On a recent camping experience I found myself thinking about toilets. The lack of such a basic facility, not only made me daydream about it, but made me dedicate valuable thinking time to the wonders of toilets - how they have developed and changed over the years and what would they be like in the future.
The vast majority of homes built before the turn of the 20th century didn't have a bathroom. Many didn't even have an indoor toilet. So, over that 120 year period the modern bathroom has evolved from being an innovation for the elite into a (nearly) universal domestic fixture. But what I find interesting is the how the location of the toilet has evolved. What was once all alone down the garden has moved and multiplied. There's been some major advances. Physical ones. Some toilets are right there, in an open plan setting adjacent to the bedroom. It made wonder, could they come any closer? I admit it's not the most salubrious of subjects, but you have to agree, toilets have transformed our homes and the world in which we live.
When I was a child, my mum would recount her childhood. Living on a farm in rural England in the 1940s meant that her conveniences weren't actually that convenient. I remember her shuddering as she recalled running down the back garden in the cold of night to 'go'. A timber plank with a hole. Newspaper for tissue. A string door lock. A candle for light. It sounded like a life-time away for me, being a child of the 1980s, with a pistachio bathroom including a matching bidet.
But it wasn't that long ago and for deepest darkest rural England it was the norm for the toilet to be down the very end of the garden. The further away from the house the better. And for good reason. With no plumbing, toilets were of the compost variety and best away from the house if you wanted to keep your friends. Considering the flushing toilet was first invented in the 16th Century, it's amazing that it took so long for it to really take off.
Toilets necessitate an infrastructure. You can't just have a modern flushing toilet. It needs pipes and a sewage systems to back it up. As a result the bathrooms we use today involve a story that interconnects technology, health, education and culture, all driven by refinement of design, civil engineering and social change.
So how did toilets creep up the garden path? With new modern ceramic toilets, came plumbing. The flush and the U bend was born and no-one looked back. The flush was generated by gravity with cistern tanks hung high on the wall. The U-bend stopped the smells travelling back up the pipes. A double development that transformed their use and their location. Some people still kept toilets to the outdoors, but had them within reach of the back door. In fact is want uncommon for a toilet to be a communal affair, shared by many people within a street.
Others took it a step further and accepted them over the domestic threshold, bringing them inside. But not 'too' inside. Just out the back of the house next to the laundry. Out of sight out of mind. Ceramic pipes meant toilets where destined to life on the ground floor, which they did remain for a while. But like creatures of the night, they moved and grooved around on the ground floor. Slowly creeping further into the house. Mainly into closet spaces off the hall or in the space under the stairs.
The development of plastic pipes changed the toilet scene dramatically. Now they could roam where they pleased. So upstairs and into more private areas they went. Since the 1990s its all been about privacy and convenience. Our dislike of having to wake up and walk to the toilet at night, saw the rise of “the en suite'. As they moved into personal space, they multiplied to catered for those that lived in the house and those that visited. An en suite for the parents, a separate bathroom for the children and a powder room for the guests. What once was a job of one, is now done by three.
The finish standards have changed too. Like the kitchen, the bathroom was becoming a source of pride and has become a luxurious place to relax and recharge. Hotel and spa like, creating a sanctuary in your own home. Modern bathrooms have increased in volume too, often including walk-in showers, a spa, walk-in wardrobes, dressing areas, his and her sinks, a bathtub that can fit two people and a toilet. Thankfully the bidet seems to have disappeared.
More interestingly, toilets have gone from being in their own room, into a room with other wash facilities and now, a step further, into a 'no room' at all. Open plan bathrooms, with nib and blade walls (and a serious lack of doors) are very popular.
So where are toilets and bathrooms going to go next? In a way I can see them going full circle. I heard along the grapevine that coloured toilets and fittings are coming back in. Best leave that one there I think. I'm seriously tainted from my 1980s upbringing and refuse to go back to coloured bathroom suites.
Interestingly toilets seem to be going either back in time or way into the future. With the rise of rustic, provincial and country design styles, comes the rise of the old fashioned, high, wall mounted cisterns.
Linked to water conservation, is the rise of the waterless toilet. Which sounds so much better than "compost toilet" or "drop box". Modern bathrooms create an incredible waste of water, so radical changes such as this are going to become increasingly popular. As more and more people embrace solar power and its storage to go off grid, surely it's not such a huge leap to consider going off pipe too.
Although the way in which toilet are manufactured has remained the same for years, the shape has changed. Two major elements of the good old fashioned toilet have been removed. Following on from the hidden (recessed behind the wall) cistern movement we are now seeing toilet that have the cistern in the gap created between the pan and the exterior wall of the toilet. In addition, the rim of the toilet has now been revisited. The recent launch of rimless toilets, see the dark germ ridden crevices completely removed and replaced with a small lip. Toilets are getting smaller and more compact. But not too compact, clearly!
To top off the full circle, all we need to see is the toilet to go back outside. With the increased popularity of seem less indoor and outdoor living spaces it only seems a matter of a very short time before we see more of these. Modern garden toilets.
One thing is for sure, the toilet is here to stay, whatever shape and form it takes.