Keeping you current

Three True Things About Sanitary Engineer Thomas Crapper

Thomas Crapper’s actual innovation was entirely tangential to the flush toilet

This portrait by an anonymous photographer shows the face of the man who popularized the flush toilet: Thomas Crapper. (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

Most of the things people say about Thomas Crapper are, well, crap.

Crapper, who was baptized on this day in 1836, wasn’t really anyone special. Although he did his part to keep the world clean and (relatively) sewage-free, most of what you may have heard about him today is fake.

By all accounts, Crapper was a successful sanitary engineer (plumber) whose greatest innovation was actually the invention of the bathroom fittings showroom, something that brought flush toilets out of the water closet and into the public eye. For the time, the idea of actually displaying any part of the bathroom was scandalous, but Crapper’s innovation helped to create a market for the relatively new and high-investment indoor plumbing that he sold. But years after his death in 1910, the myths began.

The myths can be traced back to a specific source

“Much of the confusion stems from a 1969 book by Wallace Reyburn, Flushed with Pride: The Story of Thomas Crapper,” writes Snopes. This book, which purported to tell Crapper’s story, is proof of the edict that you cannot believe everything you read. Among the other claims it makes is that Crapper was from the north of England but walked to London at the tender age of 11 to become a plumber, rising to become the inventor of the modern toilet. Rayburn, a satirist, had written a previous book about the putative (and non-existent) inventor of the brassiere, Otto Titzling, leading many to believe that Crapper had never existed. But Crapper was a real person who really did work on toilets–perhaps Reyburn ran across his name somewhere and thought the opportunity for satire was too good to pass up.

He didn't hold the patent for the flush toilet or even invent it

Although Crapper was a sanitary engineer, which is funny in itself, he didn’t invent the flush toilet. In fact, writes Elinor Evans for BBC History Magazine, the idea for toilets that flushed dates back to the 1400s.  “In 1596, Sir John Harington built a flushing toilet at his house near Bath for the visit of his godmother, Queen Elizabeth I,” Evans writes. “But it was expensive to install, so most people carried on using chamber pots.”

The flush mechanism used in Victorian toilets that developed into the toilets of today dates back to at least 1775, writes Snopes, when a watchmaker and mathematician named Alexander Cumming patented it. “Plumbers Joseph Bramah and Thomas Twyford further developed the technology with improvements such as the float-and-valve system,” Snopes writes.

His name is not where the word "crap" comes from

The word “crap” as a slang for evacuating one’s bowels dates back to before Crapper went into business, writes Evans, which means that his contemporaries may also have found his last name amusing. According to Merriam-Webster, the word has roots in medieval Latin.

“Crapper” as term for toilet, however, may have links to the sanitary engineer. “When U.S. soldiers were based in England in 1917 they probably saw cisterns stamped with ‘T Crapper’ in some public toilets, and may have taken the word ‘crapper’ home with them,” Evans writes. “Certainly, Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang records the word ‘crapper’ as a synonym for a toilet, in use from the 1920s.”

Crapper’s name can still be found on some of London’s sewer infrastructure–namely, manhole covers that read “T. Crapper & Co. Sanitary Engineers.”

Tags

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus