A PM Essay: Man And Myth - Behind Sir Thomas Crapper, 'Inventor' Of The Toilet
Serious writers do not claim that the Crapper story is true, but they continue to retell the story with relish. In fact, people love to tell creation stories. The human psyche is complex and multifaceted, and origin stories thrive because they serve several of our psychological needs; namely, our desires to know about our origins, understand everyday occurrences, and create heroes, even at the expense of reality.
However, the Crapper story operates on an additional level because it appeals to a fascinating aspect of human nature: our fixation with the scatological. Our attitudes toward human waste and other “dangers” form critical parts of our psyche, and the story of Thomas Crapper provides a means of addressing these fears.
The Crapper MythThree cheers for Sir Thomas Crapper, “leading inventive genius among Victorian water engineers!”1 According to the story, Thomas Crapper was a successful English plumber who invented the flushing water toilet. He built toilets for Queen Victoria and other members of the royal family. Queen Victoria was so impressed with Crapper's innovations that she knighted him and made him the official plumber of England. As a result, Sir Crapper's toilets were installed everywhere, and England had another reason to argue that it was the most industrially advanced and civilized country in the world.2
Nevertheless, the story is untrue, and every legitimate source on Crapper explicitly states that he did not invent the toilet. Wallace Reyburn's “Flushed with Pride” gives a detailed description of the legend, and discusses Crapper's life and his accomplishments.
Thomas Crapper was a real person; born in 1836, he was a successful plumber who operated three stores in England under the Crapper name.3 Crapper held nine patents: “four for improvements to drains, three for water closets, one for manhole covers and the last for pipe joints.”4 He also served as “royal sanitary engineer” for many members of the royal family, and constructed toilets for their estates, but he was never knighted.
The creation story most likely originated when American soldiers travelled to England during World War I, saw Crapper's name on the toilet tanks, and coined the slang term “crapper” for the toilet.5 The word “crapper” is also associated with “crap,” the vulgar slang term for feces that may have been derived from the Dutch and German words for “krape,” which means a vile and inedible fish.6
At a first read, the Crapper story seems believable. However, if we ruminate over the origin story, we become sceptical: Is it possible that one man alone created the toilet as we know it? Scholars argue that this is not the case, and use historical evidence to show that the toilet actually evolved slowly over time.
The Real StoryIn her account of the development of the toilet, Lillian Thomas supports the idea of gradual evolution with descriptions of archaeological finds. She does not mention any inventors, but writes about ancient Egyptian toilet pans, a sewage system in Crete that was constructed in 3000 B.C., and a Chinese toilet from the Han Dynasty that had a seat and used running water.7 Bindeswar Pathak's serious paper about the history of toilets is also based on the notion of evolution. Pathak states that many people contributed to the development of the flush toilet, and he names some of these inventors, but he does not mention Crapper.8
Logically, people realize that toilets have been around for thousands of years, and that it is impossible to determine the exact moment of the creation of the toilet. However, people have a genuine interest in Crapper and treat him seriously; there are books on Crapper, and Dr. Andy Gibbons, historian of the International Thomas Crapper Society, even “waged a 10-year battle”9 to get Chase's Annual Events to correct the date of Crapper's death. “He finally won his battle … 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.”10
It is strange that the story of Thomas Crapper lives on, for as modern individuals, we wish to know the objective truth and base our knowledge on factual evidence. Nevertheless, we single out Crapper and treat him as a folk hero. A psychological mechanism is clearly at work, for we want to believe that Crapper invented the toilet and hear about his story, even though we know that it is not true.
This phenomenon of human psychology pertains not only to Crapper, but also to various subjects in history and popular culture.
Psychology Of Creation Myths: In his essay on creation myths, Stephen J. Gould writes, “We are powerfully drawn to the subject of beginnings. We yearn to know about origins, and we readily construct myths when we do not have data (or suppress data in favor of legend when a truth strikes us as too commonplace).”11
Gould's idea is certainly pertinent, for in my opinion, the least interesting sources on the development of the toilet were dry, factual accounts that emphasized the role of sanitation. We prefer to hear scatological jokes, anecdotes about how Ghandi drank his own urine, and of course, the legend of Crapper.
Interestingly, nobody has mounted a campaign to discredit the Crapper legend and let the truth be known; in contrast, writers simply put up a disclaimer and then proceed to elaborate on Crapper's wonderful story. Does it matter if we believe that Crapper invented the toilet? Like the story of the Tooth Fairy, the legend simply puts a magical spin onto an ordinary occurrence. We have the facts on Crapper, but we want the myth to live on beside the truth; therefore, we do not have a problem with processing the Crapper story alongside the reality of toilet evolution.
However, creation stories serve different psychological functions, and the proliferation of certain fallacious creation stories may have serious ramifications. Marie McAllister describes origin myths about syphilis, and discusses the socio-cultural implications of these myths. In the 18th century, many people believed that syphilis was brought to Europe by Columbus' soldiers who visited the New World, or that syphilis arose spontaneously from promiscuous or menstruating women in non-European countries.12
These creation stories serve a different psychological purpose - instead of enlivening everyday life and creating a hero, they serve to blame a group of people for being the originators of a disease. The implications of the syphilis myths were ignorance and racism. Today, we recognize these stories to be damaging and offensive as well as false, and so we do not propagate these myths.
According to Walter Wright Arthen, we have other psychological reasons for telling origin stories. He writes, “We live in a world made banal by technological systems of control, and yet one that remains unfathomable to us.”13
Even though we can learn about the history of toilets and understand the biological mechanisms of excretion, we still retain a sense of wonder at the world around us, and this draws us to magical explanations for the basic processes of life.
In addition, Arthen says, “Traditional myth is perfection. It tells us of worlds that are pristine, or that are complete fulfillments.”14 Arthen's analysis provides insight into the appeal of creation stories. We live in complex, changing environments, and it is hard for us to fathom all of the history and connections that lie beneath any subject. It is much easier for us to imagine a British man, wearing plumber's overalls and carrying a plunger, kneeling before Queen Victoria, as opposed to comprehending the thousands of years of development that went into the toilet.
Gould elaborates on the links between human psychology and creation myths when he writes, “We seem to prefer the alternative modal of origin by a moment of creation - for then we can have heroes and sacred places.”15
Toilet Art And HumorPeople are overwhelmed by the infinite number of steps that make up the evolutionary process, and attempt to create meaning out of this reality through origin stories. In creation stories, we get specific moments where somebody revolutionizes history or changes the world in some significant way. From the nature of the creation story, we also get “symbol[s] for reverence, worship, or patriotism.”16
It is true that the Crapper legend turns ordinary Thomas Crapper into a hero and innovator. However, the average person does not worship the toilet or rally around a poster of Thomas Crapper. There must be something unique about the Crapper legend that differentiates it from other origin stories.
To probe this issue, let us examine a toilet that was put on display, analyzed and venerated as a masterpiece. Marcel Duchamp's famous Dada piece, Urinal, consists of a manufactured urinal that Duchamp placed upside-down and signed “R. Mutt.”17 The piece took something ordinary and put it on a pedestal, forcing us to think about the mass-produced, ubiquitous toilet from a new perspective. Critics and viewers alike consider Urinal to be a work of art, although it hardly differs from the urinals that we see every day.18
Likewise, the Crapper origin story makes us stop and reconsider an everyday object, and think about how different our lives would be if the toilet did not exist.
However, the allure of the Crapper tale stems from yet another aspect of the human psyche - its attraction to vulgarity and scatology. When we hear the name “Crapper,” our first instinct is to smile.
We gently mock Thomas Crapper for “doing his business” so well that his name will be forever associated with his “invention.” We can tease a wealth of double-entendres out of his name, such as, “The man was a plumber, but he never took crap from anyone.”
Toilet humor is juvenile, but we cannot deny that it amuses us to associate a person's name with some excretory or sexual function. Case in point: we think it is funny that a Mr. Quondam supposedly invented the condom, but we do not look up twice if we hear that Anders Celsius invented the Celsius thermometer.
Psychologists have studied the roots of this human phenomenon. Pathak writes that part of our interest in all things scatological stems from the “noxiousness and uselessness of human waste” and the fact that “the sex organs are the same or nearer to the organs of defecation.”19
In her book “Purity and Danger,” Mary Douglas examines our fixation on dirtiness. She argues that dirt is a relative concept that “was created by the differentiating activity of mind.”20
Nevertheless, many societies consider bodily refuse “to be specially invested with power and danger.”21 Societies create taboos and boundaries out of this fear, and these notions have become entrenched in our collective psychology. It is human nature to be curious about the hidden and the unmentionable, and so people feel a combination of revulsion and fascination toward the subject of toilets, since toilets are so closely connected to bodily waste.
The legend of Thomas Crapper allows us to approach and mediate this taboo subject. The Crapper legend turns the complicated history of the toilet and all the implications of bodily waste into a pristine, ideal creation myth. Douglas writes that “all margins are dangerous … the orifices of the body … symbolize its specially vulnerable points.”22
By remaining in the realm of legend, the Crapper story enables us to explore these margins without transgressing them and putting ourselves in danger.
It does not matter that the legend of Sir Thomas Crapper is crap. We care about the story, for we tell it to make some sense of our complex, contradictory psychological needs. When we examine the Crapper legend, we realize that it functions on many levels and serves very different purposes. We can never fully understand the peculiarities of human nature, but the Crapper story certainly sheds light on the hero-worshipping, origin-seeking, toilet-humor-loving bizarroes that we are. If the legend of Sir Thomas Crapper were to go down the drain, well, it would be a real waste.
Editor's note: All photos for this article were provided by Thomas Crapper & Co Ltd., Stratford-on-Avon, Warwickshire, Great Britain.
About the author: Carmen Yuen wrote her research paper on Crapper for her Rhetoric and Logic class at Columbia University. She now attends Yale Law School.
References1 Wallace Reyburn, Flushed with Pride: The Story of Thomas Crapper (London, UK: Trafalgar Square, 1998) 2.
2 Reyburn, 4.
3 Reyburn, 7.
4 “Thomas Crapper: Myth and Reality,” Plumbing and Mechanical Magazine, Business News Publishing Co, 1993.
5 “Thomas Crapper: Myth and Reality,” 1993.
6 “Thomas Crapper: Myth and Reality,” 1993.
7 Lillian Thomas, “In days of old, most toilet facilities weren't exactly commodious,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 12 Feb 2003.
8 Bindeswar Pathak, “History of Toilets,” International Symposium on Public Toilets, Hong Kong, 25-27 May 1995.
9 “Thomas Crapper: Myth and Reality,” 1993.
10 “Thomas Crapper: Myth and Reality,” 1993.
11 Stephen Jay Gould, “The Creation Myths of Cooperstown…Or why the Cardiff Giants are an unbeatable and appropriately named team,” Natural History, November 1989.
12 Marie E. McAllister, “Stories of the Origin of Syphilis in Eighteenth-Century England: Science, Myth, and Prejudice,” Eighteenth-Century Life 24.1 (2000): 23.
13 Walter Wright Arthen, “Paganism and Myths of Creation: A Ritual of Transformation,” Fireheart 6 (1993).
14 Arthen, 1993.
15 Gould, 1989.
16 Gould, 1989.
17 Thierry de Duve, The Definitely Unfinished Marcel Duchamp (Boston, MA: Massachussetts Institute of Technology, 1992) 112.
18 De Duve, 119.
19 Pathak, 1995.
20 Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo (London, UK: ARK Paperbacks, 1988) 161.
21 Douglas, 121.
22 Douglas, 121.