News
2 min

A brief history of toilets

Sheila Cavanagh gives us the background

Xtra: I wanted to ask you to start, if you could, with where the modern bathroom comes from.

SC: The water closet that we have institutionalized here today in Canada and the US and most other western industrialized nations originates in London and Paris with the various inventions of the watercloset by a man named Harrington.

Now when he first developed it, people found the contraption to be quite perverse and laughable, so it was years before it caught on. When it did, they tried to develop public facilities, public sanitation systems in downtown London. Believe it or not, they had female urinals built, they had male urinals built, and increasingly people began to use them. So, before that, women would actually carry portable urinettes, made of glass or ceramic?

Xtra: Okay, I’d never heard the word urinette before I read it.

SC: It’s a contraption made of ceramic or leather or glass. Believe it or not, it was in the shape of an erect penis and testes. Women would literally carry this on their person so they could use it while travelling outside the home. Because of course the bladder acts like a leash, because one can only travel as far as the next available bathroom.

And so over time, the building of public facilities enabled women to enter into the public realm more than they had before. But you also have all these studies of the need for city sanitation, and the parallel wish to curb sex work. So by cleaning up city streets of overflowing cesspools, and what they called promiscuous urination, they thought they would be curbing sexual immorality. So by literally driving shit and urine and feces underground through clean plumbing and sewer systems, they thought they were also driving illicit sexuality underground.

And I’m also noticing that people are listening to our conversations, so I hope that that’s alright.

Xtra: Well, it wouldn’t surprise me if they were, because it’s both an interesting subject and one that’s rarely discussed. They weren’t originally sex segregated, is that right?

SC: No, they weren’t. Prior to the emergence of sex-segregated bathrooms, excretion was a very public event and it certainly wasn’t gendered to the extent that it is today. So people would use chamber pots in homes, and they wouldn’t necessarily be put into one room. They would be brought out into the dining room or living area when company came. So it was even very common for the royals, when they were having parties, to set up chamber pots.

Xtra: In the party room?

SC: Absolutely. Although there would be stories told about how people vulgar the French would be by the English, or how vulgar the English would be by the French. There would be all of these incidents where there would be feces or urine that wouldn’t land in the chamber pot, but on the floor. So as people consumed alcohol, it became a messier and messier event.

But what I found fascinating is that in 1739, which is when, as far as my research showed, the first sex-segregated bathrooms were built in a Parisian ball. Literally, what they did was they put one chamber pot in one room, and labeled it “Gentleman” and they put another pot in another room and labeled it “Ladies.” People thought this was sort of an eccentric fun idea, and it eventually caught on. But that was sort of the first example of the privatization of excretion in rooms and also being gendered.