Anyone who has traveled internationally knows to look for the letters “WC” when nature calls. "WC" means “water closet” and denotes where you will find the toilet in countries around the world, from the U.K. to Thailand. If you ever wondered what a water closet is, that’s all it is – a toilet – and usually a small room containing just a toilet. Unravel the history of the water closet and you’ll uncover the era when civilization took a big turn.
Before the Water Closet
Most of the Western world enjoys indoor plumbing today, and we often take it for granted. Many baby boomers, though, can tell of using outhouses around the time of World War II. After the war, plumbing slowly entered even the poor, rural home.
Flush toilets have existed for five centuries, but indoor plumbing was unaffordable for anyone but the wealthy. Society has come a long way in just the last two centuries. The Industrial Revolution changed how and where we lived. Cities became filled with apartment blocks designed for lowly factory workers to live close to where they would often spend 12 hours a day toiling, and they needed to expel their human waste somewhere.
Communal urban toilets were common, even in the middle of the 20th century in tenement-heavy centers like East London, as fans of the British series “Call the Midwife” might have spotted in the show. Before that, people once used designated pans for doing their business in their home, and they then chucked it out their window into the street below. It’s arguably why life spans stayed so short for so long because diseases like cholera spread easily in the crowded, poor, working-class districts of cities, even with communal toilets.
Enter the Water Closet
Going back to the 1700s, a water closet was a room in the home with plumbing for doing their private business and maybe even washing up. For a long time, this room could also be called the toilet. It wasn’t until just over a century ago that the phrase "the toilet" began meaning the ceramic contraption itself that we use today.
It took nearly four centuries of varying advancements for toilets to become what we now know. However, those who travel widely in places like Europe can tell you that the North American design is not necessarily the norm in Europe and elsewhere. In those places, one might have to look around for how or where to flush. It could be a string from a suspended tank, a lever on the wall, a push button or many other types of controls.
What isn’t so varied, though, is the water closet itself. For any home that could afford one then or now, the water closet is a private space for answering nature's call. The water closet transformed society, making it possible to stay indoors. They improved living for the elderly and the sick and cut down on the risk of disease in public.
The Modern Water Closet
Today’s larger home has seen a return of the water closet proper. Realtor.com considers water closets an advantage for selling a home because it makes life simpler for families. A water closet today is a toilet that has a privacy wall around or near it – with or without a door – that allows one to "go potty" without being observed. It’s perfect for families who may not have enough bathrooms for everyone to get things done in the morning.
Beyond affording a bit more dignity and sanity, the water closet is also recognized as a health feature. Scientists have studied what happens with a toilet flush, and it’s not pretty. Invisible to the human eye, waste microbes can be propelled into the air and land several feet away. That toothbrush sitting so innocently in the cup by the sink is just one of many places on which microbes could hone in, but a water closet wall stops microbes in their path.
If buying a home or renovating your own, a water closet is a practical addition to any bathroom. Even if it’s just giving privacy with a partial wall, often called a “pony wall,” that water closet can add resale value to your house.
A Toilet by Another Name
If globetrotting is in your future, knowing that a “WC” is a toilet is infinitely helpful. However, when you’re asking for where to go, “toilet” is a word recognized almost everywhere internationally, though the pronunciation can vary.
In English-speaking countries, there are all kinds of ways people refer to toilets, and here are a few:
- Bathroom and restroom (popular in Canada)
- Loo, lav, bog (popular in the U.K. and down under)
- John, throne, privy, powder room (popular throughout North America)
There are other, more crass words with which you might be familiar through slang, of course. When all else fails, look for the universal “boys” and “girls” room symbols.
What Is a Toilet Trap?
When shopping for a toilet, you might wonder, “What is the difference between a P- and S-trap toilet?” The “trap” is the bend at the back of the toilet that leads the waste to the piping that takes it away to the sewage line. It’s called a trap because its construction is critical in “trapping” the odors that could make your water closet a much more foul place.
The S- or P-trap toilet simply explains whether the toilet flushes into the floor or into the wall. The letter is sort of how the trap looks when the traditional toilet of that type is viewed from the side. A P-trap heads into the wall, and the S-trap goes into the floor.
They are both designed to be effective at odor mitigation, but the type of trap you choose largely has to do with the existing plumbing layout and the space available in your washroom. Also, while toilet shopping, you may come across the “EWC" toilet abbreviation. This means “European water closet" toilet and simply refers to toilets that have a seat for sitting.
About Toilets Abroad
The EWC toilet with which you’re familiar is standard in most Western countries but not all of them. People talk about “Indian toilets,” but the reality is that it's not just Indian – it’s Turkish, it’s Italian, and it’s all over parts of Asia and Africa, South America and the Middle East. But what is an Indian toilet? It’s a squat toilet!
The squat toilet can be daunting for anyone encountering one for the first time. It’s a hole in the floor with footings on either side and a raised water tank in the back. It’s not uncommon to spot hoses or buckets nearby. These are to help with both flushing and personal hygiene.
One stands on the footings, squats and does his business. It’s all in the knees – to squat successfully means really bending down and poking the butt out for accuracy. Some travelers avoid wearing open-toed shoes in these countries, and you can guess why. Turkey is interesting, as the country straddles the continental divide between Europe and Asia – and so do the toilets since many washrooms feature both the squat toilet and the EWC “throne” style we know and love.
Steffani Cameron is a nomad, writer, photographer, from Vancouver, Canada, who is slow-travelling the world for five years. Her work has appeared in Washington Post, Vox Media, Kitchn, About, and more.