The Delicate Subject of the "Thunder Pot," "John" or the "Crapper"


The Thunder Pot, John or the Crapper?

Before the commode was invented, people often used a simple hole in the ground. Then came the outhouse ... a shed with a sitting bench with a hole in the bench over a hole in the ground.  Perhaps the American outhouse was where more reading took place on the frontier than any other location. I know, as a child on our cattle ranch in New Mexico, I found the "literature" of the ranch outhouse to be a pleasure. Plus, when one finished reading, it was possible to "recycle" the magazines and newspapers for another purpose. 

Ancients in the Indus Valley had toilets connected to waterways to rivers in homes hundreds of years before the commode was developed in Europe. The ancient Romans had “in house” toilets for decades, but they fell into disuse with the fall of the Roman Empire.  Mayan ruins in Chiapas have plumbing and toilet systems, abandoned 700 years ago.  In Peru, Macu Pichu had an extraordinary flowing water system with toilet accommodations with a Mountain View.

In the meantime, in finer homes around the world,  the chamber pot and outhouse came into use. For those who didn't want to face the weather or insects or snakes, going to the outhouse, there was an alternative for inside use.  The “chamber pot,” humorously called the “thunder pot” was used. 

The "thunder pot," often made of wood, was a little stand with a seat and lid that closed. It still created both an odor and a sound problem. The outhouse and the chamber pot both presented a stinky problem. The chamber pot was typically of glass with a lid, and the lowest job in the household was given to the person who had to take it out every morning and wash it.

A British man named John Harrington invented an indoor commode in 1596. The flushing toilet still had odor issues.  No doubt, “the John” was named after its inventor.  

Joseph Bramah of Yorkshire patented the first practical water closet in England in 1778 just 2 years after the Declaration of Independence was unleashed in the "colonies," which became the USA.  

George Jennings in 1852 also took out a patent for the flush-out toilet. He invented improvements on existing water closets, and he owned the patent for the siphonic flush toilet.   

Alexander Cummings invented an S-shaped trap (the S-bend) in 1775, but it had problems. Once invented, despite its simplicity and reliability, its widespread use in sewage systems was slow to catch on; it often stopped up and sometimes dried up.  

The the "politics of stink" set in.  So much human waste was pouring into the streets and the River Thames of Britain that the “great stink” of the Thames in 1858 forced Parliament to pass laws in the 1860s for closed sewers to be installed.  

Mr Thomas Crapper invented the “U” drainage pipe. It effectively sealed the commode off from offensive odors of the septic tank or sewer lines below the floor of the house. It was an improvement over all prior models. He also invented the manhole cover, enabling easy maintenance access, as well as various improvements to plumbing fittings, not least improvements to the plumbing trap (U-bend).  

Thomas Crapper fixed the stink problem: The “S” drain of Cummings was eventually be replaced by Crapper's improved “U-trap” in 1880. The new U-bend was a significant improvement on the "S" as it could not jam, and unlike the S-bend, it did not have a tendency to dry out and did not need an overflow. The BBC was to nominate the S-bend as one of the "50 Things That Made the Modern Economy." But we at Boothe Global Perspectives believe that Crapper's "U" bend was far more important.   


It has often been claimed in popular culture that the slang term for human bodily waste, crap, originated with Thomas Crapper because of his association with lavatories. A common version of this story is that American servicemen stationed in England during World War I saw his name on cisterns and used it as army slang, i.e. "I'm going to the crapper."

While there may be some truth to this, there is more to consider if you are of  scholarly bent. The word crap is actually of Middle English origin and predates its application to bodily waste. Its most likely etymological origin is a combination of two older words, the Dutch krappen: to pluck off, cut off, or separate, and the Old French crappe: siftings, waste or rejected matter (from the medieval Latin crappa, chaff).  In English, it was used to refer to chaff, and also to weeds or other rubbish.

"CRAPPER," when applied to bodily waste, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, appeared in 1846 under a reference to a crapping ken, or a privy, where ken means a house. In other words, before the commode, the "crapper, or ken, or privy" was what we in America would call an "outhouse."  

In modern times, the Japanese have invented computerized commodes, vibrator commodes, heated commodes, and commodes with telephones and music. 

The French long ago invented the commode that would spray water and wash you while you sit.  There are French commodes designed with cushioned seats and beautifully crafted wooden seats showing the texture of the wood. 

In the United States we have pink, yellow and blue commodes, little round commodes and elongated commodes, commodes for children that are smaller. 

But to this day the commode designers are remembered by giving their names "Crapper", "John",  or "Thunder Pot" to honor the appropriate persons. The elegant portrait of Thomas Crapper is thus appropriate, as he saved us all from the worst of the foul odors. He perhaps elevated the chamber pot to every person's daily throne!