Why Is It Called a “John”?

December 19, 2020

There’s an endless list of nicknames for a toilet: head, loo, WC, lavatory, privy, latrine—that’s just a small sample of the many names for a toilet we’ve heard during our decades of service as a porta potty rental business. Often, people in Chattanooga, TN bring their toilet-related questions to us, such as, “Why is it called a ‘john’?”

Who was John?

Meet Sir John Harrington, one of Queen Elizabeth I’s 102 godchildren and known as The Saucy Godson for penning risqué poetry. Looking back through centuries of toilet and porta potty history in Chattanooga, TN and around the world, any toilet-related reference to a john can be traced back to this industrious British fellow. While many believe Harrington invented the flushing toilet, the idea for this type of plumbing fixture dates as far back as 2600 BC.

Harrington receives credit for introducing the idea of flushing toilets to England. He called the contraption an Ajax. His concept called for a cord that would release a flush of water from a nearby water closet to transport waste elsewhere. At the time, the British aristocracy and court members were frustrated with their existing toilet and waste disposal options. These wealthy landowners wanted a device that would take waste far away from their manors and palaces.

Well known during his life for his work as a poet and inventor, Harrington developed the idea for a mechanism that would make a flush toilet possible. He published these ideas in a book titled A New Discourse upon a Stale Subject: The Metamorphosis of Ajax.

Later in 1596, Harrington bestowed this innovative method for waste removal to his royal godmother. He installed an Ajax in his home as well. However, toilet and porta potty history reveals that other members of the royal court may have ridiculed Harrington for the invention. After that, he didn’t make Ajax fixtures anymore, despite Queen Elizabeth supposedly loving the convenience of the one her godson installed for her.

Unfortunately, Harrington’s Ajax didn’t become a standard plumbing fixture in private homes throughout England. It wasn’t until the 18th century that British people began to enjoy the convenience of flushing toilets with the invention of the S-bend.

John’s predecessor

Before Sir John Harrington, there were Jakes and Jacks. These were popular names for men during the Medieval period. Over time, people began calling cramped bathroom areas inside homes or buildings either a Jack or Jake. In fact, Sir John Harrington named his flushing toilet concept Ajax because it was a new take on a Jack or Jake!

The next time you’re playing a trivia game or at a party in Chattanooga, TN and someone asks why it’s called a john, you can tell them all about Sir John Harrington and the Ajax.

When you find yourself in need of a portable john or a mobile luxury john trailer, get in touch with Pit Stop Portables. We’re not only toilet history experts—we also have a large inventory of portable bathroom solutions suitable for all events. Contact us today for more information about our rental fees and available units.

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