Please ‘courtesy flush’

After several hours of doing research at the BYU-Hawaii Archives in Laie this past week, I went to one of the men’s bathrooms, and was surprised to find that a previous patron in the only available stall had not bothered to flush. Ewww, he left his stinky mess behind . . . which, you may think somewhat strangely, has prompted me to blog on about toilets, near and far.

Please keep reading as I share some Asian-Pacific perspectives on one of the most natural but seldom discussed subjects in the world.

First, a little history:

  • About 3,500 years ago Moses reportedly instructed the Children of Israel to dispose their human waste away from the camp and cover it with dirt or sand.
  • King Minos of Crete reportedly had a flushing toilet over 2,800 years ago.
  • Before this, and in many places and times since — including up to now — people have and/or are using some kind of hole, container . . . or not. Words such as chamber pot, latrine, cess pool, septic tank and honey bucket come to mind.
  • The Chinese have toilet history going back at least several thousand years.
  • The ancient Romans, Aztecs, and others built latrines over flowing water which washed away their waste . . . often into a nearby river.
  • Queen Elizabeth I’s godson, Sir John Harrington, built England’s first flush toilet for Her Majesty in 1595.
  • Alexander Cummings claimed the first patent in America for a flush toilet in 1775.
  • The Tremont in Boston became the first hotel in America with indoor plumbing when it built eight water closets in1829 . . . but for years after only the best hotels and homes of the wealthy included such conveniences inside.
  • Joseph Gayetty, an American, invented the first packaged toilet paper in 1857
  • A 19th century Englishman named Thomas Crapper — who unwittingly contributed part of his name to this whole subject — apparently received patents for inventing improvements to water closet plumbing, drains, manhole covers and pipe joints.
  • Words commonly associated with toilets include: WC — water closet, loo, lavatory, lav, bathroom, commode, throne, head, can, comfort room, CR, privy, potty, restroom, squatter, squatty-potty, the facilities, outhouse, washroom, and many more.

…some experiences:

  • I can remember hearing stories when I was a kid from returned Mormon missionaries who had lived abroad about what seemed very unusual bathroom practices, at least to an American boy. For example, apparently in Japan back in the 1950s — perhaps this was more indicative of rural areas — men, especially, would urinate in the street; and in France, this was taken up a notch by using a pissoir — a public urinal that more-or-less covered up critical body parts while in use.
  • Also, as a kid, my family often traveled in the Western U.S., which gave me plenty of opportunities to see “pay toilets,” where you had to put a nickel or a dime into a slot to unlock a toilet stall door. The men’s rooms usually had “free” urinals. For those who didn’t have or want to spend the money, this led to people crawling underneath (when there wasn’t an attendant) . . . which begs the question of how sanitary the floors were.
  • Then there were stories of toilets in Asia — squatters! From my own travels and residence in Asia I can tell you there are still plenty of these around . . . and, not infrequently depending on location, patrons have to bring their own paper supplies. The ones I’ve seen range from a trench that one straddles (admittedly this was in more rural situations),  a hole in the tile with outlines or even pads for foot placement (but no screening whatsoever), a ceramic or stainless steel fixture in the floor, and a ceramic fixture that wrapped from the floor up the wall and doubled as a urinal (with an overhead flush tank operated by pulling a chain at the appropriate point). Sometimes a sign showed which way a person should face when using one of these. Fortunately for the less limber or squeamish, western-style commodes are also widely used throughout Asia nowadays; however, signage in some of these public bathrooms made it clear people should not squat on the toilet seat when using these facilities. Whichever type of toilet, many now have privacy stalls . . . but not always.
  • As a young Mormon missionary in Samoa in the mid-1960s, I quickly discovered that outhouses were the norm beyond the mission home, and I could tell you funny and embarrassing tales — but I won’t. I’ll just note that many of them were gross . . . and in rural areas, some people just did their business in the bushes, or even right in the road at night. This was almost always a pee-you surprise when we’d come walking by the next morning, except when the buzzing of flies gave us a little advance warning. And for toilet paper? People apparently used leaves, pulu — coconut husk fiber (ouch!), or even rocks. (Hey, that was the culture at the time.)
  • During my year’s sojourn in Indonesia back in the 1970s, on a number of occasions I stayed in Jakarta where, in places, the old colonial Dutch canals were essentially open sewers. I know this kind of thing happens in India, and presumably other places, but I was still shocked to see people going to the bathroom in the turgid canals just feet away from where others were washing clothes and bathing. (EWWW!)
  • Speaking of bathroom attendants, during a recent trip to the Middle East practically every public bathroom had one who expected a gratuity when you came out. Presumably, they were there to clean up the place; if so, they were not doing their job. And speaking of Middle Eastern bathrooms, I was always a little confused by the flexible hose, which I guess some people used as a bidet.
  • Toilets have really gone high tech: I had read about high-tech toilets, but it wasn’t until I had a layover at Narita Airport in Japan a few years ago that I saw one of these modern commodes with a control panel on the side that allows patrons to select a variety of settings, for example, to warm the seat, play some music (to camouflage other bathroom sounds) and wash up, so to speak, after they’re done . . . even turn on a warm air-dryer. I must admit how to use all of the controls was not intuitive, and there was no manual either.

…and some insights:

  • Are you familiar with the term “courtesy flush”? Most western-style toilets are designed so that if you flush them at a critical point they carry away not only the bowel movement but much of the aroma associated with it, benefitting both the user and anyone else who might be in the bathroom (if it’s public), or who will next use the bathroom.
  • Speaking of which, don’t you just love it when you walk into a bathroom that someone has just stink-bombed, then quickly escapes, leaving others coming in right after you to give you the “eye”? And why do people wait until they get to church to bomb the bathroom anyway? I understand if it’s an emergency, but come on!
  • In our travels, I always appreciate clean public and business or institutional restrooms. I realize most places can’t provide minute-by-minute custodial care, but some obviously pay a lot of attention to the comfort of their people who stop by. One of the best examples of the former I’ve ever seen of this is the public restrooms on Temple Square and at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City, Utah. Spotless (regardless of the size of the crowds)!
  • Conversely, I’ve often gotten turned off or even grossed out by dirty bathrooms while on the road. I’m aware that many businesses don’t put much effort into this important service at all. “No public bathroom” is becoming a too-common sign, and I suspect that some of these establishments came to this policy because, frankly, they literally got tired of the effort and expense of cleaning up after thoughtless patrons. I mean, don’t such people flush their own toilets at home vs. leaving surprises for whoever’s on latrine duty?
  • I also realize this whole subject thread is delicate for some . . . and maybe you’re wondering, why I’m blogging away at it. Such is the writer’s inspiration at the moment, and if you’re reading this and saying, yup — been there, experienced that, or even chuckling, that’s all part of it for me. Even better, I invite you to share any of your own insights.


  1. Don Behling says:

    As my mother in-law said once: As you age you begin to realize the best seat in the house is the WC/Throne.
    The new SLC Conference Center, at Temple Square, has 22,000 seats and three times as many women’s bathrooms as men’s bathrooms. No long lines for the ladies…….very smart move by a very smart architect.
    Many public toilets today have automatic flushing valves. Each automatic device does have a manual button.
    New housing construction today can include a gray water system. Drains from the kitchen sink and toilets go directly to the street. The other drains go to a holding tank where that stored gray water is used to flush the toilets. In a standard house where all the drains are connected together you can install a toilet with two flush buttons: one button for urine only, the other button for waste.

    Hawaii uses the standard Uniform Plumbing Code. However each island tends to interpret it differently. Molokai/Maui requires a four inch drain continuous to the first toilet with a three inch drain to the remaining toilets. On Oahu you can run a 3 inch drain to up to 5 toilets. Last I heard Hawaii is trying to adopt a statewide uniform plumbing code where everything plumbing rough-in is the same regardless of which island you are on.

  2. My old Church College of Hawaii/BYUH friend Ish Stagner sent the following response:

    Hi, Mike: I truly believe that one of the great downfalls of the Hawaiians of the middle and late 19th century was that so many of them moved from the urban areas to Honolulu, where they overwhelmed the sanitation systems that were there and made it possible for diseases such as the ma’i uku’u ku’u, or “the squatting disease” to nearly wipe out everybody.

    I, too, remember Samoa of the early 1960’s. Walter Murray Gibson wrote the first printed manual on Hawaiian disease control when he wrote his pamflet, “Sanitation Practices for Hawaiians.” He was ahead of his time, but got some bad press. Soifua, Ish

  3. My Samoan Mission pal Craig Thueson drolly suggested I’m spending “too much time in the cultural anthropology lab” with this post. Malo lava lau susuga.

  4. Mika’ele,

    I still remember what my loving MOTHER saying to her children about “out houses”. We had more than one where we livd in Pesega. She always reminded us, HER children, to WASH our hands especially when it is DINNER Time or even after an occasional visit to that FAMOUS house that sat in the Samoan Jungle. To wash your hands or EVEN take a complete SHOWER.

    She was NOT a trained nurse, but she understood that her children should stay HEALTHY and STRONG physically and watch out for “diseases”. ALL I know that she was ONE Smart MOTHER, thanks to my Heavenly Father for turning her HEART to Gospel. Once she accepted it, SHE NEVER TURNED her heart back to it. She learned from her Mother the way of ordinary life would be. She also learned about how to take CARE of us, her children, with HERBS that her Mother EDUCATED her about.

    William G. Ah Mu [Viliamu Keli Ah Mu]

  5. I received the following from my friend Pam Thompsen through the Church College of Hawaii alumni network:

    I hated school bathrooms all through school and in all the many places I attended. Not only were they not clean, but girls would hang out there to smoke, do drugs and other not so great things. I found many ways to get around using them, including sometimes sneaking into the faculty restrooms which were sooooo much cleaner.

    On our trip to Bangkok we went out to climb through Hell Fire Pass at over 100 degrees in temperature and 90 something humidity. Quite a climb. Finally having accomplished that climb we went to seek the restrooms. Lucky for us just the week before new European type restrooms had been installed and doors as well. Still we did have to use a bucket of water to flush the toilets. Better than the alternative though.

    Never have understood about not flushing. It really isn’t difficult. Hmmmmm! One of the most interesting bathrooms I have ever been in is at the Madonna Inn at San Luis Obispo, California. In the Men’s Room is a lovely waterfall with fake, but beautiful, flowers under the waterfall. Almost ashame to use it for it’s intended purpose. In the Ladies Room there are huge seashells which are the wash basins..

    While living in the Bay Area of San Francisco, our young marrieds took a bus and went on what was dubbed the toilet tour. We went to various locations to see magnificent bathrooms around the Bay. Quiet the experience. Included some very fancy throne rooms.

    Just wanted to add a little to your lore about bathrooms. I am always so thankful to find a nice clean one when I travel.

    Aloha, Pam

Speak Your Mind