WASHINGTON, June 2, 2015 — The known use of toilets goes back, way back, to ancient Egypt. Ever since the first royal use—and the comfort throne was first intended for royalty—man has been trying to build a better toilet.
In a world of squat toilets, foul public restrooms, and austere water closets, middle and upper-class American bathrooms are almost temples to our bodily functions. They’re rivaled only by our kitchens—another room given little thought in most other countries—in setting world standards of opulence.
The odds are that Queen Elizabeth herself doesn’t have a bathroom throne as nice as yours.
And while our public restrooms aren’t always world-class—there’s also the peculiar American custom of leaving large gaps around the doors of public restroom stalls—they compare to the rest of the world in comfort and cleanliness far better than our public schools do in math.
During a recent trip to Italy, with travel bag filled with toilet seat covers and waterless hand sanitizers, I found that most public toilets, including those in street-side restaurants, are filthy. All lack a seat; they require the user to squat, while avoiding the general filth and holding his or her breath.
You also have to hold onto any personal items due to lack of a clean surface to set them on.
However, one go at an Italian toilet does explain whey so many Italian women have perfect thighs.
The squat toilet, popular in most of the third world and in some of Europe, supposedly relieves the user of the need to come in contact with a toilet seat, forcing you instead to hover over it. That sounds more hygienic, but as you gather your clothes and your bags in a desperate and vain attempt to keep them from coming in contact with the filthy floor and toilet just inches beneath you, you sense that the hygiene benefits are overstated. It also requires a certain physical athleticism in order to complete the deed, and heaven help you if you slip, you’re clumsy, or you’re prone to fainting spells or seizures.
Most squat toilets are simple holes surrounded by concrete or porcelain. Some are flushed with a bucket of water or sometimes a hose, which can also be used for personal cleanliness, the use of toilet paper being a Western habit. If toilet paper is provided, it usually goes into a waste bin rather than into the plumbing. Some “squatters” include a water flushing mechanism.
Squatters reach their apogee in Japan, where they can still be found in most homes. Most are connected to modern plumbing, but others are still indoor outhouses. Yet the bathroom will be spotlessly clean, perhaps with a potted orchid on the counter.
In addition to the supposed hygiene benefits, proponents claim that squatters provide a more natural angle from which to empty your bowels. You are less likely to develop hemorrhoids. After hearing the squawk and seeing the horrified expression of a friend after she slipped over a squatter, I’ll risk the hemorrhoids.
In Egypt, toilets outside of Western-standard establishments are squatters, sans paper. Attendants may sell a couple of squares inside the public loo for a small amount.
Attendants also keep the facilities clean, so it is best to be prepared to tip them as though you are at the Beverly Wiltshire.
The next time you visit Central America, you might want to stay with a Mayan family in Toledo, Belize, a cultural experience well worth the time and effort. You’ll live for a couple of days or a week with warm, kind people who live much as they have for the last century. Just don’t expect American Standard! Here the toilet was a 6″ PVC pipe sticking out of the ground (one assumes a pit was below) and surrounded by shower curtains.
Toilets in Brazil are more like American toilets, and they usually come with toilet paper, but the used paper is always thrown in a wastebasket. There’s no water pressure—water comes from a caixa de agua, a “water box,” on the roof—and the pipes are easily clogged. Flushing the toilet doesn’t immediately produce visible results; you hold down the button on a pipe into the toilet and wait for the contents of the bowl to start churning before you let go. Gravity handles the rest of the job.
One could write volumes about bathroom adventures in South and Central Asia. The head of an English-language business school in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, used to make a point of taking visitors on a tour of his school’s restrooms. “We’ve got the best public restroom between Beijing and Moscow,” he exclaimed proudly. It was impressively clean, and the fixtures almost brought tears to American visitors’ eyes: American Standard.
If you’re outside of Bishkek, you’re best off following the example of locals, who eschew public restrooms for the great outdoors. Some roadside restrooms in India probably haven’t been cleaned in years. One fellow traveler was forced to turn back from one before she got within 50 feet. She went into the woods and returned to our car in tears. “The trees were full of monkeys, and they just sat there staring at me.”
Standards of privacy, cleanliness and safety have changed over the centuries. Ancient Roman toilets were a communal affair with a water trough that ran in front of the bench of seats; its purpose was to dip the seasponge on a stick which you used to clean your nether parts. They were a huge advance in cleanliness, though it’s odd to imagine Caesar and Brutus discussing affairs of the Senate seated side by side on the loo.
Or perhaps not. President Lyndon Johnson was known for continuing conversations with reporters and aids while he sat on the toilet. He’d enter the bathroom and imperiously have them follow. According to former aide Doris Kearns Goodwin, Johnson was scathing in his criticism of National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, who would follow Johnson into the restroom then stand with his back to him in the farthest corner. “Come closer! Come closer!” Johnson barked, later asking Goodwin, “hasn’t that guy ever been in the Army?”
The development of toilets that take care of waste in a clean and hygienic manner has stopped deaths from the diseases spread by raw sewage. In Jolly Olde England, sewage was flung out open windows from chamber pots onto the streets and passers-by below, or thrown from a castle’s higher floors, where the toilet throne often was little more than a slanted opening through the wall that allowed waste to slide down and out (shudder).
You can spend hours exploring the toilets of the world—past, present and future—at The Toilet Guru, a site that is alternately fascinating and disturbing. It includes the history of toilets going back to 10,000 B.C. as well as photos of toilets found, and often still used, around the world.
And while some of the toilet solutions might be slightly horrifying, Business Insider shares with us that we just might be doing it wrong after all. Toilet technology will move on, leaving your descendants to stare at museum mock-ups of your bathroom in horror.