Flush toilets first became common in the late 19th century. While many models of that era resemble modern examples, others are masterpieces of Victorian and early 20th century craftsmanship. Technology continued to improve throughout the period, resulting in internal designs similar to those of today. Antique toilets can be porcelain, metal, or even wood. Many contemporary decorators incorporate elements of traditional toilet and bathroom design in their work.
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Invention of the Flush Toilet
The first flush toilet was invented by Sir John Harrington, a godson of Queen Elizabeth I of England. The toilet was a gift to his godmother, and an enormous improvement over commodes and latrines. However, the invention was considered something of a joke--or even an insult--and though beloved by both the Queen and her godson, did not resurface until the late 18th century. In 1775, Alexander Cummings developed a sliding valve that was the direct ancestor of the trapless, one-piece system created by Thomas Twyford in 1885, which was in turn the ancestor of all modern toilets.
Late Victorian Toilets
The earliest siphon flush system was patented in the 1880s by the Englishman Thomas Crapper. Often credited with inventing the flush toilet, Crapper was actually a plumber whose designs led to the fully modern siphon system developed in 1932 by Americans Charles Neff and Robert Frame. The early post-Crapper models were made of pressed clay, in the same way as floor tiles. Often beautifully decorated with floral and abstract motifs, or incised decoration, the look of these toilets was often spoiled by crazing, or fine cracks. Early toilets also tended to be taller and narrower than their modern relatives.
Early Toilet Tanks
The toilet tank is an essential part of any toilet, antique or modern. It is the flow of water from the tank that makes it possible to flush out the bowl. Early toilets had a tank that was located about two yards above the bowl. The toilet was flushed by pulling on a chain attached to the tank. With each flush, approximately three and a half gallons of water flowed from the tank to the bowl through a clearly visible, large diameter pipe. In the earliest examples, the tank is wooden, and contains an inner water tank made of metal. Other tanks were made completely of metal and covered with designs in paint and enamel.
The next phase in the development of the antique toilet involved the creation of the one-piece tank and toilet. Improvements in the arrangement of the siphon, valves, and pipes permitted the tank to be moved closer to the bowl. As gravity was no longer a major component in the force of the flush, the tank could be placed in its modern position behind the actual toilet. In the 1920s, complete one-piece models were made of vitreous, or glasslike, china. These bowls resemble modern bowls, but are still often a little higher in profile. Many also feature a prominent bulge that gives the area under the seat the appearance of a pitcher.
Buying Antique Toilets
Those interested in replacing period pieces, or simply in recreating a period look, can purchase authentic antique toilets from dealers such as DEA Bathroom Machineries and Vintage Plumbing Bathroom Antiques. Pieces are originals in good condition. Period hardware is also available to create a fully finished look. Antique toilets for sale run from incised china Victorian models to 1930s American Standard bowls. Dealers also usually supply other antique bathroom accessories, like tubs, bidets, sinks, and towel racks.
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