Inside the Collection

60 years of Caroma

This year Caroma is celebrating 60 years of manufacturing in Australia. While we may associate the name with toilets and bathroom fittings, the company has been a leader in plastics production since the 1950s. It all began with a plastic syringe…

In 1949 penicillin injections were being used to treat most bacterial infections, but penicillin tended to clog up glass syringes and make them hard to clean. To solve the problem, Austrian immigrant, Charles Rothauser, created the world’s first plastic, disposable hypodermic syringe at his Adelaide factory.

Charles Rothauser world’s first plastic, disposable hypodermic syringe
Powerhouse Museum collection

He made the first syringes in polyethylene. However, because polyethylene softens with heat, the syringes had to be chemically sterilised prior to packaging, which made them expensive. In 1951 Rothauser produced the first injection- moulded syringes made of polypropylene, a plastic that can be heat-sterilised. Millions were made for Australian and export markets.

In 1956 Rothauser, renamed his plastics company “Caroma” and began manufacturing bathroom products, including the world’s first one-piece plastic toilet cistern. In the 1970s Caroma made plastic bathroom fittings fashionable with the Bathmates range, available in five colours – red, white, blue, yellow and brown.

1970s Caroma toilet brush
Powerhouse Museum collection

Caroma is perhaps best known for developing the dual flush toilet. In 1980, with $130 000 government assistance, Bruce Thompson of Caroma developed a cistern with two buttons and flush volumes (11.0 litres and 5.5 litres). This wasn’t easy because the toilet bowl had to be redesigned to make sure less water could still remove the waste.

Thompson’s Duoset cistern saved 32 000 litres of water a year per household when it was trialled in a small South Australian town. Caroma’s success led to legislation in every state to make dual volume toilets compulsory in new buildings.

Thompson's Duoset cistern
Powerhouse Museum collection

In 1994 the company completely redesigned the toilet in stylish porcelain in a modern ‘organic shape’. Its 6 and 3 litre dual flush cistern and matching bowl halved the amount of water normally flushed away.

The Smartflush range designed in 2004, further reduced the flushing volumes to 4.5L and 3.0L and were the first toilets to achieve the Water Services Association Australia (WSAA) AAAA water rating for water efficiency. Five years of research, development and testing of the cistern and pan design were required to achieve effective flushing with minimal water use.

Sectioned Caroma ‘Smartflush’ toilet suite
Powerhouse Museum collection

Caroma’s combination of style and environmental awareness has attracted attention in the tough European sanitaryware market and their products are now shipped to more than 30 countries worldwide.

After 60 years, Caroma is still manufacturing some of its products in Australia, with plants in Norwood, South Australia, and Wetherill Park, New South Wales. One Caroma factory makes vitreous china toilet pans and cisterns, the main raw material being clay. The moulds are complex, and the process takes several days, as the wet clay dries slowly and is then glazed and fired in a large kiln. Another factory makes plastic cistern parts, plastic toilet seats, and some plastic cisterns. The processes used for making the plastic parts are injection moulding and compression moulding. For a detailed case study on how Caroma toilets are made and the importance of product quality see the Australia innovates website.

Here’s a sneak peek inside the Sydney factory.

Caroma's Sydney factory
Caroma’s Sydney factory. Courtesy Caroma Industries.
Close up of production line at Caroma's factory
Close up of production line. Courtesy Caroma Industries.
Toilets and pans emerging from the kiln
Toilets and pans emerging from the kiln. Courtesy Caroma Industries.

6 responses to “60 years of Caroma

    • You’re right, since this article was written in 2010, Caroma have sadly made the decision to close their Australian factories and source these products from overseas. The factories closed earlier this year (2017) but the article remains a fascinating insight into what is now Australian manufacturing history.

  • We’ve had a Caroma Slimline for 20 years – still works perfectly. Very sad that we lost the industry here, but at least it provided employment here for so long.

    I didn’t realise Caroma had such a long, interesting and innovative history. Wonderful to have some inventing done here. After they moved to polypropylene, did they keep using that kind of plastic for the cisterns before moving to vitreous china?

  • Blame the Australian consumer for putting price before National Pride!- How many Toilets does one buy in a lifetime? Not exactly a fashion statement ,are they? Despite what marketing people say! Do you invite all your friends over to admire your new crapper? That’s probably why designs today include the toilet in the main bathroom, more room for admiring guests!

    • I had 3 early Caroma dual-flush toilets installed in the new house we built in 1988, still working fine. For the little maintenance required used available replacement parts. Manufacturing unfortunately is all moving from Australia to primarily China. However, the logo “Made in Australia” comes with a sense of pride and good workmanship, made to last. Not disposable.

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