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Who is Thomas Crapper?

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  • Written By: Michael Pollick
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 12 November 2016
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There is nothing worse for a researcher than misinformation and innuendo posing as fact, and such is the case with the 19th century English scholar and plumber known as Thomas Crapper. There are those who even insist there never was a real person with this name, only the active imagination of a mock biographer who published a book on his life called Flushed with Success. In fact, there really was a master plumber and bathroom fixtures manufacturer named Thomas Crapper, who was born in 1836 and died in 1910 in his native England.

As a young child, Crapper worked as an apprentice to a master plumber. After several years of training as a journeyman, he became a master plumber by the age of 20. Crapper did plumbing work for a number of prominent English citizens, including members of the royal family. Eventually, he formed his own plumbing and bathroom fixtures company, which became one of the first to feature a public showroom.

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Contrary to popular belief, however, he did not invent the modern flush toilet. The flush toilet, also called a water closet, was already in use long before Crapper was born. What he really did was popularize the flush toilet and make several minor improvements on its form and function. The plumber did invent the floating ballcock, a device which automatically shut off the flow of fresh water once the tank became full. Versions of his floating ballcock valve are still in use today, although the tanks themselves are no longer mounted on the wall above the user's head.

The other popular myth is that Crapper's plumbing work was so admired by the royal family that he was officially knighted. While it is true that his company did provide many of the fixtures and plumbing for royal accommodations, Thomas himself was never made a member of the knighthood.

While Crapper's name appears forever linked to the bathroom fixture he promoted so heavily, he doesn't even get credit for the coinage of the word crap. The word "crap" in the sense of waste products dates back to Old English and Dutch words roughly translated as "chaff". By the second half of the 19th century, the word "crap" had largely fallen out of popular usage in England, but not in America. Crapper's last name just so happened to coincide with a slang word for defecation.

It is widely believed that American soldiers stationed in England during World War I noticed the company logo "T. Crapper" emblazoned on British toilets and made the connection between form and function. When these soldiers returned to America, the term worked its way into the popular vernacular. The man himself died in 1910, several years before the association of his name with the product itself became popularized.

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