Thursday, October 26, 2006

More on the world's most useful appliance

I'm so inspired by the fact that someone I've never even met posted a comment on my last entry that I'm going to have top pursue this rich topic further. I refer, of course, to "water closets," and no I will not be sharing any more personal adventures therewith, but seriously, indoor plumbing is something we have to deal with soon in earnest, picking out fixtures and whatnot for the new house. So work with me here.

In the interest of fairness, we should briefly look at sinks, which aren't nearly as interesting as toilets except for the occasional unintentionally amusing ones. In a fancy plumbing store a few years back, a salesperson showed us one like this, and before I knew it, I had blurted out, "It looks just like a tampon!" Well, it DID. She couldn't HANDLE the truth, is all.

As we can imagine, the call of nature was something to be dreaded in the days before the invention of the toilet. You had your Roman group privies without stall walls or toilet paper, but rather a (presumably shared) sponge on a stick -- how nasty is that? Then you had primitive plumbing such as Ben Franklin's "necessary," although there was no sewer system yet -- as the site notes, "While Benjamin Franklin was clearly a genius in some areas, the very close spacing of a drinking water well and privy pit on his property makes you wonder what he was thinking." And of course we had the "why leave the comfort of your own bed?" device, a.k.a. the chamber pot, which worked great for the people who could afford these fancy items since they could also afford to have someone empty the contents for them. It could have been worse, though -- you could be a sailor and enjoy that clean fresh-air feeling on your nether regions. Still, indoors at least, hygiene and the aroma were still issues, creating the impetus for the flushable device we know and love. Apparently it's a myth that Thomas Crapper invented the modern toilet, although he was outstanding in his field in those days. The Chinese had him beat by about 2,000 years. From here the world easily progressed to cisterns, where all you needed aside from a little know-how were water, pipes and gravity. The final element of the modern toilet was made possible by the invention of electric water pumps. If you find all this as fascinating as I do, you can find a more complete history of the appliance here.

Of course, there are always people willing to pay a ridiculous amount of money for a modern toilet that looks like one of the malodorous models of olden times, or even from the Gilded Age, when price was no object for the flush-eoisie. The cash would be a lot better spent on one of the ultra-modern devices of today, such as a Japanese-style electric toilet that gently and lovingly rinses and blow-dries your personal parts. And this is only the beginning. The Japanese, who seem to be at the forefront of modern toilet research and development, have models that measure your urine sugar levels or body-fat content, and a talking toilet is on the horizon, according to none other than the New York Times, so this is not just frivolous speculation.

The water-squirting invention is actually a combination of two devices, the toilet and the bidet, which certainly deserves mention. No one bothers with a standalone model these days, apparently, since you can now retrofit your own toilet to include the bidet's functions, but there are still some things bidets are still good for. As Wikipedia notes, "They may also be used to clean any other part of the body; they are very convenient for cleaning the feet, for example... In fact, the bidet makes an excellent baby bath." Um, yeah... But here's an even better use. Personally, if I were going to retrofit my own toilet with bidet functions, I'd have to go with a model that has the best brand name.

Unfortunately, the basic appliance that was perfected decades ago remains an elusive dream for much of the world. Many places (including, surprisingly, locales within toilet innovators Japan and China) still have squat toilets, though you'll note that the Japanese one is spotless and has state-of-the-art flushing capability. Just sentimental, I guess. Many westerners have never encountered a squat toilet and need instructions on how to proceed with the urgent business at hand. Are new plumbing and water really that expensive, or are they just sentimental? Some toilets like this Eastern European train version offer the flexibility and convenience of either traditional or modern usage. Then you have toilets that are designed not around tradition or technology, but for purposes of social engineering such as communist collectivism. But even more distasteful than toilets that are extremely public, low-tech or just plain nasty is a model I encountered personally at the age of 10 in Germany. Yes, folks, they still use these, and apparently without a qualm. In the interest of good taste, I will refrain from recounting the story that went with this encounter. It seems to satisfy some dark need in the German psyche (and the Dutch psyche as well, so they say), though it looks more Swiss to me.

Thus concludes our meditation of the day. No more potty talk. Now I'm going to stalk and possibly run off with Bob Cromwell, who had the passion, commitment and attention to detail to document toilets all around the world, both past and present. Lids off to Bob!

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