The Bizarre World of Vintage Toilets

I had no idea that the toilet I’m using is older than my parents. I had no idea that vintage toilets could sell for over a thousand USD. I had no idea that legal restrictions made the vintage toilet market so weird. One might even call it a ‘black’ market.

We applied to have our toilet replaced for free by our local water utility. To qualify, we had to send photos identifying the model and manufacturing date of our current toilet. The manufacturer of the toilet bowl… went out of business in the 1930s. That’s quite a way to date a toilet!

Then I went down the rabbit hole of vintage toilet research.

I could say that we are replacing the toilet because we are virtuous citizens doing our part to deal with California’s drought by switching to a more water-efficient toilet. That would be a lie. The real reason is that the fill valve broke. We could just replace the valve, but it’s a hint that the toilet may have other problems. A full refurbishment of the toilet requires more money and effort than participating in the local water utility’s program to replace water-guzzling toilets at their expense.

Most of the time, repairing old fixtures has a lower environmental impact than sending old fixtures to the landfill and installing new fixtures. Toilets are more complicated. Yes, manufacturing a new toilet, shipping the new toilet to our home, and shipping the old toilet away from our home generates far more carbon emissions than refurbishing the old toilet. On the other hand, California’s freshwater supplies are limited, and old toilets consume much more water. Plus, pumping water also generates carbon emissions.

(Some people argue that the ‘water-efficient’ toilets are not more efficient because they require more flushes to do the job. That argument doesn’t apply in our case because… our water-guzzling toilet isn’t that great at flushing either. No, I don’t want to give details.)

Ironically, getting the water-efficient toilet will increase our water consumption. How? Since the fill valve broke, I’ve been filling the toilet tank with wastewater from cooking and cleaning. Our toilet currently consumes zero gallons of clean water. This is fine as a kludge, but I don’t want to do this long term, therefore toilet replacement.

(Since I started dumping wastewater in the toilet tank, the kitchen sink has been cleaner… maybe after the toilet is replaced, I’ll continue to discard cooking water in the toilet rather than the kitchen sink.)

Our vintage toilet is a Frankenstein. Someone took parts from multiple toilets and threw them together. Different companies made the bowl and tank. When I first read that the manufacturing date on the toilet tank was ‘1933’ I assumed I misread it and it was ‘1983.’ This is despite nothing about the toilet tank looks like it came from the 1980s. Only when I discovered that the company which made the toilet bowl went out of business during the Great Depression did I rethink this. Then I found out that the company which made the tank changed its name in 1967. The toilet tank WAS manufactured in 1933.

The internal parts (including the broken fill valve) are not from the 1930s. For one thing, some are plastic, a material which wasn’t used in 1930s toilets. I’ve seen photos of the internal parts used in the 1930s. They look nothing like what we have in our toilet. Those parts must have been kept in dry storage for decades; I can’t imagine them surviving decades of continual use in toilets.

Our toilet was most likely assembled by the people who renovated the house in the 1980s. My mother instructed them to maintain historical accuracy. Sourcing vintage toilet parts was more historically accurate than buying a brand new toilet. That was legal in the 1980s. Today, it’s illegal.

In 1994, the United States government banned installing toilets which use over 1.6 gallons (6 liters) per flush. In 2009, the California government banned selling buildings which have toilets which use over 1.6 gallons per flush. Since 1994, no newly manufactured toilets sold in the United States use over 1.6 gallons per flush.

What is still legal… is selling toilets manufactured before 1994. Thus, the vintage toilet market.

Presumably, collectors buy these vintage toilets purely for appreciation of their cultural and historic value. These collectors would never sully their precious vintage toilets by installing them for use.

Yeah right.

Yes, some collectors refrain from installing vintage toilets. However, some property owners dedicated to historical accuracy or otherwise fitting a particular design aesthetic… install them. Is it legal? It’s a legal grey area I don’t understand. Sometimes local governments offer special variance permits for historic value. (Are people always careful to get the correct permits? Ha ha no.) If a building was constructed before 1994, the property owner could always claim that the vintage toilet was installed before 1994, and inspectors would be unable to prove otherwise.

Some antique/vintage toilets can be modified so that they only use 1.6 gallons per flush. Even our toilet has an adjustment which makes it guzzle less water. (I’m grateful for that adjustment; it means I need to haul less water to fill the tank.) However, if it were adjusted to go down to 1.6 gallons per flush, it would stop working.

Certain people who don’t give a damn about historical accuracy or aesthetics also buy vintage toilets. They believe 5 gallon (19 liter) per flush toilets are superior to 1.6 gallon-per-flush toilets. These buyers pay a premium for vintage toilet tanks (and won’t adjust them to use less water).

Online, I’ve found vintage toilet dealers. Some of these toilets are pretty! However, none of these toilet tanks may be sold in California. That’s because California has especially strict laws about installing toilets. This vintage plumbing dealer in the Bay Area sells bathtubs and sinks… but not toilets.

Considering California’s past, present, and future droughts, I support water conservation regulations. That doesn’t stop me from being wistful that these vintage toilets must be pulled from use.

A few toilets removed for upgrades to water-efficient toilets may make their way to the vintage dealers. Most go straight to landfill. So, most likely, will ours. (Who knows? Maybe the waste management company will ‘divert’ them from landfill after all.)

For so long, I had no idea that my toilet had such history. I’m glad I learned before it’s gone.

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