Wednesday, 13 November 2013

A Short History of Toilet Benches

It may have escaped your notice that November 19th is World Toilets Day. Toilets may seem a boring or unsavoury topic but here on Benchsite we're not going to let World Toilets Day pass without having a look at some brilliant waterclosets/restrooms/loos/powder-rooms/bogs/johns/little boys' rooms/ or anything else you care to call them.  

We'll start with a pretty blue one which, lacking a hole, is not actually functional but is nevertheless a toilet bench in its truest sense.

Of course, early toilets had the obligatory hole and a bit of a drop, long or short. This toilet goes way back to biblical times. It's at Philippi, where St. Paul baptized Lydia. Not in the toilet of course. 

You'll notice that the toilets are communal in this Roman garrison latrine. That's because using the toilet was, in the past, a social activity.

Wearing their best dresses, use of public loos could be a jolly time for Regency ladies.

Inside the Lady's Gardens at Vauxhall 1788, SW Fores

A toilet bench was no good on long coach trips or in church. The bouraloue came in handy for French ladies who had to endure very long sermons during the time of Louis XIV. Shaped like a gravy boat, it was put in place amongst the very big skirts.

The Bourdaloue, Francois Boucher

And of course in France they have bidets. Here's a lady at her toilette. But in this case toilette means bidet; she is having a wash.

The Morning Wash: Woman on a Bidet 1790, Louis Leopold Boilly

Bidets are big in France but never caught on in North America. In Britain they are mainly used for soaking your feet after a long walk.

Anyway, back to the story of toilet benches. 

For a more intimate social gathering, here's a pretty three-hole toilet bench from Edwardian times.

Eventually using the toilet became a private matter though it's hard to see how private you could be if you used the chamberpot in the middle of the night and you were sharing a room with sixteen siblings and a couple of lodgers.

The filled chamber pot sat there waiting to be emptied by a servant.

Artist unknown

You knew when it was being emptied because you heard the window opening and the servant's shouts of Guardez loo! Followed by yelling and cursing of the wet ones who didn't get out of the way in time.

Artist and date unknown

Or you could just stick it under the bed and leave it there until the smell became too much..

You don't fancy using the chamberpot? Well, the alternative was a trip to the outhouse.

Going to the outhouse meant a long trek in the cold and dark and when you got there you might run into your neighbours. Or rats. Or mice. Or snakes. The chamberpot is sounding better and better, isn't it?

On a hot summer day the smell of the outhouse did not make for a happy time.

Apart from all that, lots of people used these communal toilets, so you might have to wait your turn.

If you were royalty, of course, you had your own W.C. Henry VIII's lavatory at Hampton Court was referred to as The Great House of Easement.

Rich peoples' waterclosets were beautifully panelled and had pull chains to flush it all away.

Fast forward to the mid twentieth century, by which time many people in industrial countries had indoor flushing toilets. So comfortable were these that people tended to use them as a place to sit and think.

But some toilets have a life of their own and just amble off whenever they feel like it.

And these flashy flushers get up to all kinds of things when nobody's looking. 

Tennis, anyone?

Not everyone likes flushers though. Apparently some people prefer these toilets to the sit-down kind. In many parts of the world they are the main form of sanitation.

If you're lucky enough to have a choice, which would it be?

Most of us like a good solid seat. Some of these nowadays are positively regal. Some are so grand as to resemble a Game of Thrones.

And some are so beautiful as to resemble art.

We expect toilets to be readily available everywhere, even on a jet. 

photo by Sheila B.

What, no toilets? This is an outrage! How long is this red jet flight anyway? What are people supposed to do?  

Most of us are not prepared to go out in the open, even if there is a nice toilet available.

These days toilet etiquette means that privacy must be maintained, even if you're a construction worker dangling from a cable on a building site.

There are all kinds of rules about how to behave in the toilet. Apparently you aren't meant to wash your feet.

Here is a sign from the Ukraine suggesting the correct way to use the toilet. Notice that out of six possibilities, only one is acceptable toilet behaviour.

No standing on the toilet seat, fair enough. No kicking the urinal off the wall; goes without saying. 

But no fishing?  What's the point of a toilet if you can't bring home a couple of trout for supper?

And no praying, apparently. I'd have thought the toilet was a nice private place to have a quiet prayer. 

(Miggy informs me that this person is vomiting, not praying. Well, that explains it then. The last thing you want is somebody vomiting into the porcelin punchbowl.)

The graphics used in the Soviet sign are pretty clear but the rules of etiquette explained in Chinglish leave no room for doubt.

The state of some public toilets certainly doesn't make you feel like rolling out a picnic.

You're lucky if you even get toilet paper.

Fifty Euros for a sheet of loo paper?!! This must have happened during the toilet paper crisis of 2020 when people started hoarding loo rolls as soon as the coronavirus was known. The loo rolls became very valuable items.


Toilet paper: who needs it? What do you think your left hand is for?

Toilet paper has existed since ancient times in China and it was first packaged in the US going back to 1857. But in some countries the use of toilet paper is considered less hygienic than using water from bottles, lotas, or bidets. It's a cultural thing. 

For example, you might want to support your World Cup team. German toilet paper anyone?

In their little toilet palaces, some people have gone way over the top in trying to cover up the fact that it's a toilet. In Las Vegas there is a cover for the toilet seat, available in different moods. That orange one looks constipated if you ask me.

OK, in some cases I have to concede that a warm toilet seat cover would be a good idea. 

And I can appreciate you might want to use a toilet seat as a wreath for Christmas.

Or bedeck your tree with toilet art.

Trees 2011, Dennis Oppenheim

But covering the toilet paper roll with a crocheted cover? 

Lady Brassica prefers a much more natural approach. Here she is in a 4-ply frock by Joop in Overbearing in Holland. She says the dress is light and comfortable and should you need it, the toilet roll is, ummmm, ready to roll. 

On an outdoor park bench you don't get all these luxuries. A simple seat and quick flush will do the trick.

Just Kidding prank

I guess it depends on how much you're prepared to show in public though.

I don't know about you but I'd have thought this chap should be using the outhouse rather than the bench.

Should have gone to Specsavers I guess.

Hopefully his eyesight is good enough to read this sign so that no pantyhose get flushed down the loo.

That may be a woman thing though. When it comes to toilet etiquette, gender issues are at stake.

Rows break out over the position of the toilet seat, and women put up notices to persuade men to close the seat. 

Some women will even call in the government to enforce the Seat Down rule.

Here's a low-tech, practical solution to the prickly problem of Toilet Seat Misery: 

In Japan toilet technology has moved on so that toilet seat issues have become passe. Here is the Angels Knee Pillow, which is a low level cushion on which men can kneel in comfort.

I'm trying to keep decorum here but it's only fair to show you a demonstration of how the Angel Knee Cushion works.

If the relief on this guy's face is anything to go by, this pillow really is angelic. 

And now to what World Toilets Day is really about. 

For millions of people in the world today, a nice clean toilet, whatever its style, is not available. For too many people, a toilet like this one is all they have.

How would you like to sit on this?

If you've ever been to a festival you've probably had to use a long-drop toilet.

Imagine those toilets on the last day of the festival, after heat or heavy rain. Think of those toilets at their very worst and you'll know what many people around the world have to face every day. 

How do you go about providing sanitation in a place like this?

Well, here's where benches come into it. 

This is a water-free bench toilet in Peru. It's low-cost, clean, efficient, and totally practical.

Agencies like Sustainable Sanitation are working to help people access clean, safe toilets, like this bench toilet in Mexico.

A simple bench toilet can improve health and literally be a lifesaver.

Bench toilets can, of course, be very posh. 

Some bench toilets conceal their secrets, like this combined toilet and bidet bench.

Some are so discrete that with the lid down they look like coffee tables.

Mungo and I have our own version of this; we use it when we go camping.

Ok, it's plastic but it's soooooo much better than this campground toilet we had in Belgium.

And it really beats the outhouse, especially since there seems to be a witch in there.

Here on Paradise Island Emily Hardhat is our Engineer-in-Residence. Emily won the Spanner of the Year award in 2013 for her contributions to engineering. She loves bridges and benches.  And it's great to see that she has taken on board the sensible bench toilet approach. 

We collected up all our shower gel and shampoo lids and thanks to Emily, Fribble is now flush with lovely toilet benches.


Guenther Haas took the picture Secondary Roll at the European Juggling
Convention 2011 in Munich in which he participated as a juggler. He also took Johnny on the Spot, the little guy who looks to me like a construction worker hanging from a crane. Guenther describes himself as a hobby photographer, mainly interested in long exposures, light painting and other exceptional or experimental, maybe even artistic, photography. Check out the light paintings and bulb pictures folders in his Flickr photostream at

Toilet paper became a very big thing in 2020 when the coronavirus hit the whole world.  People feared they would run out of toilet paper so some people hoarded as much as they could get. The hoarding, of course, led to shortages that didn't really exist.

Ruth W from the Wirral has been taking photographs more or less seriously for about 25 years, first with a couple of Yashica SLRs, lately with a Canon EOS 50E, and a 10D. She thought digital would only ever be a quick and easy sideline, but she loves it, and the freedom it gives to play in the digital darkroom. She photographs places mostly: landscapes, towns, buildings and architectural details, including, for some weird reason, lots of doors and windows. And fortunately for us, toilets, like the two-toilet bench she found in the Pennines near Hebden Bridge.

The ancient bench at Philippi was photographed by Mungo on a trip we took to Greece in 1998. He had no idea at the time that this photograph would come in handy when I wanted to write a short history of toilet benches. Philippi is the place where St. Paul baptised Lydia and it's a much visited site near Kavala in northern Greece. Our guide that day was Athena, who amused us all by telling us one fact at a time and then saying Forget all about that now, I have something else to tell you

The image from Odyssey Adventures in Archaeology is a reconstruction of the Housesteads Roman Fort latrines at Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland where there was a garrison of about 800 Roman soldiers. The reconstruction shows the soldiers in a social occasion, washing themselves and using the latrines. Water channels fed by rainwater and runoff flushed out the system and later there was a cistern with a capacity of close to 24,000 litres. A different water channel ran around the perimeter of the central platform with water for washing. The Romans generally used a ‘sponge on a stick’ in place of toilet paper. Sponges are not native to British waters so either they were imported or the men used some local substitute such as moss. Housesteads Roman Fort is now run by English Heritage and makes a great day out if you're interested in archaeology.

There is a surprising amount of art on this subject, including people actually on the toilet. Showing public loos at Vauxhall Gardens in London, Inside the Lady's Garden at Vauxhall (1788) is pretty explicit. The artist is S.W. Fores. Then there's an illustration of how ladies used the bourdaloue, a French device apparently designed by Louis Bourdaloue (1632-1704), a priest of King Louis XIV. The priest realised that his very long sermons caused discomfort to the good ladies of France so he designed the gravy-boat shaped porcelin device they could stick under their skirts, sort of discreetly. The painting depicting this action is by Francois Boucher. 

Die Morgenwasche: Fraulauf einem Bidet, was painted in 1790. Yes, it's Woman on a Bidet having her morning wash. She's German and the artist is Louise Leopold Boilly. 

John Dalkin is at Heaven's Gate, photographically speaking. His three-holer is entitled 3's Company and he explains that the Georgian earth closet was originally constructed in the garden of Townsend House, on the outskirts of Leominster during the early 18th century. The 3 holes are set into a box bench over a deep cesspit. The pit could be emptied by means of a trap-door in the floor. It was dismantled in 1982 and re-erected at the Avoncroft Museum of Historic Buildings, Bromsgrove, England. John's photostream is at

The chamber pot is under a primitive vintage potty bench which I saw on ebay recently for $69.95.  Bidding is over now but you can still have a look at

The outhouse in Sydney dates from 1900 when there was an outbreak of Bubonic Plague in the slum buildings of Sydney. Cleansing and disinfecting operations followed. The photographer is Mr. John Degotardi Jr. from the Department of Public Works; the photo is in the Photographic Collection, State Records in New South Wales.

The bedroom with the chamber pot on the floor and the outhouse with a happy face are both from the Open Air museum in Nancray, in Franche Compte in France. 

I haven't been able to trace the origins of the illustration, but the woman is throwing the contents of a chambre pot out into the street. She yells Guardez-l'eau, (watch out for the water) which is the origins of the word 'loo' as used for toilet in the UK, as in I'm popping to the loo

Boon Keat Tan's shop is Queensland City Wall Art Station, a design studio specialising in computer die-cut vinyl decals and other graphic art.  Boon has a wide range of creative toilet signs. I loved the one with people crossing their legs.

Squeezemonkey is a graphic designer and climbing instructor in the UK. She has some great sets on her flickr photostream at  My favourites are the objects, and, of course, the Old Bench toilet. What luxury that must have been when everyone else had to squat in the street.

The elegant Bench Toilet from Julien in Quebec is indeed a work of   It comes from designer Troy Adams and won the DPHA Innovative New Plumbing Product of the Year award a few years ago   It features a stainless steel bench with a sliding wooden component which hides the toilet when it's not needed and there is storage underneath. The wood comes in ebony, teak, wenge or zebrawood and the steel bit is brushed stainless steel. The Troy Adams Fusion Design philosophy is described as 'an Asian-based sensitivity to nature, a European-inspired sophistication and an American focus on functionality'.  It sells for around $11,500, if you can find one.  I have asked my two husbands to club together for my Christmas present.     

Thinking of getting a tattoo? The Thinker is a vinyl decal toilet tattoo which is an easy way to give you something to think about whilst sitting on your toilet bench. It's from Eyvaldecal in California, who make all sorts of vinyl wall art for showers, bathrooms and interior design.

Cappy Sue is from St. Louis and she makes all kinds of strange and interesting stuff. Her CappySue shop is the home of the Penis Pendant, apparently, and she likes to encourage people to jazz up their crap. Hmmm. There's some toilet humour, including a toilet ballerina and the two toilets having a game of tennis. Andy Murray at Flushing Meadows perhaps? Elsewhere in her shop there is Mature Content. Not sure I'm ready for that but by all means do have a look at

Peretz Partensky is a scientist and adventurer from Ekatarinburg in Russia. He has a tendency to photograph various kinds of toilets in the places he visits, which is fortunate for me, especially as he makes them available on Flickr Creative Commons.  His photograph Your Feet Here pretty much describes what you're supposed to do with a foot toilet. East Meets West sums up the choice:  squat or sit, which is it going to be? PeretzP is currently in Afghanistan so I look forward to his photos.

The Tenshi no Hizamakura or Angels Knee Pillow is from Japan and is by designer Kaiteki Raifi Kemklyusho at  It was quite a topic of conversation on the internet in 2009, when it was selling for 5800 yen (about $60). Worth it? Some people who clean bathrooms might think so. 

Eva is a Dutch scientist, writer and musician who currently lives in the UK and has a prolonged exposure to Toronto. Her photostream covers all manner of images from western and eastern countries. She also runs the Easternblot Images of Science group, for which she photographed what she reckons is possibly the dirtiest toilet in the world, at Pang-La pass in Tibet. What we can't see in the picture is poo at my feet (near the entrance), HUGE mountain of poo underneath the holes, and the smell. (Too much information, Eva!) Her Flickr photostream is at

The Dagobert Wooden Toilet Throne is from Herbeau's Powder Room Couture collection. It pays homage to King Dagobert’s reign (629 to 638 AD) as last ruler of the French Merovingian dynasty. The classic French children’s song, Le Bon Roi Dagobert tells the story of King Dagobert arriving late for an important council meeting with his trousers on inside out. As a fitting introduction to this whimsical toilet, a music box begins playing Le Bon Roi Dagobert as the lid is raised. The flush mechanism is connected to a pull chain and bell, thus letting everyone know that all is well in the kingdom.

The Red Jet is not an airborne jet as you might have thought; it's a fast catamaran ferry service from Cowes Isle of Wight to Southampton. The 'flight' takes 24 minutes and there are no toilets on board. You have been warned. The photo was taken by Sheila B., who has a sharp eye for noticing things like this. 

Terry Bain took the photo of the sandstone toilet in Spokane, Washington. Terry is a writer, humourist and book designer who claims to be owned and operated by dogs and cats and children. His recent works are We Are the Cat and (less recently) You Are a Dog.

Tempting though it may seem, you are not supposed to wash your feet in this toilet in Thailand. The photo was taken in 2011 and is from the photostream of Amusing Thailand at

Having been a traveller in the old Soviet Union in the 1980s, I just love Soviet Posters so I was delighted to find Aleksandr's shop at  From his shop in the Ukraine he sells prints and posters of Soviet propaganda. Lenin, Stalin, communist Pioneers - they're all here. A public toilet in Leningrad is still in my Top Five worst toilets of all time so maybe there's a need for these detailed images of how to behave in the bathroom.

I'm a great fan of Sign Fail, an etsy shop at . These are funny sign replicas inspired by real-life hilarity, the best of Chinglish & Engrish on handmade funny signs, cards & magnets. The signs are handmade to order in Melbourne, Australia by Michael Bancroft and I've picked out several which are just right for Benchsite. Many thanks, Michael. 

Michael Beitz, a Fine Arts graduate of the University of Buffalo, exhibits throughout Europe and the US. He makes all kinds of weird and wonderful sculptures which have emerged from his years as a furniture designer. Sofas in knots, upside down tables - it's great to see his quirky, twisty, mind-bending stuff. The giant toilet roll picnic tables piece is called Roll, and it was a feature of Banksy's Dismaland project in 2015.

Mark O' CĂșlar is from Kilkenny in Ireland, though he now lives in Dublin. He photographed the Euro toilet paper in 2011, when there was apparently a great exchange rate.

In March 2020 toilet paper became a very valuable commodity in places where coronavirus resulted in lockdown. In Manchester in the UK one factory was churning out 4.7 million rolls per day and still the shops were empty of toilet paper. A very popular joke appeared everywhere, especially on delivery vans where the message was sometimes written into the dust; No toilet paper kept in this vehicle overnight

Miss Shari likes these furry and colourful toilet seat covers which she photographed in Las Vegas in 2006. She also snapped the His and Hers cactus toilets which appear in her photostream at  

The ice toilet is from the bathroom of an ice house set up in Dundas Square in Toronto as part of a Microsoft advertising project in 2007. It was photographed by Alison Broverman, otherwise known as Pink Hats, Red Shoes. Alison says that if you ignored all the computer geekery, the ice house was pretty neat.   

eclipse_etc wants to make it clear that she hates the new Flickr. As so many of us do. But what we love is the Christmas wreath made from from a recycled toilet seat, gold spray paint, glitter and mardi gras beads. Eclipse_etc. reckons she wins the prize for tackiness and I can't help but agree.

Tree is the toilet-tree (geddit?). It's a sculpture by Dennis Oppenheim, seen at Yorkshire Sculpture Garden.

If you're a follower of Benchsite you'll know that Lady Jessica Brassica is the wife of Lord Brassica, Fifth Earl of Drizzly. She loves fashion and has her very own personal designer, Joop, from Overbearing in Holland. Lady B likes a minimalist approach to clothing so this paper dress suits her. However, she's asking Joop to use two-ply next time so that the dress is a little more revealing. 

The toilet bench in the park looks like kind of a practical idea, if not a very appealing one. Of course it's just a prank but watch the amazed reactions of people on the bench! Just Kidding prank

The brilliant Butt bench is one of those images which is all over the internet but is impossible to trace. I'd like to give credit for the design but I have been unable to find any clues. I saw it at Inspiration Green, who are scrupulous about providing credits and even they don't name the designer so this is the best I can do:

Karenoc11 took the photograph of the gentleman on the park bench with a newspaper and his trousers around his ankles. She calls this picture Should have gone to Specsavers. Yep, I'd agree. Karen has been taking pictures for a couple of years and says she's still not as good as she would like to be but in 12 months she has improved, knowledge increased, gained more equipment, and is willing to experiment. Most importantly, she's still having lots of fun. She loves shooting in RAW and by this time next year she'd  like to have a photo in print. Her photostream is at

Jason Yanowitz is from Amherst, USA. He photographs a lot of quirky stuff, including toilet haikus and the sign about pantyhose, which he saw at the Montague Book Mill bathroom in 2008.

Nyla Kelley loves embroidery and can make almost anything with paper. One of her signs suggests that men don't have a very good aim toilet-wise.  In her embroidery shoppe she offers custom embroidered gifts  exclusive Bebe' & Bugaboo Boutique bibs, blankets, sashay hair bows & head bands, scarves and socks for kiddos. She doesn't stop there. Other products are personalized name signs, flags, photo shoot name banners, scrap-books & family recipe books, digital & traditional styles. There are also greeting cards, and personalized and monogrammed note card sets with coordinating return address labels. Besides embroidery, she can make almost anything with paper. Where is her shoppe? At

Brett and Jacqlynn's shop is in Nipomo, California at They provide high quality illustrations for digital download that are print ready or they can provide you with a canvas print. They also specialize in vinyl decals like the message from Uncle Sam demanding that you put down the toilet seat. Golly, there are a lot of scary things inside toilets these days. 

The photographs of bench toilets in Peru, Mexico and elsewhere come from the collection of GIZ in Germany, who is responsible for the secretariat of the Sustainable Sanitation Alliance (SuSanA). The urine diversion dehydration toilets (UDDTs) were photographed by staff members and other contributors to the group. A photostream showing their good work is at   The settlement pictured is the San Juan de Miraflores settlement in Lima, Peru. It was photographed by Heike Hoffmann in 2011 for Rotaria del Peru.

The beautiful Hatria G-Full toilet bidet bench is from Cersaie in Italy. It has a gorgeous wood top which conceals both a toilet and a bidet, with storage underneath. I want one! It was exhibited in Bologna in September 2013 and photographed by Mariana Pickering for at

The City Life Smartbench is a WC bench from the well-known Villeroy and Boch. It is described as an elegant piece of wooden furniture which conceals a ceramic toilet that is only visible when the seat is opened. The WC has an easy-care ceramicplus finish and a wooden seat matching the overall design. Toilet rolls and brush are integrated into a frosted glass panel in the piece of furniture itself. Thanks to the Soft Closing technology, the entire toilet functions can be soundlessly shut away in a matter of seconds. What more can you ask of a toilet?

The Belgian campsite toilet was one of many bad ones we encountered on a bike trip in Europe a couple of years ago. It was the last straw for me and the following year we got the caravan bench toilet. Elegant, clean and yes, plastic, it has solved all our toilet problems. If I've captured your interest in festival toilets you can read more at 

Like me, Carol and Cindy from Kansas are great fans of the Wizard of Oz. Dorothy, Toto, the Wicked Witch of the East; they've made a business out of it at  Their art prints are suitable for framing and feature the legs of the Wicked Witch wearing her ruby slippers. In this case she is stuck in an outhouse in Meade, Kansas at the hideout of the infamous Dalton Gang. Apparently she was trying to hide from Glinda, the good witch, so she fell in and probably got what she deserved. 


  1. Outstanding work ! I enjoyed it immensely. I'm certain next home I build will be far more creative when it comes to the loo.

  2. Thanks, Bill. I know what you mean. What are we doing with all these boring white porcelin toilets when we could grace our homes with a toilet bench work of art?

    All the best,