The Non-Expert

Take Your Seat, Please

Experts answer what they know. The Non-Expert answers anything. This week we answer a question that has plagued us all since the day after we invented plumbing.

Have a question? Need some advice? Ignored by everyone else? Send us your questions via email. The Non-Expert handles all subjects and is updated on Fridays, and is written by a member of The Morning News staff.


Question: Why do public toilet seats have a horseshoe or U shape to them, and most toilet seats in homes are a full circle or O shape? —Matt Z.

Answer: Let’s begin by dispelling a dangerous, reckless, and, unfortunately, commonly accepted myth about the history of plumbing.

Thanks to a vernacular that has appropriated certain terminology to describe the entire water closet, not to mention the disposal system itself and waste deposited therein, a lot of folks mistakenly believe Thomas Crapper is the inventor of the modern toilet. Matt Z., this is a falsehood that needs to be flushed from common parlance like so many clumps of sodden tissue.

Crapper was, indeed, a highly-skilled plumber who owned a successful business (Thomas Crapper & Co., still in operation) in London during the mid- to late-19th century. And while he did hold several patents, including one for manhole covers, Crapper was merely an inheritor of the flush-toilet and made his own modifications to an already established design. The name “Crapper” is in fact a Yorkshire moniker denoting one who harvests crops (pronounced “craps,” to Yorkshites), and has very little to do with defecation of any sort. Excepting, of course, those who are regular harvesters/consumers of corn, who have their own feces-related problems (something a friend of mine calls “reinCORNation,” but we’ll save that discussion for another time).

You see, Z., the flush-toilet, like so many inventions (the combustion engine, insulin, garage rock, falafel) was the result of collaboration. In the mid-18th century, folks everywhere had grown tired of seeing their turds floating around in the cistern, turds lingering like overbearing houseguests, turds climbing up out of the bowl and raiding the larder—turds, Z-Dog! Everywhere, turds. As you can imagine, something simply had to be done.

For centuries, hapless defecators resorted to calling in bearded, robed sorcerers, who would wave a plunger over the bowl, holler, “Be gone!” and banish the offending poo-poo to the netherworld. This “brown magic” had mixed results until 1777, when the first fully effective flush toilets began to appear around London, credited to a variety of names that I won’t bore you with here—although rest assured many are hilarious. The sorcerers, with little else to do, went back to their day jobs—selling comic books to pre-adolescent boys and perfecting mystical techniques of masturbation.

But let’s get back to your question. How easily one finds oneself off on tangents when discussing human waste!

“U” (open-front model) versus “O” (closed-front model) is truly a battle of the ages, with “U” holding a monopoly on the public sphere, and “O” content to exist modestly in private abodes. This much we know. But, as has plagued toiletry since its inception in the days of Crapper, untruths, speculation, and myth confound popular understanding of why this discrepancy exists.

Among some of the blatantly ignorant and foolish lies you might have heard: The open front allows for stray pee to dribble more readily into the bowl. Ha! If only! While admittedly this is a problem more common to men’s bathrooms, the “U” only encourages a slap-dash approach to urination. “By Jove,” thinks the pissing fellow, probably drunk, “with this handy ‘U,’ I can spray my business anywhere I like!” May Crapper’s ghost have mercy on you if you’re next in the stall after one of these philistines, Mr. Zizzle.

Perhaps you have been told that the “U” allows for greater facility when adopting the practice of “padding” (lining the seat with toilet paper for a more hygienic experience). Wrong again, Zorro! In fact, the open front actually proves problematic, as stray bits of tissue will often get caught in an initial “courtesy flush,” sucked out from underneath one’s buttocks and down into the pipes. Then what, Señor Zippy? There you are, with wiping still to be done, and herpes breeding beneath your naked cheeks—where’s your precious “U” seat now? It let you down, didn’t it? Yes.

And what of women? They void their bowels and bladders, too (shocking, I know, but apparently true). While I am unsure how many forays you, Zoltar, have made into the public ladies’ rooms of the world, you must know, at least, that their toilets share the propensity for “U” over “O.” What say you of this? Tampons? Something to do with the string? Seems like speculation, at best—and, to be honest, I can’t really help you here. But, in the interest of veracity and tenacious, hard-hitting investigative journalism, I went to an expert: a woman. Specifically: my friend Kate. Guess what, Zappa? Kate said, “Huh. Maybe for wiping?” She had no idea! To my suggestion of abetting hygiene-product application/removal, Kate responded, nonplussed, “Yeah, maybe.”

After all we’ve been through together, Dr. Zarathrusta, my inquisitive brother, I’m afraid that the answer to your question might be a bit disappointing. As is so often the case in this capitalistic, greed-fueled society in which we find ourselves—a society that chews up humankind in its maw of material-necessity, swallows us into a gullet of consumption, then dumps us into the sewer like so much half-digested corn—the “U” seat is preferred in public toilets because it is cheaper to produce, install, and clean. I shit you not, Zak-from-Saved-by-the-Bell. That’s all there is to it: Less surface area makes for less material; less material makes for less Lysol; less Lysol makes for greater savings; greater savings wins the war on terror, etc.

But, please, let me at least conclude by telling you a little story, maybe something that will help you in your future excretory performances, regardless of seat-shape. My father is Indian, from India. Indian houses, in my experience, do not have toilet seats at all; instead, in each bathroom you will find a pair of foot-pads on either side of a drain where you are meant to squat and expel your waste directly into the plumbing. Also, there is no toilet paper, but a jug of water. You pour it down your backside and scrub away until all traces of feces have been eradicated. Sounds gross, Zsa-Zsa? Sounds barbaric, this lack of tissue and Western wiping? Let me ask you this: If you got some poop on your arm, would you merely swab it away with a sheaf of Kleenex?

No, I thought not.

Good night.


TMN Contributing Writer Pasha Malla is the author of four books. He is also the head of TMN’s informal panel of film critics. He lives in Toronto. More by Pasha Malla