Where Did the Public Toilets Go?Historians in the News
tags: crime, public health, urban history, sanitation, public space, Public Toilets
Surviving a pandemic has a way of forcing people to focus on the basics: health, food, shelter, the need for human connection — and going to the bathroom.
This became evident during the Great Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020, when panic buyers emptied store shelves in the first weeks of U.S. stay-home orders. As Covid closures continued, the pandemic revealed a different toilet-related problem that predated the novel coronavirus: a dire lack of public restrooms. Though facilities in bars and retail establishments are often thought of as “public,” widespread shutdowns served as a stark reminder that they’re really not — and that few genuinely public bathrooms remain in American cities.
That reality was underscored as the pandemic dragged on. Infection fears led cities to padlock the few public restrooms that were available. Stories emerged about Amazon and Uber drivers resorting to peeing in bottles, while unhoused individuals relied on adult diapers or five-gallon buckets filled with kitty litter. Public urination complaints spiked in cities like New York and Washington, D.C., especially when crowds flooded the streets in the summer of 2020 to protest the murder of George Floyd.
“The state of public restrooms in the U.S. is pretty deplorable, with certain exceptions,” says Steven Soifer, president and co-founder of the American Restroom Association. “Public restrooms are a half-assed job. This is a public health concern, especially with Covid. It’s been a mess.”
So how did Americans end up with so few places to go? Understanding this requires a look back at the societal and sanitary conditions behind public restrooms in American cities — and the moral panics that propelled both their creation and downfall.
In the Victorian era, the “separate spheres” ideology — that a woman’s place was in the home, while men had the run of everything else — dictated life for members of the middle- and upper-classes. This was further reinforced by the fact that women in that demographic had few options for relieving themselves while out in public that provided an acceptable level of privacy and comfort. City-dwellers crammed into tenements, meanwhile, considered themselves fortunate if they lived in a building with on-site outdoor privies shared with their fellow residents.
That started to change in the second half of the 19th century. City sewer and public water systems brought improvements in sanitation, and the link between human waste and the spread of diseases like cholera and typhoid — initially thought to be caused by “miasmas,” or bad smells or vapors — gained wider acceptance. In 1865, a group of New York City physicians released a report on public health and hygiene in the growing metropolis, which included recommendations for public urinals that resembled the pissoirs of Paris. The following year, the New York Metropolitan Board of Health began planning what were to be the city’s first two public restrooms, each located in busy theater districts.
Ultimately, only one came to fruition: an above-ground, cast-iron, cupolaed structure at Astor Place and 8th Street that opened in 1869. Plans for this prototype public restroom indicated that it housed both a “women’s compartment” — featuring two stalls and a washbasin — and a “men’s compartment,” with three urinals, two seats, and no stall doors or privacy.
According to an 1897 report by the Mayor’s Committee of New York City, the structure drew close to 1,000 men daily, but no more than 25 women. In addition to not yet being accustomed to the idea of relieving themselves in public (at the center of a busy intersection, no less), the restroom posed other challenges for women, including the lack of space upper-crust ladies required to maneuver their voluminous skirts. Peter Baldwin, a professor of history at the University of Connecticut who has studied the emergence of public restrooms in the U.S., speculates that inhospitable temperatures may have also been a factor.
“It must have been horribly hot in summer, and I imagine the freezing cold cast-iron facilities might not have been appealing to women in winter,” he says.
This pioneering public restroom also didn’t last very long: After deeming its location “in too public a place,” the Department of Public Works tore it down in 1872.
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