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This research paper is concerned with indoor conveniences: both domestic home toilets and those in the workplace and public buildings. Technological and cultural factors are discussed to understand why everyone, in the West at least, thinks it is quite normal to have a flushing toilet inside the house.
The Romans installed toilets inside their villas over 2000 years ago. But indoor plumbing was not a feature of European cities until the time of Queen Elizabeth I, for whom Sir John Harrington installed the first valve-flushing toilet in the 1590s. The majority of the population used chamber pots or relieved themselves outdoors. The wealthy had no need of domestic toilets; they had chambermaids. The few toilets that existed comprised a “privy” at the bottom of the garden, or on the outside of the castle wall hanging over the river. Privacy was not a major consideration, and men, especially, could relieve themselves anywhere inside or outside the house.
It was not until the Industrial Revolution that toilet provision became an issue. It was no longer acceptable to throw human waste on the midden outside the house. The ruling classes saw it in their own interests to enact public health reforms and to build sewers and drains because cholera is no respecter of class distinctions.
The introduction of water-based sewerage systems required the installation of flushing toilets. New paradigms of hygiene and social morality arose. The toilet had to be “tamed” and “domesticated” and brought inside the house from the yard. Toilet entrepreneurs such as Thomas Crapper in Britain, and John Randall Mann in North America, capitalized upon this new toilet market, for “every home should have one.” Design was based upon the “sit” rather than “squat” style of toilet provision and exported globally. Most people in the world still squat and have no access to modern toilets or toilet paper. To have a flush-toilet in your house is a sign of great wealth, with the increasing scarcity and privatization of water supply in developing countries.
Social prudery made it taboo directly to talk about bodily functions in polite company. Americans say they are going to “the bathroom,” (in a bathtubless room?), the British ask for “the little room.” In Far East countries bodily functions are not seen to be as culturally and religiously dirty as in the West: So euphemisms are less necessary. Nevertheless, Japanese high-tech toilets that play music to cover embarrassing noises are popular with women users.
In the nineteenth century it was considered so shocking for a woman to need the toilet when out that little “away from home” provision was made for women. Women still have approximately half the number of toilet facilities as men, a last vestige of sex discrimination. Standardized toilet manufacturers make little allowance for different user group needs, in terms of ergonomic design. Factory and office workers also suffer from lack of workplace provision, and there is no constitutional right for employees to urinate during company time.
While householders invest in high-quality designer bathrooms, in contrast the poor quality and lack of public toilets has been the cause of great concern to user groups such as the American Restroom Association (ARA). The ARA argues the business case that “bathrooms mean business” as better public restrooms will result in more tourists, shoppers, and visitors coming to town, staying longer, and spending more.
Public toilets, because they are public, are contested spaces, offering anonymity and seclusion to drug users and deviant groups. News reports of people being born, dying, being raped, trapped, attacked, or arrested in toilets are frequent. They are one of the few places where complete strangers mix and share intimate facilities. They repel those worried about picking up a sexually transmitted disease; women warn their daughters not to sit on the seat for hygienic purposes. They attract men who are “cruising” (cottaging, or looking for a date): the subject of many sociological and criminological studies. Toilet closure is often seen as the way to reduce crime. But closure greatly inconveniences bona fide users, as evidenced by a new generation of research on the practical needs of women and other social groups that are disenabled by the design of the built environment.
One can judge a nation by its toilets. When visiting a foreign country, the first necessity that people are likely to look for is the toilet, and the image and smell remain with them. The nature of toilet provision is an indicator of whose needs are valued in society and what a society thinks about women, babies, children, workers, and its elderly and disabled citizens.
- Armstrong, David. 1993. Public Health Spaces and the Fabrication of Identity. Sociology 27 (3): 393–410.
- Gandy, Matthew. 2004. Water, Modernity and Emancipatory Urbanism. In The Emancipatory City: Paradoxes and Possibilities, ed. L. Lees, 178–191. London: Sage.
- Greed, Clara. 2003. Inclusive Urban Design: Public Toilets. Oxford: Elsevier.
- Kira, Alexander. 1976. The Bathroom. London: Cornell University Press.
- Linder, Marc, and Nygaard, Ingrid. 1998. Void Where Prohibited: Rest Breaks and the Right to Urinate on Company Time. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
- Wright, Lawrence. 2000. Clean and Decent: The Fascinating History of the Bathroom and WC. London: Penguin.
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