The History of Portaloos

Humans are a smart lot. We figured out pretty early on that it’s important to deal with our waste carefully. That was a good decision for general hygiene, and it was a serious upgrade from the Middle Ages solution of emptying a chamber pot directly out the window. But, while we’ve been inventing toilets for thousands of years, the idea of bolting one to the floor is a fairly new concept. For most of history, humans have been designing and using portable loos.

The Chamber Pot

It began with the humble chamber pot.

Fair play to people from the Middle Ages. They didn’t really understand how germs spread, but they knew enough to keep their business to chamber pots that were easy to remove and empty. Chamber pots were the first and most portable loo in the world. Dating back to Ancient Egypt, chamber pots were easy to whisk away to a nice downwind spot where they could be emptied and cleaned each day. This solution was so simple that it wasn’t until our cities began to grow upwards that people started hunting for a better way to take care of business.

Thunder Boxes… Not as Cool as the Name

Chamber pots had one big flaw: they lived in your chamber. If you answered a call from nature in the middle of the night, you had to deal with the smell until the morning.

Well, 19th century British nobles decided that was too unpleasant for their delicate noses (they were right). Their solution was to take the chamber pot and put it in its own dedicated room. And, just for good measure, they built handy boxes around the pot that could double as a comfy seat. Thunder boxes were perfectly portable and great for things like long-distance travel, but they mostly spent their lives in small rooms that could contain the scents that Lords and Ladies didn’t want to inhale.

Sea Travel

Necessity is the mother of invention, and sea travel is the mother of portaloos as we know them today. A supervisor in a 20th century shipbuilding yard came up with the idea as a way of improving efficiency. His workers were slipping off the ship and back to dry land every time they needed to find some relief. So, he decided it would be better for business if he gave them a toilet option on board the ships they were building.

Made from timber planks and a metal holding tank, these semi-modern loos were heavy, hard to empty and they held onto bad smells like it was their job. Chemical deodorisers that came along later offered a little help, but you still had to hold your breath if you hoped to survive a toilet break.


Portable toilets weren’t just good for shipbuilders, and their popularity spread rapidly. To solve the issue of being overly heavy and overly wafty, new materials were brought into the mix. Fibreglass was the most popular. Strong, light, easy to manufacture and resistant to most of the things that would end up in the holding tank, fibreglass was a serious upgrade in some ways. But early fibreglass also had a tendency to be brittle (and you really didn’t want a portaloo to leak) and it still absorbs odours like a sponge, so portaloo pioneers kept up their hunt for the next evolution in materials.

Polyethylene to the Rescue!

That next evolution was polyethylene. Especially common in plastic food packaging, polyethylene is chemical-resistant, non-absorbent and easy to clean. And it also trumped fibreglass by being tougher to break and simpler to manufacture. Coming in the 1970s from American inventor George Harding, polyethylene portaloos took off in popularity, and most of the ones you see around today are upgraded versions of those early designs.

The Modern Portaloo

And that brings us to the present! Portaloos have come a long way in a short space of time (and our noses are grateful). Portaloos might still be made from polyethylene, but they’ve had design updates that improved manufacturing, maintenance, ventilation and general hygiene. We’ve now got portaloos down to a fine science. We can easily keep them clean, replace broken parts and they smell fresh without the need for nasty chemicals. Most models even include things like hand sanitiser or hand washing stations that make sure we’re keeping the world around us clean.

Looking to Hire (Modern) Portaloos? Poles & Holes Can Help!

Whether you’re building a ship, managing a construction site or hosting the next big festival, portaloos should be on your list of must-haves. At Poles & Holes we’ve got a big selection of modern portaloos that can keep everyone on site happy and healthy. Our stock is made up of the latest and greatest in portaloo tech, so we’ve got you covered with a clean and practical solution for any event! Get in touch with us for more info or if you need a bit of help choosing the right portaloos for your site.

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