19th June 2023 marks Initial’s 120th anniversary. We celebrate our remarkable journey with you, from providing towels embroidered with our customers’ initials to pioneering hygiene technology.
Today, many of us may take various aspects of our hygiene for granted, such as clean water and clean air, flushing toilets and antibacterial soap. Hygiene has been transformed over the past 120 years, propelling us into a cleaner, healthier world.
Let’s explore the historic events that helped pave the way.
1. How has toilet hygiene changed before the 1900s?
In the early 1900s, only the upper class could afford indoor toilets and piped water. Few homes were connected to the sewerage system during that time. Many households still relied on chamber pots and outhouses. 1 However, improvements in plumbing systems gradually brought flushing toilets into homes.
The first modern flushing toilet:
Sir John Harington is said to have introduced the first modern flushing toilet, the ‘Ajax’, in 1596; the name was a pun on the word “jakes”, which was Elizabethan slang for a lavatory!
In 1775, the first patent of a flushing toilet was issued to Alexander Cummings who came up with the idea of the S-bend underneath the toilet to help prevent odours from the sewers coming out. It was 100 years later that Thomas Crapper took the idea and introduced the first line of flushing toilets (hence the name “crapper”), and then designed the ballcock which distributed water inside the water tank. 2
The discovery of toilet paper:
Joseph Gayetty first introduced commercial toilet paper in the US in 1857 (made of pure Manila hemp paper, it contained aloe and was advertised as an anti-haemorrhoid product) 3, but it’s said that the earliest use was in China in the 14th century.
From the Great Stink to the modern sewerage system:
The infamous London sewerage system, which originated from the “Great Stink” of 1858, was the catalyst for the advancement of plumbing systems and sanitation practises. 4 During that time, raw waste was spilled directly into the River Thames. When a heatwave took place, it led to a foul odour spreading through London as well as cholera outbreaks. Thankfully, increased awareness of the link between poor sanitation and disease prompted the British Parliament to pass the Metropolitan Sewage Act in 1866. Engineer Joseph Bazalgette constructed an extensive sewerage system for London and was knighted for his services to the city. 5
The modern sewage infrastructure in London set a worldwide precedent for sanitation systems, which highlighted the significance of sanitation and hygiene in creating healthier environments for communities.
2. What led to the importance of handwashing?
The role of hand hygiene and the understanding of its importance in preventing the spread of diseases have evolved considerably since the 1900s.
As the mid-1900s arrived, people began recognising the connection between hand hygiene and disease prevention. The rise of antibiotics and advancements in germ theory highlighted the importance of proper handwashing to reduce the risk of infection, especially within healthcare environments. 6
It was not only in healthcare industries that handwashing with soap and water became significant, but also in the food service industry and professions that require working in close proximity. An example of this is Mary Mallon – also known as Typhoid Mary. During the early 1900s, Mary Mallon, a cook by profession, unknowingly became an asymptomatic carrier of Salmonella typhi (typhoid fever). It is believed that during her career, Mary Mallon infected 51 people, with three fatalities (of which could be accounted for). 7
It was notuntil the 1980s that awareness of the link between hand hygiene and the transmission of infectious diseases became widespread. Only then did the national hand hygiene guidelines emerge, and then the WHO’s guidelines in 2006. This included the use of alcohol hand sanitisers, which had been available since the 1960s.
Even though handwashing has been practised for centuries, its widespread adoption required scientific discoveries on disease transmission.
120 years later, proper hand hygiene practices form a crucial aspect of our everyday lives to help prevent the spread of infection and save lives. As Covid-19 came to light, the use of hand sanitisers and regular handwashing were non-negotiables in maintaining our health and hygiene. Post-pandemic, a wider understanding has brought about an increased awareness of disease transmission.
3. How did people dry their hands in the early 1900’s?
In the early 1900s, the more affluent carried their own handkerchiefs, while most people relied on shared cloth towels in public washrooms. As you can imagine, these towels posed a risk for germ transmission.
After discovering that many people used the towels to wipe their noses, which led to the spread of colds, paper tissues were developed in 1907. It was only in the 1920s that paper towels were developed for hand drying. 8 In 1938, Joseph Darman patented the roller towel dispensing cabinet in the United States. 9 Roller towels quickly gained popularity, offering a shared, but effective means of drying hands in public spaces.
The introduction of the electric hand dryer marked a significant milestone in the evolution of hand drying. With the filing of the first patent in 1922, a new era began as heated air emerged as the preferred method for efficient hand drying. Manufacturers improved the design over the decades, resulting in a groundbreaking development in 1993—the introduction of air jets. 10 These jets not only reduced the reliance on heat, but also enhanced energy efficiency.
Hand drying techniques have come a long way in the past 120 years, showcasing advancements in technology and a growing awareness of environmental sustainability.
4. How has air hygiene changed since the 1900’s?
Advancements in air purification began in the 19th century with the development of the charcoal-based-filter Stenhouse gas mask in 1854. This played a key role in protecting people from airborne pollutants. By 1906, an “apparatus for treating air” had been introduced, which paved the way for future air purifiers.11 This invention incorporated a filter and a temperature control system.
The Manhattan Project’s contribution to HEPA filters during WWII laid the foundation for effective air filtering devices. Initially, HEPA filters were developed to remove radioactive particles from the air, and they remain the standard in air purification technology today.
As our understanding of airborne diseases grew, so did the prominence of ventilation and air circulation. In the 19th century, Florence Nightingale stressed the importance of sufficient ventilation in hospitals to provide a healthy environment. 12
During the 1918 influenza pandemic, people were advised to wear cloth masks and focus on ventilation to help reduce transmission.
Over a century later, it is a strange notion to think that history has repeated itself. When faced with the Covid-19 pandemic, there was still a lack of understanding around the importance of ventilation and the risk of airborne infection. Today, we are in a position where the understanding of both air and hand hygiene has become an everyday fact of life.
What can we expect for the future of hygiene?
The evolution of hygiene over the past 120 years has brought us into a cleaner, healthier world. From historical events to scientific discoveries, each milestone has contributed to our collective knowledge and paved the way for advancements in hygiene practices.
Below are key areas that will likely see significant progress in the future:
- Technology-driven hygiene solutions such as automated and touchless hygiene systems. Examples of these are sensor operated products such as soap dispensers and automated toilet sanitisers.
- As we become more aware of our carbon footprint, there will be a greater emphasis on eco-friendly materials, energy-efficient technologies, and waste reduction in hygiene products and practices. This could involve the development of biodegradable and recyclable materials, and the adoption of renewable energy sources in hygiene infrastructure. Such as using less plastic in sanitary bins or using electric vehicles to transport hygiene waste.
- The integration of artificial intelligence (AI) to help identify patterns, predict hygiene needs, and optimise resource allocation.
- Public health education and awareness will continue to be paramount in the coming years. Efforts to promote and educate individuals about proper hygiene practices will remain crucial in preventing the spread of infectious diseases. Advancements in communication technology and social media platforms will offer new avenues to disseminate hygiene information and engage with the public.
Moving forward, Initial remains committed to its mission of “protecting people, enhancing lives, preserving our planet”. We will continue to drive innovation in the field of hygiene, constantly striving to improve and introduce sustainable solutions. With an unwavering focus on the wellbeing of people and the planet, we eagerly anticipate the possibilities and discoveries that the next 120 years will bring.
Together, let’s embark on this journey, embracing a future where hygiene thrives and contributes to a healthier, more sustainable world.