Борис Бурда
Author: Boris Burda
Journalist, writer, bard. Winner of the «Diamond Owl» intellectual game «What? Where? When?»
Liberal Arts
7 minutes for reading

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to stop shocking the sense of smell of others?

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to stop shocking the sense of smell of others?
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Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Roses of Heliogabalus. 1888




A little while ago, in all major cities, sorry for the unappetizing detail, everyone was bothered by terrible smells of you know what.

And the beginning of the solution of this problem was laid by an invention named after the letter of the Latin alphabet.

Which letter?

The answer is a little later.




There is a cat in my apartment. Its name is Sonya, it weighs over eight kilos (not fat at all, just large) and loves to make a fuss, as cats should. But on one important matter, there are practically no troubles with it — it’s simply needed to wash the tray a couple of times a day and change the filler.

And the youngest son decided to get a dog. There will be a little more problems with it — in the morning and in the evening you need to walk it, and since he lives in Austria, also clean up the biological traces of its life, so that on the street it would not be visible that the dog has good digestion.

A friend of mine, who lives with a parrot, is in situation that is even worse. Animal likes to be let out of the cage to fly around the apartment, and it basically has no toilet skill — where it was impatient in flight over the jungle, there it can bomb. And it’s impossible to explain to it that in the apartment it’s not allowed to do so …

But we, human beings, have the same problems — it’s just that we are now more or less, although not quite ideally, solving them, and we won’t step into anything in the dark, and we successfully fight threats to smell, have a special room at home… But it was not always like that!




Primitive people did not care much about this problem — they were not in danger of making part of their house uninhabitable because they didn’t have one. They simply could went off the trodden path into the nearest bushes, did what they wanted and got back on the path — some people do such things even now …

But when a person got a dwelling and began to spend a noticeable part of his life in it, the problem arose — how to manage regular known needs without losing the opportunity to be in the mentioned dwelling? Of course, there are bushes around the house, but quite a lot of people can live there, and it is possible to tun out of the bushes quickly. What to do than?

The first solutions in this regard were found in the Orkney Islands about 5,000 years ago — recesses were made in the walls of stone houses, which were connected to sewers. It seems that these are the first toilets on the planet — back in the Neolithic era!

Approximately 500 years later, in the Indian cities of Harappe and Mohenjo-Daro, stone boxes with wooden seats already appeared, from which, things that the inhabitants of the houses left there flowed into street ditches, which carried it all out of the city. It’s a sewer!

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to stop shocking the sense of smell of others?
Ancient toilet from Mohenjo-Daro

Somewhere at the same time, the Sumerian queen Shubad already had a carved throne with a hole and a pot under it — it is kept in the British Museum, but for some reason they don’t want to exhibit it in the storeroom. And the Chinese monarchs at the beginning of our era already used a stone toilet bowl. And it could be even washed off.




In antiquity, people succeeded in many things — how did the Greeks and Romans solve these problems? The Greeks had already invented the chamber pot, and those of them who were richer built latrines on the second floor of the house, from where everything merged with the help of special vessels into sewers.

Huge Rome certainly could not let this question take its course. During the feasts, the slaves simply brought chamber pots to those who wished, which they used right next to the table, without going anywhere (the Romans were not shy at all). What was there to do outside the home?

In this case, large public toilets were built, which were called foriks or latrines. They could accommodate several dozen people, the floor was laid out with mosaics, a fountain could beat in the middle (of water!), the seats were marble, the flush system was working.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to stop shocking the sense of smell of others?
Ancient roman toilet

In these latrines, the Romans, simulthaniously with the main occupation, communicated, shared news, joked and gossip — the toilet was also a club for them. By the way, the entrance was paid, and for the poorer Romans they put special vessels at street intersections — but for free.

The Romans revered their toilets so much, that in the Roman pantheon there were Sterticius, the god of earth and waste, and Crepitus, the god of toilets, and even the goddess Cloaca Maxima, a huge underground canal for draining toilets leading from the Forum to the Tiber, who was called, of course , Cloakina.




The barbarians who destroyed the Roman Empire could not even properly rob it — the rich culture of comfortable Roman toilets, where for a small fee a slave even warmed up the seat with his own butt, was irretrievably lost, and the wild Goths spoiled everything they could.

Dunskers were made in medieval castles — they say that it was in Denmark that they were invented. From the hole in the wall, everything that was superfluous simply fallen under this very wall — an extra incentive for the enemy not to try to storm it. And in the castle itself there was nothing else — how could they do it near the houses?

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to stop shocking the sense of smell of others?

Walking around a medieval city, even a big and rich one like Paris, was risky — you had to look not only down under your feet, but also up, so that no one would throw a chamber pot out of the window on you. In 1270, it was banned by a special law, but a hundred years later it was only supplemented with the requirement to shout in advance, “Beware of water!” — and then you’re welcome …

In 1346, a certain Thomas Debusson was commissioned to paint bright red crosses in the garden and corridors of the Louvre. Why, it was also explained, “to warn people to urinate and poo there, so that people would consider such things to be sacrilegious in these places”. There were no toilets in the Louvre at all.

Did it help? Later they wrote, “In the Louvre and around it, inside the courtyard and in its environs, in the alleys, behind the doors — almost everywhere – you can see thousands of piles and smell a variety of smells of the same thing — a natural product of those who live here and come here daily.” Do you know when? In 1673! How did d’Artagnan brought the pendants to the queen?


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To endure the troubles associated with these problems was especially difficult for rich and noble people. And they had more material opportunities to deal with these troubles — so they used them, so much so that we can’t even imagine …

French noble ladies, for example, tied special vessels under their skirts that they could use even in a large crowd — let’s say, during a church sermon. They were called bourdalou — by the name of the priest, whose sermons were, well, very long …

However, did they violate at least some decency of those years? The Sun King Louis XIV, if necessary, ordered to bring himself a toilet seat and used it for its intended purpose, continuing the conversation with the courtiers, who admired the honor shown to them.

And Henry VIII of England demanded that a special box was made for him with a hole, under which a bucket was substituted. It was upholstered in velvet, fastened to a box with golden nails (that’s where the tales of gold toilets come from!), which they carried everywhere with him in case it was needed.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to stop shocking the sense of smell of others?
Toilet of Henry VIII

The chamber pots also became works of art — 264 of them remained from the Sun King! Sometimes they were even used for propaganda purposes — for example, in England at the beginning of the 19th century, pots with the image of Napoleon on the bottom became fashionable. Pots with the image of an eye and the inscription: “Keep me clean, use me well, and what I see I will never tell” were also in fashion.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to stop shocking the sense of smell of others?
Pot with Napoleon
NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to stop shocking the sense of smell of others?
Pot with an eye




The next very important step in solving these problems was taken by Sir John Harrington. His father was a courtier of Henry VIII, and his mother, according to some sources, was the illegitimate daughter of this king, so he may have been a step-brother to Queen Elizabeth.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to stop shocking the sense of smell of others?
John Harrington

John was the first of Elizabeth’s 102 godchildren, and, like his father, he was a poet and translator – for example, he made a translation of Ariosto’s poem Furious Roland, which still retains literary value in our time. He was also an inventor…

An almost modern toilet, with a toilet bowl and a flush tank, was invented by Leonardo da Vinci for the French King Francis I. But it remained a project until Harrington actually built it and put it into usage — including personally by Elizabeth.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to stop shocking the sense of smell of others?
Toilet designed by Leonardo da Vinci

He gave his invention the name Ajax — either in honor of the hero of the Trojan War, or, more likely, in resemblance to the English word jakes — a toilet. He even wrote the poem Metamorphoses of Ajax about it, where he said such things that he lost access to the court for a while.

Perhaps this is not because of the poetry, but because Ajax’s success was incomplete — a specific scent rose from the tank for collection the results of its work and Elizabeth clearly did not like it. Therefore, despite the moderate price of 6 shillings 8 pence (affordable even to the middle class), Ajax was not mass-produced. There was one more very important detail…

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to stop shocking the sense of smell of others?
Ajax by John Harrington




And the concern of the problem was increasing not only to the kings, but to the inhabitants of London, one of the greatest cities in the world. A popular legend about Isaac Newton said that his only speech in Parliament were the words, “Close the window — the Thames smells bad.”

One should not be surprised — the new parliament building, rebuilt after the fire of 1834, was extremely badly ventilated, and the poor Thames, into which everything inappropriate was dumped, flowed nearby. It is said that once, when the Thames was completely shallow, Benjamin Disraeli himself ran out of parliament, holding his nose with a perfumed handkerchief, accompanied by his colleagues.

Back in the middle of the 19th century, garbage of London fell into cesspools — there were 250 of them in Windsor Castle (God save the Queen!). They were cleaned quite irregularly, because it costed a lot of money. In 1832, fearing cholera, the city of Leeds forked out and paid to have latrines cleaned. It took 75 carts to haul the contents of just one pit!

Even in 1858, when the Thames suffered from drought and practically only organic fertilizers flowed along it, passers-by sometimes simply fainted on the street, and omnibus passengers demanded that the coachmen drive as hard as they could, because they were suffocating in cramped carriages.




And an important invention that saved us from excessive aromatization of the environment has already been made. As is often the case, it was done by a non-professional. A very versatile person who has successfully declared himself in many ways, but he has never been a plumber.

His name was Alexander Cumming, he was a Scot by origin. His main profession is a watchmaker. He was recorded as a watchmaker’s apprentice in his native Edinburgh. After moving to England, he was engaged not only in watches, but also in the construction of government buildings.

His authority was so great that he was on the commission that considered the work of John Harrison to create a chronometer for the accurate determination of geographic longitude. In addition, he invented a barograph — a device for recording atmospheric pressure automatically.

The flush toilet created by Harrington roused his interest. He immediately realized that its main drawback was the ineradicable unpleasant smell that erupted from the tank. But Cumming not only understood this — he guessed what needed to be done to radically avoid the smell.




An unpleasant smell is carried by gases — how to block their way back? It turned out to be very simple.

It is enough to make a bend in the form of the Latin letter “S” on the pipe connecting the toilet to the tank (some people think that it looks like the letter “U”, so this answer is also correct.

Water lingers in this bend and forms a water lock (water closed — that’s the familiar word), which does not let the gases back.




Cumming’s invention, made at the end of the 18th century, did not immediately become familiar and universally applicable. Joseph Brahma also played a role, inventing a drain tank that saves water — a float popped up and blocked the water when the tank was filled.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to stop shocking the sense of smell of others?
Cumming and his invention

But the most famous was Thomas Crapper, a locksmith from a small village in the north of England. In 1891, he patented a toilet with all the improvements at once — a faience toilet bowl (they also made cast iron), and a drain tank, and a pipe with a U-shaped water plug that cuts off the smells.

Crapper was more fortunate than others — he even introduced a new word into the English language. The British still call toilet bowls crappers, a special verb to crap is used to denote a long sitting in the toilet, and in his native village the toilet bowl even appeared on the stained-glass window of the church.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to stop shocking the sense of smell of others?
Waste tank by Thomas Crapper

However, euphemistic names for the toilet bowl in English are a dime a dozen. It is called litter box, throne, thunder-box, and even honey pot. No worse than our toilet, closet and lavatory …

And in 1909 in Barcelona, the local joint-stock company of the electrification of the country with the beautiful name Unity began the serial production of faience toilet bowls. Hence the name came from: unity in Latin — unitas. So, among other things, it is also beautiful …

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to stop shocking the sense of smell of others?
Advertisement of Unity




A professional has a blurred eye — a look from the outside can much fresher sometimes! The first working flush toilet, similar to the modern one, was built by a poet, the S-shaped shutter was invented by a watchmaker, and it was all put together by a locksmith. And that’s okay!

People learn poorly and lazily. In Mohenjo-Daro, sewers were built 4500 years ago, and in London — only in the 19th century. And this is not the only example…

Standing and listening to a sermon with a porcelain vessel under a skirt, and even using it right along the way, is very difficult, but they managed how to use it! What ladies won’t do so as not to violate decorum …

When reading a novel set in the Middle Ages (say, Ivanhoe), try to imagine what its characters did if, at a decisive moment, nature laid claim to it. Exit for a moment — it does not work out so …

How much more interesting than us were the Romans — they even had small talks in the toilets … And here, at best, imported clothes were sold from under the table. There is much more we can learn from the ancients!


All illustrations are from open sources

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