There’s nothing quite like finding a toilet you can spend the rest of your life with — one you’ll forever compare all other toilets to, and wonder how (and for whom) it’s flushing long into the future. In college, I found such a toilet, one I still think about to this day. It was unapologetically industrial with a black seat and exposed pipes. It had a satisfying metal handle to pull, and it sat low enough that my stupid little feet didn’t dangle just above the ground like a child.
Most importantly, that thing could inhale shit like a whale shark eating krill.
It turns out I’m not alone in wistfully reminiscing about the super-strength toilets of yesteryear. In a recent r/AskReddit thread, commenters argued over which era of the past century produced the most satisfying toilets to use. When it comes to flushing a substantial load, newer may not mean better: Most people in the thread agreed that the modern, environmentally friendly flushers are the bane of their bathrooms and don’t devour waste like the water-guzzling toilets of the 1950s — porcelain battle tanks that blasted dookie with the force of Niagara Falls. Sometime after that, it all went to shit.
So what happened? What specific technological advancements made the postwar period the pinnacle of toilet achievement, and the early modern era the nadir? When and how did water conservation ruin the power flush? Let’s dive through the rusty pipes of plumbing history and learn some crap.
Early to Mid-1900s
The toilet as we know it was invented by Alexander Cumming in 1775. Thanks to Cumming and his odor-sealing “S trap,” toilets eventually moved into private housing, rather than buckets dumped into the streets below, or public outhouses. As pooping became a private affair, toilets took on a few different looks, transitioning from high tanks to low tanks, and plain white porcelain instead of ornamental decorations (an attempt to appear more sanitary).
Up until 1970, the only thing that really changed about the toilet was the color scheme; other than that, they chugged shit down with a whopping five to eight gallons of water. Our planet be damned — the early to mid-1900s were a pretty good time to take a shit.
1970s to 1990s
Bruce Martin, the inventor of pressure-assist technology, tells PM Engineer that in the 1970s, the cost of not conserving water came to a head — not just on the environment but on consumers’ wallets. Until then, he writes, “designers only concerned themselves with style,” but soon, “market demand started to significantly exceed supply resources and waste treatment capacity.” The cost of a single family home using toilets that used between five and eight gallons per flush had risen from $87 a year in 1972 to $170 by 1983.
This led to a manufacturing boom of toilets that used less water. One design was the pressure-assist toilet — the kind I fell in love with in college. Invented by Martin in 1984, this tankless toilet used only 1.6 gallons per flush and was thus much cheaper to use, but still got the job done.
However, due to the cost of manufacturing and the specific plumbing needed, these toilets mainly wound up in commercial settings. Its alternative was the regular gravity-flushing toilet, which saved water by “reducing the size [of] or blocking off or partitioning part of the … tank reservoir.” In other words, the toilets just used less water than what it was designed for, without making up for the loss in force. In Martin’s words, “these new hybrid combinations performed poorly.”
While commercial toilets plowed ahead in installing pressurized flushers, consumers continued to opt for toilets that used more water, despite being more expensive and harmful to the environment. Thus, it took some good ol’ federal intervention to get regular American poopers up to speed. In 1992, President George H.W. Bush signed the Energy Policy Act, which made 1.6 gallons per flush the mandatory maximum for all new toilets. In fact, plumbers would face suspension and a $2,500 fine for installing a high-flow toilet, according to a 2000 piece in Time. The law went into effect in 1994 for residential buildings and 1997 for commercial buildings.
Since up to that point there was no need for the toilet industry to innovate, flushing between 1994 and 2000 was a disaster. (Proof? Ask your dad how often he had to plunge your shit when you were a kid.) The problem got so bad, people would cross into Canada to buy and smuggle back illegal high-flow toilets, reported the Manitoban: “High-flush ‘assault toilets’ could be purchased in Canadian border towns like Windsor, carried across the border (duty-free thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement), and installed at leisure.”
In 2000, Time interviewed a guy who “paid $175 to have a high-flow Gerber shipped from Windsor to his bathroom” in Illinois. “Look, I’m not trying to change the world,” he said. “I’m just trying to get a toilet that flushes.”
Another alternative? Vintage shops selling old-school crappers. “We have people who come in here and say they will give up their handguns before giving up their toilets,” the owner of a place called Tim and Billy’s Salvage Store told Time.
2000 to the Present
Finally, in the year 2000, manufacturers started to figure out how to effectively flush toilets while using only 1.6 gallons — a category of crapper called HET, or High Efficiency Toilet. As Fernando Fernandez, Director of Engineering and Regulatory Affairs at Toto USA, tells PM Engineer, gravity-flushing toilets have finally caught up to pressure-flushers and nearly outperform them in terms of pressure. This is thanks to “smoother, curvilinear shapes,” “frictional losses,” “air pockets during the siphon action” and many more engineering phrases that describe eating poop.
We’re now in a golden era: Innovation and conservation can go hand-in-hand. Toto, where Fernandez works, has something called the Tornado Flush, which enlists “two powerful nozzles that create a centrifugal, cyclonic rinsing action which reduces waste buildup and keeps the bowl cleaner” while using only 1.28 gallons per flush. It earned one Toto model the esteemed ranking of No. 1 Flushing Toilet on RateMyToilet.com.
And so, in the shadow of the report that our planet and existence as we know it are on the brink of disaster, we’re currently living in a great time to shit.