Thomas Crapper: Myth and Reality
For this article we interviewed Dr. Andy Gibbons, historian of the International Thomas Crapper Society, and Ken Grabowski, a researcher and author who is writing a book on Crapper’s life.
Myth: Thomas Crapper as a person never existed.
Fact: Though we do not know his actual date of birth, we can now say the man Thomas Crapper probably was born in September 1836, since he was baptized the 28th of that month. Crapper did have a successful career in the plumbing industry in England from 1861 to 1904.
The date of Crapper’s death has also been a source of confusion for many years. For example, "Chase’s Annual Events," the authoritative book for listing special days and dates, has listed Jan. 17 as Thomas Crapper Day and Jan. 17, 1910 as the date of his death.
After all his research, Gibbons was certain that Chase’s was 10 days off. The actual date of Thomas Crapper’s death was Jan. 27, 1910. The error probably resulted from an honest typo in "Flushed With Pride," by Wallace Reyburn, says Gibbons, "but I waged a 10-year battle with Chase’s to get them to change the date." He finally won his battle this year after supplying them with a photo of Thomas Crapper’s tombstone, notes from a living descendent and a copy of the man’s official death certificate.
Myth: Thomas Crapper invented the toilet.
Fact: No one in the know about Thomas Crapper would ever make this statement. In his research, Grabowski has created a detailed history of Crapper’s business life. The man holds nine patents: Four for improvements to drains, three for water closets, one for manhole covers and the last for pipe joints. Every patent application for plumbing related products filed by Crapper made it through the process, and actual patents were granted.
The most famous product attributed to Thomas Crapper wasn’t invented by him at all. The "Silent Valveless Water Waste Preventer" (No. 814) was a syphonic discharge system that allowed a toilet to flush effectively when the cistern was only half full. British Patent 4990 for 1819 was issued to a Mr. Albert Giblin for this product.
There are a couple of theories on how Thomas Crapper came to be associated with this device. First, is that Giblin worked for Crapper as an employee and authorized his use of the product. The second, and more likely scenario, says Grabowski, is that Crapper bought the patent rights from Giblin and marketed the device himself.
Myth: Thomas Crapper never was a plumber.
Fact: Oh yes he was. He operated two of the three Crapper plumbing shops in his lifetime, but left the business three years before the final and most famous facility on Kings Road in London. When Crapper retired from active business in 1904, he sold his shop to two partners who, with help from others, operated the company under the Crapper name until its closing in 1966.
Several of London’s current plumbing companies trace their trade roots to Thomas Crapper. One, Mr. Geoffrey Pidgeon of Original Bathrooms (Richmond upon Thames, Surrey, Great Britain), continues the trade of his great uncle and grandfather, both of whom apprenticed under Thomas Crapper.
Thomas Crapper did serve as the royal sanitary engineer for many members of England’s royalty, but contrary to popular myth, he was never knighted, and thus isn’t entitled to use the term "Sir" before his name.
Myth: The word "crap" is derived from Thomas Crapper’s name.
Fact: The origin of crap is still being debated. Possible sources include the Dutch Krappe; Low German krape, meaning a vile and inedible fish; Middle English crappe, and Thomas Crapper. Where crap is derived from Crapper, it is by a process know as, pardon the pun, a back formation.
The World War I doughboys passing through England brought together Crapper’s name and the toilet. They saw the words T. Crapper - Chelsea printed on the tanks and coined the slang "crapper" meaning toilet.
The legend of Thomas Crapper takes its flavor from the real man’s life. While Crapper may not be the inventor of the product he is most often associated with, his contribution to England’s plumbing history is significant. And the man’s legend, well, it lives on despite all proof to contrary.