In a Nutshell
Contrary to popular belief, there was no man named John P. Crapper who invented the flush toilet. However, a man named Thomas Crapper did make numerous improvements to the flush toilet that had been invented more than two centuries before Crapper was born. He is also known for having promoted modern-day indoor sanitary plumbing with his inventions and products, which he sold through his company, “Thomas Crapper & Co Ltd”. In addition, the expression “using the John” and the slang term “crap” do not originate from Crapper’s name at all. The term, “John” originated from Sir John Harington, who is credited as the original inventor of the flush toilet. The slang term “crap” is a word that is derived from Middle English and earlier from Dutch and Old French. However, The reference to the toilet as “The Crapper” originated with US soldiers returning from England after WWII who saw the company name on the logo which was stamped on Crapper’s products at the time.
The Whole Bushel
Did you ever wonder where the expression “I need to use the John” came from or another expression regarding the waste we deposit in the toilet referred to as “crap”? Many incorrectly believe the inventor of the toilet was a man named John P. Crapper whose name is the supposed source of the above terminology. His assumed middle initial “P.” is thought to refer to what is produced when we urinate. However, John P. Crapper is a made up name, though not completely. Actually, the word “crap” originates from Middle English, where the term was used to reference rubbish or chaff, but its reference to human waste originates from two earlier words, including the Dutch word “krappen” meaning to cut off and Old French, “crappe”, meaning waste or rejected matter.
The truth is that there really was a man named Thomas Crapper (1836-1910) who is credited with greatly improving the flush toilet and promoting modern day indoor sanitary plumbing. Among his improvements to the flush toilet are the “floating ball cock” and the “U-bend”, which were incorporated in the toilets he sold with his company, “Thomas Crapper & Co Ltd”. This led to many US soldiers stationed in England during World War II to refer to a toilet as “The Crapper”, since the company’s name appeared in the logo which was stamped on Crapper’s products. From there, the reference was brought back to the United States as soldiers returned at the end of the war.
However, the original flush toilet was actually invented in 1596 by a man named Sir John Harington, where it is thought that the expression “I need to use the John” came from. He invented the first flushing toilet and installed a prototype version in the palace for Queen Elizabeth I, who was his godmother.
However, the foul smell from the plumbing below was a problem he would never solve. Alexander Cumming later patented a design of the flush toilet utilizing what is known as an “S-trap” in 1775, which is a curvature in the plumbing below that retains some water in the piping to block the foul smelling gases from entering the residence. Later, in 1778, a man named Joseph Bramah invented the first practical flush toilet.
Though not the original inventor of the flush toilet, Crapper made some key improvements to the design and promoted the use of sanitary indoor plumbing with his company that sold his flush toilets as well as numerous Victorian bathroom fittings. Today, Crapper’s company name, inscribed on manhole covers in Westminster Abbey, is still a minor tourist attraction in London.