discovery of penicillin, was the evolution of the toilet and its omnipresence in homes.
According to Explain That Stuff!, ceramics have been in use for nearly 30,000 years, with glazes in use for over 8,000 years. The porcelain used in toilets today is called vitreous china, which Allora USA explains is the shiny glazing technique used to make toilets, sinks and tubs so durable. That manufacturing process includes the clay being shaped in a mold before being fired in a kiln and then glazed and kiln-baked a second time.
Toilets kiln-fire to a natural off-white appearance, but there were eras in the last century where fashionable colors were popular for décor reasons until the 1970s. Today, it's thought that nearly 95 percent of toilets are white for simple hygiene reasons since it leaves nowhere for filth to hide.