We live in a "technological age". But which technologies have played the most important roles in producing our modern civilization? Which have most radically transformed our lives? Industrial engineering, the space research program, computers and communications technology? Of course, yet certain unobtrusive everyday technologies have been just as fundamental in producing the modern self: try to imagine your life without the toilet.


The flush toilet (WC) is recognized globally as an icon of modernity. Sometimes aspiring families in poor countries will install a porcelain pedestal in their house as a demonstration of their modern mindset, even if there is as yet no piped water connected to make it work. In the 1930s only 30% of American houses had indoor flush toilets. In the economic boom following WWII a fully-fitted bathroom, then later multiple bathrooms, became standard even in modest American homes. Americans believe that American toilets are the best, and that American toilet practices are top of the evolutionary or civilizational scale. This display explores some of the social, cultural and environmental dimensions of American toilet practices.

 

Image: High-water-consumption toilets evicted from a Hollywood apartment complex in the drought years; photo by Mayfair Yang.