Dora Guo

In 2018 at the Guggenheim, a 14 karat, solid gold flush toilet weighing 103 kilograms was installed in one of its public bathrooms for free public use. Titled “America,” the piece was conceived, cast and placed by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan. The piece echoes Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” from 1917: a urinal turned on its back and signed by the infamous Dada artist. Understandably, people were shocked. What’s it like to pee in a toilet you’d only expect in Scrooge McDuck’s mansion? Is this even art? Like all everyday objects, toilets seem mundane and even deplorable — nobody says, “You’re more beautiful than a toilet!” How much is there to know about toilets, after all?

It’s no wonder toilets get a bad rap, since it’s the place where we privately (and embarrassingly) dispose of our excrement. It’s not like our society and culture help the toilet’s public image. In movies, toilets are where bullies shove the heads of losers, where loners go to eat lunch at work, where people go to cry, where druggies go to shoot up, where there’s a private, intimate space that traps you inside with its four stall walls. We even have a lot of euphemisms for toilets: latrine, restroom, water closet, the throne, the can, the shitter, etc., all evasive or crass in their connotation. As banal and as rotten as our perception of toilets are, we tend to overlook the beauty of the toilet — the art in its design.

Most public flush toilets can be split up into two halves: the flushometer (the “handle”) and the bowl. Imagine the flushometer as a “F” shaped tube (the middle bar representing the lever and the rest of the shape representing pipes). The main public water supply system feeds into the top right corner of the F while the bottom of the F (aka the bottom of the “stem”) leads down to the toilet bowl. Separating the top bar of the F and the stem of the F inside of the pipes is a valve maintaining a pressure differential between the two chambers of the F. When you pull down the lever of the flushometer, it displaces the valve, letting around 1 1/2 gallons of water from the main supply flow down the stem of the F. When you let go of the lever, the valve settles to its original place, blocking the flow again. 

The bowl of the toilet is usually made out of one whole piece of porcelain. Porcelain is used due to its durable, impermeable and stainless nature that captivated Western traders in China in the 1600s. Standing water in the bowl acts as a receptacle for waste as well as a barrier to fumes escaping from the sewer. When the water from the “stem” of the flushometer reaches the bowl, the water enters the pot through small drainage holes poked at different angles in the top rim, allowing the water to swirl around the sides and clean off the grime. 

Even without knowing about all this elegant engineering, toilets are bona fide works of sculpture. Following the same production process as pottery, modern toilets are made by pouring about 20 kilograms of a clay and mineral mixture into two separate plaster molds, one for the rim and one for the bowl. After drying in the mold’s shape, the clay is glazed with different colors and then fired in a kiln to around 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The usual color of the toilet, a bright white, lends it a clean and sanitary look that subconsciously reassures people when they pop a squat.

Most toilets flush in the key E-flat minor (think Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”), with the exception of airplane toilets, which flush in C. A small museum in Columbus, Indiana, claims to hold the “world’s largest toilet,” where you yourself can experience being flushed down the drain.

Naturally, at this point you might wonder where the bottom hole, the “black pit” of poop and pee, leads to. The piping at the bottom of the toilet bowl is “~” shaped, with the bottom of the bowl on the right and the rest of the public sewage system on the left. The pool of standing water at the bottom of the bowl reaches around the ~ without spilling over the left hump. After water from the flushometer reaches the bottom, the water level in the bowl rises, pushing the preexisting dirty water from the bowl further down the pipe and triggering a siphoning action. The force of the water plus the siphon pressure brings the dirty water over the left hump of the ~ into the public sewage system while remaining water from the flushometer takes its place as the standing water in the toilet bowl. Efficient, sanitary and beautiful.

Flush toilets have been used since ancient times across the world from the Stone Age to today. The first flush toilet, found in a Neolithic settlement in northern Scotland, was flushed by pouring pails of water down to drain away the excrement. Similarly, ancient toilets from the Indus Valley River Civilization and the Roman Empire relied on a constant flow of water (either from a river or from a sanitation system) to wash the waste away, lacking the satisfying flush we have today. The ruins of a communal latrine remain in Ostia Antica, the ancient port of Rome. The marble thrones sit side by side and line three sides of a large brick room, making intimate “group poops” possible. A trough running across the front of each individual toilet would hold the communal sponges — the toilet paper of the time — cleaned by enslaved people with vinegar.

The first big step towards the modern toilet was made by Sir John Harington, a noble in 16th-century England. This design had a lever that let out water from a tank to “flush” the bowl and directly drop the waste down into a separate chamber to be dumped out. Only after the Industrial Revolution, when Scottish watchmaker Alexander Cumming pioneered the ~ shaped pipe, would toilets start becoming commonplace.

At the first World’s Fair in 1851, the first public flush toilets ever installed were a huge hit, attracting over 800,000 visitors. It wasn’t until 1884 that English pottery manufacturer Thomas Twyford put the first single-piece, free-standing ceramic flush toilet out for public sale. “Pleasant to the eye,” easily cleaned, simple in design and affordable, the toilet finally became a utility for everybody. Democracy at last!

The other part of the modern toilet we know today dates to 1906, when William Elvis Sloan patented the flushometer, speeding up the time in between flushes. Even today, toilets are making technological leaps and bounds. Across America, dual-flush toilets and flushometers like the Sloan “Uppercut” are being installed to save water. 

In this sense, the modern flush toilet can be seen as the amalgamation of thousands of years of world history and science: a confluence of art and technology across space and time from the ancient Indians to British industrial thinkers, from Roman sewage systems to Qing Chinese porcelain. 

When you think about art, you usually think of a museum object. Whether it be a painting, a photograph, a sculpture or a film, it’s in someplace special, on a pedestal away from home. Maybe even a few high-brow professors, snobby art critics and famous painters come to mind. Art seems like a mysterious world (Why is that famous? My 2-year-old could do that!), closed-off (What does that even mean?) and only for the elite (they paid that much for that painting?). However, what’s most often overlooked is the art in everyday objects that we always encounter but never recognize. The toilet is only one story among thousands. Enjoying art doesn’t have to be in a museum or at a university. It can start with appreciating the obvious things that make your life flush smoothly. 

Lucas Zheng | lucas.zheng@yale.edu