Thomas Crapper, Flushed With Pride!
By Patrick F. Cannon
I’m sure you’ve been out to dinner with family or friends when one of the group announces “excuse me, I have to go to the crapper.” Although it surely could have been more elegantly put, you would know that he or she was headed to the bathroom.
What you may not know is the derivation of the word “crapper.” While the word “crap” may have its origins in Old English, “crapper” actually derives from the inventor of improved toilets in Victorian England, Thomas Crapper (1836-1910). According to some sources (that may even be reliable) the term came into wide use during World War II, when American soldiers stationed in England noticed the name “Crapper” on local toilet tanks and began using that name for the entire facility.
When the GIs came home after the war, they continued to use the word, thus infecting the rest of the population, or at least the cruder sorts. As you know, there are millions of words in our glorious language; so many, in fact, that it is fruitless to question the derivation of all words that one uses. In the case of “crapper” I came upon its meaning quite by accident.
My most recent book, The Space Within: Inside Great Chicago Buildings, done with my partner, photographer Jim Caulfield, includes the 1883 Nickerson Mansion, now the Driehaus Museum at 40 E. Erie in Chicago. The day we did the photography, I asked one of the staff members for the location of a rest room. She directed me to one that was near the original kitchen. Lo and behold (I’ve been itching to use that cliché for years) the bathroom contained the original toilet and tank, a Thomas Crapper of course.
Now, when it was built, the Nickerson Mansion was the largest and most elaborate in Chicago, built as it was for the president of the First National Bank. Apparently the architects, Burling and Whitehouse, didn’t trust American plumbing fixtures, so imported them from England. The survivor still works OK, so maybe they had the right idea.
Sanitary plumbing, including the flush toilet, was yet another of the great inventions of the 19th Century. Although steam power was invented in the 18th, it was only fully exploited in the 19th, when it powered railroads, steam ships and industry. Electricity, the internal combustion engine and the telephone are only a few of the other inventions that transformed life forever. Who can deny the flush toilet its place in this Pantheon of innovations?
Those who wander the woods in search of birds and berries do what our ancestors did in the bad old days – they search for a discrete spot behind a tree to unload their waste. Some people – even in this country – still don’t have indoor plumbing, so must trek out to the outhouse. Once upon a time, even the rich were reduced to using what was in essence a porta-potty. Their servants then were required to empty the pot, sometimes out the window upon unlucky passers-by.
So, let us give due honor to the great Crapper, the Thomas Edison of human waste! His company survives to this day, and even sells its own brand of toilet paper. Now, toilet paper is an interesting subject too, but its story will have to wait for another day (did you even wonder what folks did before it came into use?).
Copyright 2019, Patrick F. Cannon