History of Toilets

When did people first start using toilets? And were they anything like the toilets we know today? How does understanding the history of toilets shape our perspective on the role of sanitation in society, and the need to increase access to safe sanitation?


Understanding the history of toilets is essential to advocating for increased access to safe sanitation. FLUSH has been running a class “The History of Toilets” with the aim of raising awareness and building interest in sanitation in the USA and internationally. This workshop has been hugely successful in the USA with over 35 classes in the last six years and thousands of participants. Working with FLUSH to make the content more relevant to audiences in Southeast Asia, we aim to bring this workshop to increase interest in the region.

Why sanitation?

Building toilets and getting people to use them is critical for public health (O’Reilly, Louis, 2014). Poor sanitation also causes considerable financial and economic losses in Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam (Water and Sanitation Program, 2008).

History of toilets: A sneak peek

It is unclear when the first toilet was invented. Some say it was Mesopotamia in the late fourth millennium BC (Mitchel, 2016). Others say that it was the Indus Civilisation.  Public latrines had also emerged in a number of Greek cities sometime between late 4th and 2nd BC, whilst the latrines became widespread in Italy sometime at the end of the Republic (Andrzej Wypustek, 2019). Meanwhile, Asian areas like Korea and China were already using pit toilets and water-based systems. Check out the ancient toilets that FLUSH came across during their visit to South Korea in 2021.

Image sources, from first: Lawrence Lew (Pictured: Roman latrines), Ethel Davies/Robertharding/Getty (Pictured: An ancient Roman public latrine in the ruins of Timgad, Algeria), Diego Lezama Orezzoli/CORBIS (Pictured: Great Bath, ancient structure at Mohenjo-daro, Pakistan, an archaeological site featuring ruins of the Indus civilization. The toilets and baths were connected to a brick drainage system that ran along the streets. They were also covered by bricks to disguise them from view. Waste would have been flushed away using water)

With a growing population around the world, the amount of human waste has also increased significantly. How did we dispose of this human waste? We developed formal flushing toilet systems – similar to the ones we see today!

Every region and country has its own story. We believe that a greater awareness of our own unique – and connected – history of toilets will spark a greater appreciation of the importance of sanitation today.

What is the History of Toilets workshop?

History of Toilets is a two-hour workshop that explores the history of toilets, focusing on Southeast Asia, from ancient times until today. Through the workshop, participants will learn interesting facts about toilets in the region, such as some people flush with water instead of toilet paper, and why some toilets are always wet. What do these observations have to do with the history of toilets, and why do some people not have toilets at all?

What participants will learn

Participants will appreciate how toilets are connected to our everyday lives, and be inspired to take action, such as by raising awareness among their peers or contributing towards the improvement of sanitation.

Interested in hosting a workshop?

Engage us to run a workshop at your school, company, or organisation to learn more about toilets. Email info@washinseasia.org to register your interest!

How you can help

Volunteer to research and create content.