A Brief History
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese Imperial Navy conducted a surprise (or less politically correct, “sneak”) attack against the US military installations and ships at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The early morning attack undoubtedly caught many Americans in the bathroom, doing their “duty.” Those American heroes had to be desperate to finish their business with “John” and get to their military duties, undoubtedly having no time to contemplate the fantastic advances in bathroom technology that makes our lives so much more bearable. Today we look at a sampling of things you might take for granted but were actually for most of the existence of humans only a future fantasy. What would you add to the list? Blow dryer? Stereo radio? Built in shower? Heated towel bar? (Hint: Not everything in the bathroom is toilet related! We do other things in there…)
- Toilet paper:
Invented in 1877 this is the simplest and most basic of the innovations. With all the choices available today, including camouflage patterns and with pictures of Osama Bin Ladin, it’s hard to believe people took so long to come up with this modern necessity. (Other personal images of politicians and celebrities also show up on novelty toilet paper.) If you have ever been stuck without this modern essential, you realize just what a major advance this invention is. The old Roman sponge on a stick (for real) just does not cut it, at least in this author’s mind. Nor do leaves or pages from the Sears Catalog! A more recent development are the moist, “wet wipe” types to augment your “experience.” Those babies can be a darn good thing… When there is a crisis (such as a pandemic!), one of the first items people hoard is toilet paper. That fact is what we in police work call “a clue” as to the perceived importance of that roll used for more than just pranking your neighbors.
- Chamber pots:
Ranging from fancy porcelain models to lowly buckets, chamber pots allowed people to remain indoors, warm and cozy, and avoid going out in the cold and rain to “go to the bathroom.” Unfortunately, someone eventually had to go empty the darn things, and it sure as heck was not the rich guy! (And to think of the trivial things kids complain about today!) If you think the chamber pot is obsolete, what do you think a “bed pan” is? Or that Gatorade empty bottle you have in the cab of your 16-wheeler?
This clever invention made it possible to soak without having to go outside in miserable weather, often in freezing water. The bathtub also gives the bather a modicum of privacy, too. The Romans even had heated baths centuries ago, or at least the rich Romans did. These bathtubs range from as simple as a washtub to the fancy multi-person heart shaped numbers you can find in high end homes. We even have walk-in models for elderly and infirm people. The bathtub even spawned other neat inventions, such as the rubber ducky…
- The toothbrush:
One of the first products to use nylon, the modern toothbrush hit the scene in the late 1930’s. I never used a pig bristle toothbrush, but I’m willing to bet the nylon one is more pleasant. Of course, we now have all sorts of shapes and sizes, bristle hardness, and colors. We even have electric brushes for people who do not need exercise.
- The Hot tub/Whirlpool bath:
Not just a therapeutic muscle relaxer, these babies are also frequently social gathering spots, and sometimes the final destination of a hot date! Anything that helps attract girls has to be on this list. (Ok, ok, or attracts guys, too!) A pretty wonderful adaptation of the whirlpool bath is the kind built into the regular bathtub, making every bath a spa experience. (Even better, the walk-in jet tub! Preferably in your master bedroom bathroom.)
- The Safety Razor:
Prior to WW 1, men risked their lives daily by shaving with straight razors. They also spent plenty of time stropping the blades to keep them sharp. When GI’s went to war, Gillette provided shaving kits to the military and the first widespread use of safety razors convinced millions of Americans to switch. Later, the introduction of stainless-steel blades made shaving even simpler, as you no longer had to carefully clean and dry the blade between uses. Yes, the ladies also benefit from this epic invention.
- Electric razors:
Even easier and safer than safety razors, the electric razor is a heck of a lot safer and easier to use while driving to work! Ok, that is not in the bathroom where it should be, but I’ve seen people doing it. Cordless models are great for camping and the office.
- The flush toilet:
These come in several varieties that use different methods to cause the toilet to flush, but regardless, we are talking about the commode you sit on that whisks away the bad stuff in a Niagara of water. (The Middle Eastern stand up/hole in the floor kind barely counts.) Urinals aren’t included because they are kind of one dimensional, whereas the porcelain throne can be used for all sorts of bodily waste and for rapidly getting rid of contraband during a raid! Someday I would like to have one of those expensive Japanese models that wash you clean automatically before you get up.
- The Sink and Mirror:
The altar that women pray at for what seems like hours at a time. (OK, relax, we know men spend plenty of time in front of the mirror at the sink, too!) More useful than a bath tub, it can still be used for a full body wash (sponge bath) if needed, a home beauty salon (dyeing your hair), scrubbing your hands before going back to work at a restaurant, brushing your teeth, shaving, washing the dog (if it’s small enough) and a million other things. Prior to the invention of glass, mirrors were polished metal. In the first Century, AD, some bright person decided to put glass in front of a silvered background, et voila! The modern mirror was born, giving us no excuse for showing up to work all tussled up and providing all sorts of urban legends and scary stories to boot!
- Indoor Plumbing:
The grand-prize winning innovation was first widely used by rich Romans and today is indispensable. Having hot and cold running water makes nostalgia for the “good old days” seem a bit of a stretch. Not having to go “fetch a pail of water” gives kids much more time to play video games uninterrupted. I certainly believe this wonderful convenience also results in much better hygiene with the ease and comfort of washing up or bathing indoors with hot water. Very few modern conveniences can be considered alongside indoor plumbing as a necessity.
Question for students (and subscribers): What do you think is the most important bathroom invention? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Blumer, Ronald. Wiped: The Curious History of Toilet Paper. CreateSpace, 2013.
Schiff, David. All New Bathroom Ideas that Work. Taunton Press, 2018.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by ThoBel-0043 that is intended to illustrate the sometimes crazy situation during the Corona pandemic of 2020, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.