It’s easy to take toilets for granted, but these porcelain thrones are nothing short of marvelous. In this episode, Joy and co-host Caleb find out how bathrooms and sewers helped civilizations grow. Plus they take a pit stop in ancient Rome where public restrooms were very public. And they learn about a privy fit for a literal queen. Enjoy and remember to wash your hands when you’re done!

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JOY DOLO: Step forward, young Caleb.

CALEB: Joy, I have brought you the plunger of mercy and the toilet brush of truth as you requested.

JOY DOLO: Indeed you have, young Caleb. Then I believe you are finally ready.

CALEB: You mean it?

JOY DOLO: I double dog mean it. No take backsies. Now, bend thy knee and lower thine head. Do you, sir Caleb, solemnly swear to always lower the seat when you're done, double-check to make sure everything flushes, and wash your hands for at least 20 seconds?

CALEB: I do.

JOY DOLO: Place thine hand on this book and repeat after me.

CALEB: I'm dry. That's a roll of toilet paper.

JOY DOLO: Precisely. Now, repeat after me. Whether number one or number two,

CALEB: Whether number one or number two

JOY DOLO: I will go with pride when I enter the loo.

CALEB: I will go with pride when I enter the loo.

JOY DOLO: It is done. Welcome, Sir Caleb. You are now a member of the Bathroom Brigade. May all your bathroom breaks be bountiful.

CALEB: Such an honor. So now do I get access to the very special Forever Ago bathroom?

JOY DOLO: Oh, you get access to an entire wing of bathrooms. Get ready, Caleb. You are in for a potty party. Follow me to the loo!


This is Forever Ago from APM Studios. I'm Joy Dolo, and this is Caleb from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Hi, Caleb.


JOY DOLO: Today, we're doing a whole episode about toilets, so naturally, we're headed to the bathroom.

CALEB: Yeah. Joy is going to show me her collection of historical commodes.

JOY DOLO: Now, I'm a big fan of the toilet. It's a marvelous invention. It whisks away waste water, freshens with a flush, shoos poo and makes pee flee. It's no wonder our Forever Ago friend Coby was interested in them too.

COBY: Hi. My name is Coby. I would like to know about the history of toilets. I think it's interesting because it's something that we use every day but don't know a lot about.

JOY DOLO: Caleb, how do you feel about bathrooms? What's yours like at home?

CALEB: I don't know. It's just a toilet and a sink.

JOY DOLO: [LAUGHS] Nothing special about the toilet and the sink, huh?

CALEB: No, they're just normal.

JOY DOLO: Wow. Well, Caleb, I'm going to tell you about my bathroom at home because I really like my bathroom. My favorite color is dark green. And so I've got dark green walls. And then I have a silver ceiling. And then my shower curtain is made from-- it's like birch wood, like a birch wood shower curtain. So when you walk in, it looks like you're in a forest.


JOY DOLO: [LAUGHS] It's a pretty cool bathroom, which is why I'm so interested in your bathroom.

CALEB: Yeah, yours sounds way more cool than mine.

JOY DOLO: So what is the worst bathroom that you've ever seen?

CALEB: Yeah. There's this one at this place near us, and it's toilet. They are supposed to be two nails that are keeping it on the ground, but there's only one. So it almost like tips over, but it doesn't quite, but it's really wiggly.

JOY DOLO: How hard would it be to go to a bathroom when it's only nailed down once. It's like you have no stability.

CALEB: Yeah, you have to stay very still.

JOY DOLO: I have another question for you. If you could design your dream toilet, any features you could have on a toilet, what are some main features that you would like?

CALEB: I just like the toilet as it is. I think it's just how it needs to be. I don't think anything needs to be changed.

JOY DOLO: That's nice. If I could do it, I would have, like, it could make Pop-Tarts. So while you're sitting there, you could have a Pop-Tart and you can-- it would make its own flavors, so you don't have to get only strawberry Pop-Tarts. It's strawberry and then sometimes cinnamon and then sometimes the s'mores one that have the chocolate and the marshmallow in it.

CALEB: That sounds kind of disgusting. I don't know about you, but I don't want to be eating while I'm using the restroom.

JOY DOLO: OK, how about this? This is another idea. I have a lot of ideas. What if your toilet also played music?

CALEB: That sounds more reasonable.

JOY DOLO: Good. Good, good. OK, so while we're on a good track, here's one more idea. So what if you open the toilet backing area and there's a system where you get a warm towel so instead of using toilet paper, you have a little warm towel that you can use?

CALEB: EEw, that's maybe the worst one yet.

JOY DOLO: [LAUGHS] Let's go back to the Pop-Tart idea. Well, cool. So would you rather use a super luxurious private bathroom with a beautiful view of the beach or use the bathroom on the International Space Station?

CALEB: Definitely the one with a view of the beach because I've heard bad things about the one on the International Space Station.

JOY DOLO: What have you heard? Is it Pop-Tarts?

CALEB: No, but it's just not great quality and there's no water. And you have to be careful your poop and pee doesn't float away.

JOY DOLO: Oh, I don't want to go there either, to be honest. It doesn't sound great. OK. Now, I think it's time to get down to business. Let's get to the business of doing our business. Caleb, which century do you want to see first?

CALEB: Which century? What do you mean?

JOY DOLO: Which century toilet do you want to see? I have them all. Welcome to


Joy's Hall of Stalls. Every door in this hall leads to a different model of toilet from throughout history. You want a potty like it's 1999?


Right this way. Or maybe doo-doo like they did-did in the dark ages?


I've got you covered. Or how about a little 1960s style pit stop, complete with a lava lamp next to the john?


I've got your peace, love, and porcelain right here, dude.

CALEB: Whoa there's like 50 doors.

JOY DOLO: 53. But who's counting? Me, I'm counting because I collect historical toilets. After all, I'm a member of the Bathroom Brigade and the president. I started the whole club, mm-hmm.

CALEB: You weren't kidding when you said a whole wing of bathrooms. This is amazing.

JOY DOLO: Well, think about it. Bathrooms are kind of the bedrock of civilization. For a long time, humans lived in small groups that traveled a lot. They'd make waste and then make haste and leave it behind.

CALEB: Right. But as humans started learning to farm and build towns, they stayed at the same place. So figuring out what to do with their waste became a problem.

JOY DOLO: Just imagine it. If they didn't have a plan, the piles of poo could grow and grow. A big town without some kind of toilet and sewer system would become a stinktropolis real quick. If the waste ended up in drinking water like a nearby lake or river, people could get super sick super quick. So solving the potty problem was a big deal.

CALEB: Some of the earliest known toilets with a sewer system were made by the Indus Valley civilization. They lived over 4,000 years ago in an area now known as Pakistan.

JOY DOLO: Right. And they built large cities with tens of thousands of people. To deal with all that waste, they made toilets that drain to central gutters. And those gutters carried the icky stuff away from the city centers.

CALEB: Out of sight, out of smell, out of mind.

JOY DOLO: Exactly.

CALEB: Whoa, check out this bathroom door. It has fancy columns on it.

JOY DOLO: We have to check this one out. It's based on toilets from about 2,000 years ago in the days of the Roman Empire. Caleb, welcome to my Pompeii potty.

CALEB: Whoa. Is this a replica of the whole city of Pompeii?

JOY DOLO: Yep. I go for authenticity with my bathrooms.

CALEB: It's so real. This was the era when Romans were ruling over parts of Europe, North Africa, and West Asia. They also built some amazing things that are still around today, like the Roman Colosseum.

JOY DOLO: They even had aqueducts, which are these fancy giant stone water slides made by skilled builders that helped bring water from one place to another. And people wore togas. I feel like that's an important detail.

CALEB: But wait. If this is the city of Pompeii, this must be before the volcano Mount Vesuvius erupted.

JOY DOLO: Pompeii was buried under volcanic ash during the eruption. It was a massive tragedy.

CALEB: But it also preserved much of the city just as it was.

JOY DOLO: Exactly. So when archaeologists dug it up later, they could get a good sense of life back then. That's how I know this Pompeii potty is so accurate. Take a gander.

CALEB: Is this the bathroom? It's just a long bench full of holes. Doesn't seem very private.

CHRISPUS: Indeed. It's so several people can relieve themselves at the same time.

CLETUS: My friend Chrispus is correct. It's a very public restroom.

CHRISPUS: Well said, dear Cletus.

CALEB: What are these guys doing here?

JOY DOLO: They came with the bathroom. I told you, it's very authentic. These toilets may look like simple holes in a bench, but they connected to large pipes underground. It was a very early form of sewers.

CALEB: I've read about Roman sewers. They were really advanced for the time. The waste fell in, and then it was carried away to a nearby river or waterway.

JOY DOLO: Exactly. It's not too far off from our toilets and sewers today. Private homes sometimes had loos too. But those usually just dumped into deep holes in the ground. And get this, these private privies were often in the kitchen.

CALEB: No. Just no.

JOY DOLO: Yes. Yes. People probably also use the toilet to throw away food scraps and such. So I guess it seemed like a good idea back then.

CLETUS: Yeah, where else would you put it? In some remote part of the home? That's just weird. Now, if you'll excuse us, my good friend Chrispus and I were just about to lounge at the loo and discuss philosophy and whatnot.

CHRISPUS: You're welcome to join us.

JOY DOLO: No, thanks. We're just visiting.

CHRISPUS: Are you afraid because of the octopus?

CALEB: Octopus?

JOY DOLO: What he means is that sometimes things crawl up from the sewers, you know, bugs, rats, octopuses.

CHRISPUS: OK, that's just one story. You see, a man once claimed that an octopus would climb into his home through his toilet every night to eat his fish. But that's not a real problem, if you ask me. No, no. It's far more likely that a rat will climb up and bite your nethers. But don't fret. It only hurts for several hours.

CALEB: That sounds unpleasant.

JOY DOLO: Yeah, I forgot about the butt biting rats. So modern toilets are built so things can only go one way, down. Anyway, let's check out another historical bathroom.

CLETUS: The rats aren't the real danger. It's the flames. Sometimes, the gases from the waste can create a fireball that shoots right up from the potty hole. It adds a real sense of adventure.

JOY DOLO: Oh, OK. Sounds cool. Maybe next time.

CALEB: That was really interesting. But I think I'd like to see something a little less public.

JOY DOLO: I've got just the john for you, but it's kind of far down Joyce Hall of Stalls. So while we walk, how about we play a game of--

CHILDREN: First Things First.

JOY DOLO: That's the game where we put things in the order they came in history. Today's things are all toilet-adjacent. We got toilet paper, plungers, and bidets. Now, bidets are devices used to wash yourself with water after you do your business. So, Caleb, what do you think came first in history, which came second, and which is the newest, toilet paper, plungers, and bidets?

CALEB: Hmm, well, I know that people used to use magazines and stuff before they used toilet paper. And that was like, I think, back in the early 1900s. So I think toilet paper came first because it's like-- well, maybe plungers came first.


CALEB: No, I think I'm going to go with toilet paper And then plungers and then dibet-- bidets.

JOY DOLO: Bidet, yeah.

CALEB: OK. Because I feel like toilet paper was probably invented back when they still mainly used outhouses.

JOY DOLO: Oh, right. Yeah.

CALEB: And so you wouldn't need a plunger. And then the plunger and then-- like, I don't know when people started really getting sinks. So I feel like it'd be like a similar time except later. So I think that's how I'll put it.

JOY DOLO: That's a great order. OK, so toilet paper, plungers, bidets. We'll hear the answers at the end of the episode right after the credits.

CALEB: We'll be right back.

JOY DOLO: We're working on an episode all about the kernel that feeds the barnowl. Popcorn! And we want to hear from you. What do you think will be the snack of the future, freeze-dried salad, moon taffy, soggy croutons? Let us know. Caleb, what do you think will be the snack of the future?

CALEB: OK, so you know like puffed Cheetos?


CALEB: Except imagine it didn't have any of the powder on it and it wasn't flavored at all. And then come in a box, and then you could also get maybe separately the powders and you could like, choose the flavor.

JOY DOLO: That is such a cool idea. What would your flavor be?

CALEB: I don't know. I'd probably just put on cheese flavor since it's kind of weird to imagine Cheetos without the cheese. But they could also be like, sweet if you wanted them to.

JOY DOLO: Yeah, like cinnamon sugar or like a powdered donut, whatever that powdered sugar is.

CALEB: Yeah.

JOY DOLO: Listeners, record yourself describing your snack of the future and send it to us at And while you're there, you can send us episode ideas, drawings, and questions.

CALEB: So keep listening.

NARRATOR: Brains On Universe is a family of podcasts for kids and their adults. And since you're a fan of Forever Ago, we know you'll love the other shows in our universe. Come on, let's explore.

SPACESHIP CREW: Entering Brains On Universe. So many podcasts. Brains On, Smash Boom Best, Forever Ago. Picking up signal. Smash Boom Best, a debate show. What are they arguing about this time? Tomatoes versus potatoes.

HOST: I was just remembering in 1949, the Mr. Potato Head went into production. A pivotal toy in a lot of people's childhood. And I was googling right now Mr. Tomato Head. And the first thing that comes up is, did you mean Mr. Potato Head?

SPACESHIP CREW: [LAUGHS] Hilarious. Zorp! Signal down. Need Smash Boom Best now.

NARRATOR: Search for Smash Boom Best wherever you get your podcasts.

JOY DOLO: You're listening to Forever Ago. I'm Joy.

CALEB: I'm Caleb.

JOY DOLO: And today, we're exploring the history of toilets. Getting rid of waste is a problem all civilizations need to deal with.

CALEB: For thousands of years, humans have come up with different ways to move that stuff away from where they live.

JOY DOLO: Like in the ancient Indus Valley civilization, they used public gutters and water to carry away waste.

CALEB: In ancient Rome, they had bigger underground sewers and very public restrooms.

JOY DOLO: Aha, we're here! This is one of my favorite historical toilets.

CALEB: Oh, wow. This toilet is expensive. Draped in purple Velvet and jewels? Fancy.

JOY DOLO: It should be. It's literally fit for a queen. Caleb, I present to you Queen Elizabeth I. She ruled England in the late 1500s.

CALEB: Whoa, a queen!

QUEEN ELIZABETH I: [CLEARS THROAT] You may bow to the queen.

CALEB: Oh, sorry, your majesty.

QUEEN ELIZABETH I: JK, I don't care. What's up, Joy, my sis? It's been so long. How are you, my girl? Did you get your nails done? Ah, love.

JOY DOLO: Hey, Queenie. I did get them done. Thanks for noticing.

QUEEN ELIZABETH I: So what's up? Here to gossip? Do our hair? Should I get take-out?

CALEB: The queen of England gets takeout?

JOY DOLO: This was England in the 1500s. They didn't have fast food, let alone takeout. This was before electricity and cars. It was all horses and candles and dresses with huge frilly neck pieces. What Queenie means by takeout is to have her servants take out all the food in the pantry so she can look at it and decide what she wants to eat.

CALEB: Oh, gotcha.

QUEEN ELIZABETH I: So, girl, dish, how's that podcastle thing you do? Do they still make you do it? Sounds terrible. Why not loaf? Girls got to loaf, am I right.

JOY DOLO: It's a pod cast, and I love doing it. I'm doing it right now. We're actually here to peep your potty.

QUEEN ELIZABETH I: What, this old thing? [LAUGHS] JK, it's new. Don't you just love it?

CALEB: Wait, is that a wooden box with a hole on top.

QUEEN ELIZABETH I: What? No. Eew. It's a Velvet covered close stool.

JOY DOLO: (WHISPERING) A close stool is just a fancy name for a wooden box with a hole in the top.

QUEEN ELIZABETH I: When it's time to go, I just sit here and my boom-boom goes into the box. It lands in a chamber pot. Then later, my servants come and take the chamber pot out of the box and dump it. Out of sight, out of mind. Am I right?

JOY DOLO: Chamber pots were popular at this time. They're basically pots you go to the bathroom in. Then you take it out of your house and throw the waste away, sometimes in a nearby brook or a river.

CALEB: Not the cleanest of solutions. Some homes had toilets that dumped into deep holes in the ground, but those could overflow, leading to a very nasty basement situation.

QUEEN ELIZABETH I: Tell me about it. Or don't. I hear about it all the time from the groom of the stool. It's all, my sister's home smells of feces, your highness. There was pee-pee coming from the basement again, your majesty. Blah, blah, blah.

CALEB: What is the groom of the stool?

JOY DOLO: At this time, it was common for kings and queens to have someone keep them company when they use the restroom, you know, because they didn't have phones to scroll or magazines to read.

QUEEN ELIZABETH I: Yeah, it's fun to chit-chat with someone, you know, spill the goss. My bathroom bestie is named Catherine Ashley. Her title is chief gentlewoman of the privy chamber. OMG, she is so fun. She also helps me with my grooming and clothes and stuff. And we talk about the latest tick-tocks.

CALEB: TikToks? Wait, I thought you didn't have phones.

JOY DOLO: Tick-tocks are what she calls clocks. Clocks were a big deal at this time.

QUEEN ELIZABETH I: Yeah. I even got one tick-tock that's small enough to fit on my wrist. Can you even? On my wrist. I'm pretty sure we've reached the peak of technology. Am I right, sis?

JOY DOLO: Well, back then, they may have had wrist clocks, but they didn't have a real sewer system. In fact, in London, England, things got real bad because people were dumping their waste in the River Thames.

CALEB: That's also the River people in London get their drinking water from. Yikes!

JOY DOLO: Yep. Lots of people got sick. As the city grew, the waste situation got worse and worse. Finally, in the mid 1800s, city officials built a proper sewer system.

CALEB: New York City got serious about building sewers around the same time, too. And pretty soon, it became normal for big cities to have a whole plan for collecting waste and cleaning the water.

QUEEN ELIZABETH I: Fascinating, I'm sure. Anyway, you want to go ride horses or pick flowers? Oh, I know. Want to go to a revel? I love revelling. I host one called Coachella that's so fun.

CALEB: Coachella?

JOY DOLO: (WHISPERING) She calls it Coachella because everyone gets there in horse-drawn coaches.

CALEB: Make sense. Actually, Joy, all of this talk of toilets got me thinking, I could really stand to make a pit stop myself.

QUEEN ELIZABETH I: Well, you can't use my royal throne. Get your own or have your servants get you one. I don't care what you do. Just stay away from my wooden box. I mean my close stool.

JOY DOLO: (WHISPERING) The queen is very possessive of her pea pot. But don't worry. I have the perfect bathroom for you. Come on!

CALEB: You know, it kind of blows my mind how different civilizations across the globe from different times all found similar ways of getting rid of waste.

JOY DOLO: Yeah. I love thinking about toilets because it reminds us that things don't just get better and better. Sometimes, societies figure out something really cool. But over time, that idea is lost. Then another society figures out a similar idea much later on.

CALEB: And places we often think of as really modern like England and the US were actually really late to develop the kinds of sewers we saw in the Middle East and Rome thousands of years ago.

JOY DOLO: See, there's amazing history in everything, even toilets. And speaking of, here, Caleb, is the perfect toilet for you. It's the toilet of your dreams. A private, super luxurious bathroom with a beach view.

CALEB: Wow, this is amazing. It's exactly like I pictured it. Now, if you'll excuse me.

JOY DOLO: By all means. Ah, I did it! I found Caleb the perfect bathroom experience. That's what collecting historical toilets is all about. Ooh, I should tell the president of the Bathroom Brigade Club about this. Wait, I'm the president, and I'm very proud of myself. Good job, me.


Throughout history, people have had to figure out different ways to deal with their doo-doo.

CALEB: Some of the earliest toilets with sewer systems were made by the Indus Valley civilization.

JOY DOLO: Ancient Romans had very public and social restrooms where you shared toilets with lots of people all at once.

CALEB: And in 16th century England, kings and queens used Velvet covered boxes called close stools.

JOY DOLO: Cities like London and New York didn't start using sewers and treating wastewater until the late 1800s.

CALEB: Progress isn't always a straight line. That goes for toilets too.

JOY DOLO: This episode was written by--

SANDEN TOTTEN: Sanden Totten.

JOY DOLO: It was produced by--

NICO WISLER: Nico Gonzalez Wisler.

JOY DOLO: And Ruby Guthrie. Our editors are--

SHAHLA FARZAN: Shahla Farzan.

JOY DOLO: --and--

MOLLY BLOOM: Molly Bloom.

JOY DOLO: Fact checking by--

NICO WISLER: Nico Gonzalez Wisler.

JOY DOLO: Engineering help from Josh Savageau and Rick Beerling with sound design by--

RACHEL BREES: Rachel Brees.

JOY DOLO: Original theme music by--

MARC SANCHEZ: Marc Sanchez.

JOY DOLO: We had additional production help from the rest of the Brains On Universe team.

ROSIE DUPONT: Rosie Dupont.

ANNA GOLDFIELD: Anna Goldfield.

LAUREN HUMPERT: Lauren Humpert.

JOSHUA RAY: Joshua Ray.

MARC SANCHEZ: Marc Sanchez.

CHARLOTTE TRAVER: Charlotte Traver.

ANNA WEGGEL: Anna Weggel.

JOY DOLO: --and--

RON WOLDESLASSIE: Aron Woldeslassie.

JOY DOLO: Beth Perlman is our executive producer and the executives in charge of APM Studios are Chandra Kavati and Joanne Griffith. Special thanks to Molly House Spence and the rest of Caleb's family.

CALEB: And if you want access to ad-free episodes and special bonus content, subscribe to our Smarty Pass.

JOY DOLO: OK, Caleb, it's time. Are you ready to hear the answers for First Things First.

CALEB: I think so.

JOY DOLO: [LAUGHS] I'm excited. OK, so just as a reminder, we're putting these three toilet-related items in order of when they were invented. And so you said number one was toilet paper, number two was plungers, and number three was bidet. Were you right, Caleb? [IMITATES DRUMROLL]

CALEB: You're Holding me in suspense.

JOY DOLO: I know. It's my fault. But you were so close, Caleb. You were so close. So number one was toilet paper. You were absolutely right about that.


JOY DOLO: And that came around in the sixth century. The earliest known toilet paper comes from ancient China. The Chinese famously invented paper around the year 200 BC. And so a few hundred years later, there are stories of people in China using paper at toilet time. But this didn't catch on in the Western world for quite some time. Toilet paper wasn't patented in the US until the 1800s.

CALEB: I wasn't-- I wasn't thinking of people using it like before toilets. I was thinking of the actual rolls. But I guess they could have just used it by itself. Yeah.

JOY DOLO: Yeah, yeah. I thought it was interesting what you were saying about the magazines, and I was like, well, of course they would just use paper, any kind of paper, not just for toilets, But that's cool. So toilet paper was first. And then second was bidet. And that was created around the late 1600s or early 1700s.

CALEB: Well, these are way earlier than I was thinking.

JOY DOLO: Yeah, I know, right? Humans have used water to wash themselves after a bathroom break for a long time. And maybe while in a river or at a lake, which that makes sense. But the modern bidet goes back to France in the 1700s. And today, bidets can spray different temperature water for a post-potty clean feeling. So last but certainly not least, is plungers. And plungers were invented in 1875, so still pretty long ago.

CALEB: That was when I was expecting toilet paper to be invented, like sometime around like that.

JOY DOLO: Yeah we're going like way before that, huh? So the plunger was dreamed up by a guy named John Hawley and patented in 1875. It uses suction to pull on clogs and pipes and hopefully get things moving again. The first plunger designs looked pretty much the same as it does today. And you just can't mess with perfection. What can you do? Plungers have been the same for years and years and years. So what was the most surprising fact in there for you?

CALEB: Well, it was really surprising how early everything came. I don't think there was anything after the 20th century.

JOY DOLO: Yeah. So now it's kind of up to us to invent the newest one?

CALEB: Yeah. I wonder what it'll be. I just hope it isn't your Pop-Tart idea.


JOY DOLO: Shoot.

CALEB: I'm not sure if anybody would buy that.

JOY DOLO: Well, that sounds like a challenge, Caleb. Join us next week for a new episode all about the history of bagels.

CALEB: Thanks for listening.

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