Why is it so hard to find a decent public bathroom?
The answer requires going back to the 19th century. Our pot shortage is nothing new. Consider, for example, this long-winded but otherwise familiar complaint made by the well-meaning reformer Augustus K. Gardner at a meeting in New York in 1862.
“Any man, let alone any woman,” he declared, “can walk from one end of this city to the other, in the greatest torture, and find no relief in necessities of the body, without such indecent exposure of the person as would render the individual liable to arrest and fine by civil authorities.”
But the risk of arrest has rarely deterred townspeople, especially men. Historian Peter Baldwin perfectly captured the spirit of the times when he wrote: “Urinating men, like defecating horses, was a daily sight in the street.
The stench was bad, but it was nothing compared to the real problem: the men were exposing themselves in public. An observer writing in the New York Tribune expressed concern that “women, passing on the sidewalks, are frequently subjected to indelicate parades which they cannot avoid witnessing”.
Not that the alternatives were much better. At that time, city saloons offered the closest thing to restrooms for ordinary men, but only if they bought alcohol. These “vile grog shops”, lamented the New York Times in 1872, made “a vile dram’s profit … the compensation of convenience”. The lack of public toilets, the reformers concluded, drove men to drink.
Increasingly, city officials promoted public restrooms as a means of taming immorality, keeping men sober and, increasingly, fighting disease. But these early efforts often failed. In 1883, a writer described the public urinal in Newark, New Jersey, as “a place reeking of filth, and on the walls of which are written the basest obscenities.”
There was another problem: public restrooms still hurt women. A typical public toilet built in Boston at the turn of the century had 16 men’s toilets and 12 urinals, but only 12 women’s toilets. Additionally, many public restrooms catered exclusively to men. London, until the 1920s, had three times as many facilities for men as for women. And while men used them for free, women had to pay for the privilege.
Why the disparity? Historians like Maureen Flanagan have argued that 19th-century town planners believed that women belonged in the house, venturing outside only for short periods. A woman walking the streets for hours, let alone visiting a public restroom, was immediately suspicious: lower-class at best, and most likely a prostitute.
In fact, when the women asked the men to build a toilet to accommodate the ladies, many men became hysterical. One official in London described such a request as an “abomination”, while another said any woman making such an outlandish request had apparently “forgotten her gender” and “shouldn’t receive anything at all”.
Given the stigma attached to using public toilets, most women sought other options. By the end of the 19th century, large urban stores, which focused on female shoppers, made clean private toilets an important part of their location.
Unlike dirty, crowded, and poorly lit public restrooms, department stores offered relatively luxurious facilities for middle and upper-class women—just like at home, where indoor plumbing had become the norm. Small retail establishments followed suit, offering the promise of clean bathrooms to attract women of all classes.
However, this was not the fairest solution. As women assumed an increasingly visible role in urban reform movements in the early 20th century, they argued that public “comfort stations” should be accessible to the masses. This short-lived campaign led to the construction of more modern facilities in many towns. But it also went wrong.
Landlords and businesses near the proposed toilet blocks have objected, saying they would attract crime and disease or, even more troubling to many, gay men seeking sexual encounters. But perhaps the biggest objection was that they needed a lot of taxpayers’ money to operate.
In the 1930s, the idea that the government would provide public restrooms began a decades-long decline in the United States. Instead, the older reliance on private institutions remained the norm. It even spread to new places.
The rise of the automobile, for example, allowed people to venture away from the privacy of their own toilets. In response, service stations, taking inspiration from department stores, began to make sanitary bathrooms a major selling point.
As historian Susan Spellman has explained, they did this on the assumption that wives would decide when and where their husbands would stop the car. Although no one today regards gas stations as paragons of cleanliness, they enjoyed for decades the reputation of being the best bet when nature called.
If, of course, you were white. Southern African Americans had no such access to clean bathrooms; they also faced discrimination in other parts of the country. In fact, as historian Bryant Simon has observed, battles over access to public restrooms have become very much intertwined with the broader civil rights movement.
Many whites, already reluctant to use taxpayers’ money to fund public facilities, became even more hostile to the idea. There were a few places where public restrooms became more plentiful — the construction of the interstate system led to more state-funded rest areas — but most people in the United States turned to private facilities. .
Although gas stations have stopped making clean restrooms their calling card, other retailers have picked up the slack. That’s why we go to Starbucks when we have to go.
More from Stephen Mihm in Bloomberg Opinion:
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Stephen Mihm, professor of history at the University of Georgia, is co-author of “Crisis Economics: A Crash Course in the Future of Finance“.
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