How Queen Elizabeth I Held Back the Toilet

by | Sep 17, 2014 | The Early Modern Age

Sir John Harrington, toilet inventor and potty humorist

Sir John Harrington, toilet inventor and potty humorist

The forerunner of the modern toilet appeared in 1596. An English nobleman named Sir John Harrington invented it and gave one to his godmother, Queen Elizabeth. Royal examples tend to shape culture. Witness the gentleman’s wig: a totally unnecessary hairpiece worn by well-bred Europeans during the 1600’s and 1700’s (and by some judges today) — triggered by a couple French kings who just wanted to cover thinning hair. So if the Virgin Queen had used the Sir John’s contraption, toilet tech probably would’ve spread long before the 1800’s, when toilets finally came into their own. But Elizabeth found Sir John’s machine too loud. (With a single toilet in the palace, news of royal bowel movements must have been distressingly public.)

Sir John published a book about about the toilet called A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, Called the Metamorphosis of Ajax. Even the “Ajax” part was a joke, since lavatories were “jakes” in Elizabethan slang. The book was also political satire, attacking the “excrement” poisoning English society. It pissed off the queen, so she temporarily banished her godson from court.

We call toilets “johns” after Sir John Harrington.



© 2014 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.

1 Comment

  1. John Keagy

    Good potty humor. Thank you. I’d say I’m proud to be a “John” since we invented the toilet but that doesn’t sound right.


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