Today, when we eat at a restaurant, or shop in a large store, we expect that there will be public restrooms available for us to use. Your ancestors, however, were not as lucky. The history of public restrooms is an interesting one!
In ancient Rome, public bathrooms were for men, only. These bathrooms consisted of benches that lined the walls, with several large holes in them that were intended to be used as toilets. Men used them while talking with other men.
There was no toilet paper. Men used a communal sponge on a stick instead. Sometimes, the toilets exploded and had fire coming out of the seat openings (due to the mixing of hydrogen sulfide and methane.) There was reason to fear that a person could be bitten by a rat while using a public toilet.
There were no public bathrooms for women until the Victorian era. Previous to that, women had to stay close to home so that they could use the bathroom when they needed to. This situation has been referred to as the “urinary leash”.
Women found ways to work around this problem. Some chose not to eat or drink if they had to be out in public. Some women were able “hold it” for longer than others. There were some women who carried a “urinette” with them when they were out. It was a small personal device they could discretely use under their skirts and then pour out.
The first gender-segregated public restroom was a temporary one. It was set up at a Parisian ball in 1739. The organizers of the ball put one chamber box (a chamber pot that had a seat) in one room for men to use and another in a separate room for women to use. It was seen as a novelty.
The very first public toilets were introduced in 1851 in London’s Crystal Palace. George Jennings, who was a plumber, installed what he called “Monkey Closets”. People were excited by them because they were the first public toilets that anyone had ever seen – and they flushed! People paid a penny each to use them. Spending a penny ensured they received a clean seat, a towel, and a shoe shine.
In 1877, Massachusetts became the first state to pass a law that required workplaces that hired women to provide bathrooms for them. Other states passed the same kind of law soon after.
Previous to this law, women who worked in factories used the same single-user bathroom as their male co-workers did. This was problematic in Victorian society where privacy and modesty were important. The first women’s public bathrooms included separate dressing rooms and resting rooms for women.
Image by Dennis Jarvis on Flickr.
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