It sounds like a straightforward trivia
question: Was the flush toilet invented by a Victorian
Englishman named Thomas Crapper, and is his name the source of
the slang expression for that invention?
The simple answer is no. Or rather, no and yes. Crapper was
indeed a real person, and his story is a fascinating example of
how misinformation can assume a life of its own once it appears
Most of the confusion about Crapper is the fault of a New
Zealand-born author named Wallace Reyburn, who wrote Flushed
With Pride: The Story of Thomas Crapper in 1969. An odd
semifactual biography, it falsely claimed that Crapper invented
the flush toilet (in reality, the first flush-mechanism patents
were issued in the mid-1770s, some 60 years before his birth)
and that his work earned him a knighthood from Queen
As the title suggests, Reyburn's book was also loaded with
wordplay and toilet humor. Reyburn himself died in 2001, so we
can only guess at what his intentions were; the evidence
suggests he was less interested in ridiculing Crapper than in
poking fun at a certain academic approach to writing about
To complicate matters, Reyburn later came out
with a second historical biography, Bust-Up: The Uplifting Tale
of Otto Titzling and the Development of the Bra. Unlike the
Crapper bio, Bust-Up was pure spoof, populated by such
outlandish characters as buxom opera singer Swanhilda Olafson,
for whom Titzling supposedly created the first supportive
undergarment in 1912; Danish assistant Hans Delving; and
conniving Frenchman Phillip de Brassiere, who stole the patent
rights to Titzling's invention.
Titzling was so obviously fictional, skeptics began questioning
the existence of Crapper as well. To this day, many print and
electronic references to Crapper insist, incorrectly, that
Reyburn created him from whole cloth.
As for the real Thomas Crapper, the company he founded in 1861
is, remarkably enough, still in business. Although sold and
stripped of its assets in 1966, Thomas Crapper & Co. was
revived in 1998 and now manufactures authentic reproductions of
Crapper's original wares, selling them over the Internet from
its Stratford-upon-Avon office.
According to the firm's managing director, Simon Kirby, Crapper
entered the plumbing business as a 14-year-old apprentice,
retired in 1904, died on January 27, 1910, and is buried in
Elmers End Cemetery in Beckenham, Kent. Primarily a
manufacturer and installer, Crapper did hold at least nine
fixture-related patents. But in Kirby's view, his most enduring
contribution to the bathroom-fixtures industry had to do with
his approach to sales.
For much of the Victorian era, plumbing fixtures were not
spoken of in public, much less exposed to public view. Breaking
with tradition, Crapper boldly displayed his products behind
plate glass in the busy Chelsea district of London, where the
sight of so much exposed, gleaming porcelain reportedly caused
some onlookers to feel faint.
In other words, although Crapper didn't invent the toilet, he
may well be the father of the modern plumbing-fixture
Nevertheless, it is his name — rather than any particular
accomplishment — that has secured his place in history,
despite the fact that "Crapper" wouldn't have seemed funny to
the company's original customers.
"Crap" originated as an Old English word for grain chaff
— and was later extended to include brewery dregs,
residue from rendering fat, and other unpleasant waste products
— but, as Kirby notes, the term fell out of use in
England sometime during the 1600s.
Fortunately, however, early colonists had already transplanted
it to this side of the Atlantic, where it took root and
flourished. This set the stage for an etymological punch line a
couple of centuries later, when American soldiers stationed in
England during World War I (who would have been familiar with
the word "crap" but not "crapper") found toilet fixtures
emblazoned with the Crapper brand name to be indescribably
Some people still think they're funny. — Jon
Photos courtesy Thomas Crapper & Co.