The name Thomas Crapper rings a bell with many people. If asked who he was, after the inevitable giggle, most would answer that he’s the guy who invented the toilet.
Not true. It’s hard to say who really invented the toilet. The Romans and other ancient civilizations constructed toilets that flushed via natural gravity. As for mechanical flushing toilets, the earliest known version dates back to 1596 by an Englishman named Sir John Harington. Many updated versions were patented over the ensuing centuries by European and American inventors. However, indoor plumbing never really caught on until sewer connections, venting and other plumbing infrastructure became widespread in the late 1800s.
So how did the Thomas Crapper legend get started? It’s an interesting tale.
Thomas Crapper was a real person, an Englishman and indeed a plumber, inventor and plumbing merchant. Living from 1836-1910, he devised and patented numerous plumbing devices, including a “Disconnecting Trap” that helped prevent backflow from sewers and a spring-loaded toilet seat. In 1861 he formed Thos. Crapper & Co., which became a prominent manufacturer and merchandiser of toilets and other bathroom products. By the 1880s Thomas Crapper and his company had become so prominent that their products were installed in the castles of British royalty.
Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Crapper & Co. supplied toilets to numerous public and private facilities. It is thought that during World War I, when American doughboys arrived in England, they kept seeing the Crapper & Co. insignia on toilets and began referring to them as “crappers.” When they returned home the term and its derivatives caught on as a vaguely vulgar description of human waste and its elimination.
The company still exists as a seller of vintage Victorian era bathroom items. You can find them at www.thomas-crapper.com. There you can read a detailed history of Thomas Crapper and his business.
One of the more interesting tidbits reported in that online history is that he is credited with establishing the first bathroom showroom, in which faucets, toilets, etc., were displayed in picture windows. This was controversial in the prudish Victorian Era, a time when private bathroom matters were not suitable for public discussion or display. According to the Crapper website, “It is said that genteel ladies would faint away at the sight of the gleaming china W.C. (water closet) bowls!”