New Yorkers short on toilet paper may begin flushing paper towels and baby wipes, the Houston Chronicle reported Thursday. Flushing anything down the toilet other than toilet paper can cause problems in the offender’s local sewer system. The 18th century saw major innovations in waste disposal.
The amount of unapproved paper products making their way down toilet drains has skyrocketed, according to the article in the Chronicle. “Operators of sewer treatment plants and municipal sewer systems are growing alarmed by the prospect that homebound New Yorkers, amid spot shortages of toilet paper prompted by panic buying, will flush bulkier alternatives such as paper towels and baby wipes down the drain,” it said.
“The results of flushing anything but toilet paper, the officials say, can be sewer line backups in a person’s home or farther along in the system. Additionally, non-flushable materials cause problems in sewer treatment plants and frequently have to be removed manually.”
Mass waste disposal has been an uphill battle since ancient Rome, though major breakthroughs occurred in the 1700s.
Alexander Cummings’s Face-Saving Creation
“In 1775, Scottish watchmaker Alexander Cummings received a patent for a flush toilet with an all-important innovation—an S-bend in the drainage pipe,” said Dr. W. Bernard Carlson, Professor in the Department of Engineering and Society at the University of Virginia. “Relying on a cistern to fill the bowl, Cummings’s design used a sliding valve to seal the bottom of the bowl. When the contents were to be drained, a lever was pulled back and the valve slid back, sending the water and the waste down the drain pipe.
“Water trapped in the S-bend prevented the characteristic stink of the excrement from wafting back into the room.”
This was a major advancement in plumbing, despite the occasional tendency of solid waste to become trapped in the sliding valve and clogging it. What made it so much better?
Previously, Dr. Carlson said, the few people who did enjoy indoor plumbing relied on a cruder and much more odorous system. In the earlier design, two handles were featured near the toilet. One handle, when pulled, filled the bowl with water before the user answered the call of nature; another handle dumped the bowl’s contents into a cesspit afterward.
Joseph Bramah’s Key Improvement
Despite the revolutionary addition of the S-bend pipe to the indoor toilet, the clogging of the sliding valve on Cummings’s model proved to be a stubborn issue. Improvement on the device came just three years after he received his patent.
“In 1778, Joseph Bramah offered the necessary enhancement by replacing the sliding valve with a self-cleaning, hinged flap-valve that is now used today,” Dr. Carlson said. “Bramah’s toilet needed to be connected to a water source because it depended on a constant trickle of water to maintain sanitation conditions and seal out the door. The choice of the British upper class, a working example of Bramah’s design—complete with its original, highly decorative porcelain bowl—is still in use in the House of Lords in Westminster today.”
Dr. Carlson said that the general design of Bramah’s toilet remained in use until the 1930s.
The S-bend pipe, which connects to virtually every toilet and many sinks in the Western world, was once a revolutionary concept. However, we take it for granted today, as is proven by the sanitation workers concerned with what we’ll flush down the toilet when we run out of toilet paper.
Dr. W. Bernard Carlson contributed to this article. Dr. Carlson is a professor in the Department of Engineering and Society at the University of Virginia, where he directs the Engineering Business Program. He earned his A.B. from College of the Holy Cross and his M.A. and Ph.D. in the History and Sociology of Science from the University of Pennsylvania.