From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my main page and also on the Blueprint and Podcasts pages.
The public toilet was broadcast on the 11th June 2022. You can listen to the audio here.
More than 800,000 people each paid a penny to use them, and they were the sensation of London’s Great Exhibition of 1851. I’m talking public toilets, or as they were more politely named, refreshment rooms. The euphemism to spend a penny would now enter the English language, joining an ever-increasing lexicon of terms, from powder rooms to cottages. The ones at the Crystal Palace were designed by George Jennings, a man on a mission to provide public toilets throughout London. His designs were glorious temples of mosaic, porcelain and brass, tucked away underground so no one needed to think about them. Even better, they used the latest in toilet technology – they flushed.
It was a typically Victorian response to what had become a growing problem with city streets awash with human effluent. It wasn’t an issue for the wealthy who could use facilities in hotels and clubs but providing toilets for ordinary men was seen as a priority. No such luxury was afforded women who, with bladders squeezed by corsets, were often forced to drink nothing when out of the home or not leave the home at all. It took until the end of the nineteenth century for the problem to be addressed with the first female public toilet opening at Piccadilly Circus in 1889. It was a similar story around the world.
The French were more accepting of bodily functions and saw no need to conceal their designs. Their early public lavatories, known as pissoirs or vespassiennes, after the Roman Emperor Vespasian who introduced a tax on public lavatories, were little more than masonry alcoves standing on the pavement. The first were built in 1830, the year of the July Revolution, but were quickly torn down and used in barricades. Thankfully the Prefect of Paris, the Comte de Rambuteau, persevered with the idea and from the 1840s hundreds appeared on the streets. These were not in any way discrete, many with no screen at all, rather like the modern urinals provided for men at music festivals today. Fancier versions appeared, usually in cast iron, and which often incorporated advertising hoarding and street lamps. Variants appeared elsewhere, in cities like Berlin and Vienna, some almost entirely concealed behind hoardings. The British would have approved.
Australia’s first public lavatories appeared in the 1850s with the very first in Melbourne being sensibly placed outside the Post Office in Bourke Street before an uptight British sense of decorum kicked in and the offending toilet was removed to a less obvious place on Flinders Street. Like their French counterparts, these were intended for men only, and were often beautifully fashioned from pressed metal and wrought iron.
This was the golden age of the public lavatory, and remnants remain in places like the Queen Victoria Building in Sydney. Gradually, in Western countries at least, the public toilet was accepted as an essential part of urban planning. It was the French again who introduced the automatic, self-cleaning public toilet in 1982, called a sanisette, the first of which was placed close to the Pompidou Centre like some new artwork. More recently, the public toilet has been incorporated into rain shelters and park structures with gender-neutral cubicles, making them less forbidding to use.
There’s a whole history of how public toilets became meeting places for men seeking other men, and how this was often brutally policed. Whereas they have usually been seen by women as safe spaces where babies can be changed. Toilet design continues to evolve, like the Tokyo Toilet Project where designers have created public lavatories in the fashionable Shibuya district, like Shigeru Ban’s transparent boxes whose clear walls turn opaque when in use.
The history of the public toilet is layered, a story of civic pride and engineering design, certainly, but also of prudery, homophobia and gender politics. They remain, however, the convenience that always promises relief.