English sanitation entrepreneur, b. Thorne, Yorkshire 1836, d. London 1910-01-27. Credited with the invention of modern flush toilets. He is erroneously called John Crapper in some versions of the urban legend that grew around his person later in the 20th century.

A large part of the myth surrounding this man comes from Flushed With Pride, his supposed life story, published by Wallace Reyburn in 1968. This little book is very well written and it is very easy to regard the statements in it as fact. In the end though, it's nothing but a delightful source of misinformation sprinkled with enough fact to make it great toilet reading.

Despite some opinions to the contrary, Thomas Crapper was an actual person, very successful in the plumbing business and the holder of a number of related patents. He started as an apprentice in 1847 after going to seek his fortune in London and in 1861 opened his own business. The Crapper company had three outlets in Chelsea and remained in business until 1966. The first two shops were opened by Crapper himself; the third, later the flagship branch of the company, was opened by his partners three years after he retired in 1904. Some companies started by his employees and apprentices are still in business. Thomas Crapper & Co. was revived in 1999 by a company based in Stratford-upon-Avon (better known for Shakespeare than for sanitation goods) which does business on the internet trading in reproductions of authentic Crapper items.

One part of the myth has it that he was actually Sir Thomas Crapper. This is false. Crapper was never knighted. He was, however, employed by a number of members of the British Royal Family as a sanitary engineer, and the company was the holder of royal warrants by both Edward VII and George V (the latter after Crapper's death).

Another common legend is his invention of the "Silent Valveless Water Waste Preventer" (item no. 814 in his catalogue), the original form of the gadget that allows a toilet to be flushed when the cistern is only half full. His company did market this device but the patentholder was a certain Mr. Albert Giblin. Mr. Giblin may have worked for Crapper or, more likely, sold the design to the company. What is certain is that Crapper did not invent it. Crapper himself held only nine patents in the fields of drain improvements, pipe joints, manhole covers and water closets. His nephew, George Crapper, took out a patent in 1897 on a siphonic system that Crapper is often credited for but the man himself, unlike many of his competitors, never patented any related device.

Crapper's legacy survives not only in the way we flush our toilets but also contribution of his name to the English language in the form of "crapper." The actual origins of the word are a bit uncertain but it's quite likely that the ubiquity of Crapper's name on plumbing fixtures visited by American soldiers (the more rural of who were impressed by the notion of universal indoor plumbing) during World War I did provide the impetus for its permanent inclusion in the language, later finding its way back across the Atlantic and now enjoyed by the entire English-speaking world. The word "crap," as used in the same context, is definitely older than the man himself and dates back at least to 1846. Its root is associated with the notion of waste in several Germanic languages.

Slowly but surely, the last manhole covers bearing the legend "Thos. Crapper & Co., Sanitary Engineers" are disappearing from southern England, including illustrious locations such as Westminster Abbey and Sandringham, but no doubt nostalgia will preserve many of them. The Science Museum in London has a Thomas Crapper exhibit demonstrating the workings of flush toilets such as the ones Crapper sold, sometimes by an actor pretending to be the gentleman himself.

Even if he did not invent them, it's certain that posterity has a special place for Thomas Crapper--and for his goods. His contribution to modern civilisation and bathroom comfort as we know it today has been more important than one might think. Mr Crapper was at the forefront of an industrial movement that introduced design and marketing to the humble toilet and greatly improved its aesthetics. His work brought the unmentionable out into the open and almost made it a question of fashion in Victorian England.

Factual sources:
Wallace Reyburn, "Flushed With Pride"
P & M Magazine
Adam Hart-Davis, "Thunder, Flush and Thomas Crapper"
Thomas Crapper & Co., Stratford-on-Avon

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