Admiring the finest of thrones on World Toilet Day

Written by Nick Hadnutt, Curator, Archaeology

“What are you working on today?” This is a fairly usual question amongst collection staff at Queensland Museum.

“Toilets” I replied, causing a distinctive double take.

Well, one particular toilet. In 2011, a water main burst under Brisbane’s William St. Thousands of artefacts were blasted from under the road, ending up amongst over 70 tonnes of rubble washed up against the walls of the Commissariat Store.

One of the artefacts which caught my eye was a cracked toilet bowl. Sharing it on World Toilet Day 2022 seemed like a great idea. But what to write about? For me, this artefact is about connections to people, places and time. Let me explain…

The primary reason for my interest is the blue transferware pattern, boldly printed inside the bowl. It’s an attractive pattern called Canova – named after a famous Venetian sculptor, Antonio Canova, who passed in 1822.

The Canova pattern became popular, particularly within Britain’s colonies, and a number of English potteries began producing their version of the pattern. All the versions include key symbols which identify the pattern.

An attractive scene printed inside the toilet bowl. Image credit: Peter Waddington

Firstly, Canova’s remains were cremated and so the print features a funerary urn. The pattern features a small boat with a person at the oars – possibly because Canova lived in Venice. Finally, an attractive building has to be included which possibly links us to the Tempio Canoviano, a Roman Catholic church designed by Canova and built on a hilltop in PossagnoItaly.

It was completed after his death and his remains were deposited there in 1830. And while the pattern connects us to a famous Italian sculptor, this toilet connects us in other ways. Canova was famous for his neo-classical designs which were favoured by Victorian society. The British Empire expanded aggressively during Queen Victoria’s reign, complete with the subjugation and colonisation of many First Nations people.

These societies were often considered culturally and technologically inferior to western civilisation. Victorian England romanticised their own history and preferenced the classical civilisations of Ancient Greece and Rome with a romantic perspective. People evoked this important connection to a more romantic time by purchasing and displaying objects that were decorated or imitated classical styles including marble columns, ancient art styles and philosophy.

But enough about the pattern and its hidden meanings. Why was this pattern even on the inside of the toilet bowl?

Toilets have a long history of design and development, likely through traumatic trial and error! This particular toilet was likely flushed via a water cistern mounted above the toilet. It was developed in a time before large scale plumbing and sewerage projects.

It guides us to a time of significant cultural upheaval across the world and Victorians were moving through the Industrial Revolution. Toilets, which had previously been chamber pots, were becoming more commonly used within enclosed cabinets or closets, kept away from view.

Once plumbing became a thing – toilets and washing basins, sinks and tubs were openly displayed and not hidden in expensive closets. And now that they were openly displayed, the status (and toiletry!)-conscious Victorians had to decorate them – just like the other culturally significant items in their houses.

The three main symbols: urn, boatman and building. Image credit: Peter Waddington

Bathroom accessories became elaborated decorated with gilt, embossed designs and brass and copper plumbing. Patterns were selected because of their symbolism and the decorated toilet bowl was celebrated because it demonstrated the status of the owner.

This fashion soon gave way to the white washroom fittings we commonly see today. The white porcelain is often cited as being easier to clean but I wonder if that was the only reason. Regardless, this toilet begs the next question – who would use a printed toilet bowl in a city without adequate plumbing?

That’s right – Brisbane was one of the last major cities in Australia to be sewered.

In 1960, most Brisbanites used a dunny – a toilet within a small, freestanding toilet block/cubicle in the backyard. The contents were manually emptied daily by a nightsoil man.

A row of “dunnies” in a Brisbane suburb. Image source: State Library of Queensland.

It wasn’t until 1980 that Brisbane had a completed sewer network, meaning everyone could now flush the toilet and do away with the dunny.

This toilet was likely used approximately 100 years early as the other material washed out from under William St dates to a similar period – the 1890s. So this one cracked artefact can lead us on multiple trajectories during a very short read.

The toilet connects us with nineteenth century art and religion.

We can think about the privilege of accessing a sewerage system. We can engage in a conversation about European superpowers colonising the world with little regard for the lives destroyed in the process.

The toilet connects us to conversations about status and displays of wealth. Finally, it provides a perspective on British culture and how deeply embedded culture forms our views and perspectives today.

And, at the end of the day, it is a pretty toilet bowl!

To learn more about these or other objects in our social history collections, your can search and explore our online collections site.