Drip, Drop, Flush

A quick-and-dirty tour of the history and politics of poop.


Nova Scotia journalist Lezlie Lowe has traveled around the world exploring the past and present of the humble public loo. This month, The Deep presents an exclusive excerpt from her new book, No Place To Go, available now from Coach House Books.



omeone wipes her bottom, drops a pre-moistened flushable wipe into the toilet bowl, and watches the swirling mess sloosh south. In a restaurant down the street, an employee pours the dregs of a kettle of fryer oil into a sink drain and watches the warm, lardish goo gurgle down. Then each walks away from the place her home or work connects to the underground wonder of the modern sewer. I mean, that’s how it’s supposed to go, right? The sewers lie waiting for our worst. They accept our shit, our shower water, and our tampons; our flushable wipes, used medications, and the leftover fat from our Sunday-morning bacon and eggs. Our approach to sewers is dump and run. We rarely give these accepting labyrinthine marvels a thought.

Until the sewers push back.

The pipe leading from that home and the pipe exiting that restaurant connect at a trunk line, well below the sidewalk and street. By this point, the hot fat is no longer hot. And the flushable wipe, while flushable in name, is not in nature—wipes are designed to withstand being wet for long periods in storage and hold their shape even in the face of sustained abuse. The wipe enters the trunk line as durable as ever, swimming along with dozens of equally sturdy tampons, applicators, and used condoms. It snags on a sewer wall. On it, the congealing fryer fat finds a home. More fat from more restaurants passes and sticks. More wipes from more homes greet the tumescent mess, along with more tampons, more sanitary pads… you get the scene.

The New York City Department of Environmental Protection estimated in 2015 that wet wipes had cost the city $18 million for blockage clearing and disposal over the previous five years. And used cooking oil is a problem for sewers all over. Austin, Texas; Washington, D.C.; and Tulsa, Oklahoma, have all started ad campaigns begging homeowners to quit dumping leftovers down their sinks. Animal fats, vegetable oils, and lard—even dairy products—stick to the walls of sewers like cholesterol plaque on the inside of an artery.

The frightening apotheosis of this problem is the mythically dubbed fatberg—a terrifying blob that adheres to the walls of sewers like concrete. A fatberg the size of a double-decker bus was discovered under Kingston in 2013 by Thames Water, London, England’s water and sewage utility. In 2017, the biggest fatberg on record was discovered under the Whitechapel district, the kind of monster that makes the 2013 Kingston fatberg sound quaint: more than ten times bigger, and longer than two football pitches. The Museum of London put a portion of it on display in 2018 (exhibition title: Fatberg!). Thames Water crews—eight members strong, working seven days a week—took two and a half months to remove this puppy. No doubt all the while looking over their shoulders for the next fatberg around the sewer bend.

A worker in London’s fatberg-clogged sewers
Photo by Stewart Turkington, courtesy of Thames Water

See, these things really do pop up out of nowhere. Sure, it seems wild to imagine something growing, undetected, underneath your house that’s the length of eleven double-decker buses, like the Whitechapel fatberg. But the whopping great volumes of oil from restaurant fryers and residential cooking, congealing around sewer joints and the reams of wet wipes, collect bit by bit by tiny bit. One frying pan of bacon fat? How could that hurt? A tampon here? Some dental floss there? No biggie. No one pictures these minor cast-offs mixing with gelling blubber to become a sturdy fecal-fat blob looming below the asphalt. Yet Thames Water clears some forty thousand fat blockages a year.

The pinguid terror of the Kingston fatberg was only discovered when residents reported trouble getting their toilets to flush. As Simon Evans, a Thames Water spokesman, told the Guardian, technicians discovered a “heaving, sick-smelling, rotting mass of filth and feces” stuck to the roof of a neighbourhood trunk line. The good news? Kingston upon Thames avoided—narrowly—having the contents of its every toilet bubbling up out of powder room loos and laundry-room sinks.

Modern city sewer systems, despite the abuse they withstand, have limits. And in growing cities, it’s not only flushing the unflushable and draining the undrainable that sinks the sewers, it’s a simple question of volume: the more of us there are, the more shit we collectively produce. And the more shit we produce, the better we have to be at finding different ways of dealing with it. Humans have the benefit of millennia in our back pockets on this one. But different and better aren’t exactly the hallmarks of our relationship with removing what we excrete. Consider: North Americans and Europeans sit down daily to poo into water we’ve spent gobs of cash to purify to drinking quality. It’s, well…stupid. Why treat water only to foul it with bacteria-and microbe-laden turds and flush it away? Because we started doing it that way a long time ago, built massive unretrofitable plumbing and sewage systems to support our little quirk, and haven’t found the will or the way to shake it since.

We’re married to our toilets. But we’re sticking together more out of habit than love. And perhaps out of fear of what we’d do without them. Toilets long before the toilet we know today were mere ditches in the ground. In Deuteronomy 23:12−14, Moses lays out a biblical code for where and how to relieve thyself, and the Bible, on this count, is the quintessence of right-headedness: walk away from areas where people congregate, and bring a spade to cover up your turds. (Linguistically, I’ll grant, the scripture is more elegant.) Moses was a sensible fellow, clearly, but I suspect he was codifying custom rather than making headline news. In ancient cities, things got more complicated. It’s harder to get away from your neighbours when there are forty thousand of them, as there were in Jesus-era Jerusalem. Soon enough, many great civilizations—Indians, Chinese, Babylonians, and Minoans among them—figured out that water worked brilliantly to wash away waste. But no one rocked early sewage removal like the Ancient Romans. They employed aqueducts to move water, reused grey water from their public baths for irrigation, and, like many other cultures, collected urine and feces as fertilizers for growing food. The Roman sewer system during the time of Pliny the Elder served a whopping one million urban dwellers altogether.

Technicians discovered a ‘heaving, sick-smelling, rotting mass of filth and feces’ stuck to the roof of a neighbourhood trunk line. The good news? Kingston upon Thames avoided—narrowly—having the contents of its every toilet bubbling up out of powder room loos and laundry-room sinks.

And all together.

In the Roman Empire, toilets were public. And public meant really, really public—a dozen or more citizens sitting together shooting the shit. You can shelve your horror. The idea of toilet privacy as we know it today is something no ancient ever experienced.

Historians believe there may have been screens or other means of separating the users of these mostly outdoor latrines, but using public facilities was a decidedly communal event. These toilets were located at central, easy-to-access spots, like the backs of theatres and near markets. They comprised long benches with holes over running water to draw away waste. Another springwater channel in front of users’ feet was used for cleaning. It seems Romans dipped a sponge on a stick into the water and used the moistened swab to scrub their derrieres. All this, in the presence of, sometimes, twenty-five or more fellow citizens. Roman- style communal latrines dotted Hadrian’s Wall in the north and extended south through the empire. Not-so-private public privies were hot in Roman times perhaps not only because people enjoyed the company of their neighbours, but because the disposal of waste was, itself, a public interest. The Romans engaged in building all sorts of community infrastructure—it is the empire’s claim to fame. So, their embrace of latrines was a product of enlightenment, not accident. When the empire crumbled around the fifth century, so did its toilets. And that’s when the shitstorm started.


he keepers of the English language at Oxford can’t say for certain where the term loo, a common British slang for bathroom, comes from. Though it’s historically and etymologically suspect, the explanation I like best argues that loo comes from the French phrase ‘Regardez l’eau!’—bastardized by the English as ‘Gardy loo!’—which could accurately be translated as ‘Heads up, whoever’s traipsing down the street below this open window, because it’s about to start raining the contents of a full chamber pot.’

There was shit, frankly, sloshed all over medieval Europe. It was tossed from homes into street-level ditches. It was launched from holes in settlement walls. It rotted in turgid cesspits. It bunged up rivers that once freely flowed. The sewer sense of the Roman Empire may not have been perfect—they too allowed waste into rivers and steams—but their successors literally threw their advances out the window. London’s first major sanitary acts weren’t passed until the thirteenth century. They prohibited pigs from running (and, presumably, shitting) in the streets, and demanded an end to on-street tallow-rendering, solder-melting, and the flaying of dead horses. By 1300, people were asked to please stop hurling their poo into the streets. All solid ideas, for sure. Except no one seemed to do much about them. Animals and humans and all their sundry waste communed endlessly in cities and villages. There was little in the way of organized sewage disposal. The population of High Middle Ages Europe was about eighty million; in overcrowded urban spaces, bodies were everywhere and so were their by-products. Writer Bill Bryson notes in his book At Home: A Short History of Private Life that Italian adventurer Giacomo Casanova, on a visit to London, frequently “saw someone ‘ease his sluices’ in full public view along roadsides or against buildings.”

Science writer David Waltner-Toews, in The Origin of Feces: What Excrement Tells Us about Evolution, Ecology, and a Sustainable Society, calls the narrative of shit ‘one of fits and starts.’ It’s an apt characterization. The oldest recorded ‘flush’ toilet was at Crete’s palace of Knossos, dating from 1700 bce. That might as well have been a ghost loo; it mysteriously disappeared. The Romans got things chugging along nicely, then screwed the sanitation pooch when they lost the empire. Exceptions also punctuated the medieval era of dire squalidity—Henry III ordered the maintenance of a Thames-bound underground drainage system at Palace of Westminster and watercourses ran under some monastery dormitories. Tudor times saw the establishment of drop toilets—seats with open bottoms that either hung over exterior castle moats or were built inside closets in homes (and from which feces and urine dropped down into a basement cesspit). The idea was for the poo to fall away from the poo-ers. Pity the wretched workers who had to hand-clean the moats and dig out the basement trenches, not least of all because excavations of medieval and Tudor privies suggest humans were bursting with parasites. The job of the so-called night-soil man wasn’t an envied one. Sir John Harington, the godson of Queen Elizabeth I, built the first mechanical flush toilet in 1596, installing one at Richmond Palace for Her Majesty and one in his own home. The Queen mustn’t have been all that amused. She died seven years later, and the Harington model was never seen again.

Italian adventurer Giacomo Casanova, on a visit to London, frequently "saw someone 'ease his sluices' in full public view along roadsides or against buildings."

Outhouses and chamber pots proved fecally sufficient for the next two centuries, until an explosion of lavatorial concoctions based on Harington’s original flusher hit England in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. First came Alexander Cummings, an horologist; next, Joseph Bramah, a locksmith; after them, loads more inventors got into the game. You’ll want to know here about the name synonymous with early water closets: Thomas Crapper. Let me flush your assumptions. Crapper did not invent the toilet, and the slang word crap predates the man himself. He was a plumber by trade, and a genius marketer by nature. Crapper created the first bathroom showroom, distributing the inventions of others and adding his company name to the fixtures. He was a whiz at nudging forward the desirability of indoor outhouses. Though as the Victorian era progressed, our collective Western disgust at urine and feces began to fix and intensify and our relationship with getting rid of our waste changed indelibly.


onjure the stench of two and a half million bowel-loads of feces dropped daily into the Thames. Imagine it combined with the ascending Hades of a London summer. Imagine all that feces and urine, plus whatever else—animal corpses, rotten food, industrial waste—Londoners felt like chucking into the Thames, literally fermenting in the June heat. Picture the top of the city’s main river as a bubbly fecal froth. No surprise they dubbed the summer of 1858 the Great Stink.

Now picture Joseph Bazalgette to the rescue, a hero in muttonchops. Bazalgette was the civil engineer who designed London’s modern sewage system. He was first put to the task during the Great Stink, when olfactory offensiveness reached such heights that the curtains of Parliament were closed and doused with lime chloride, and London’s flaneurs held perfumed cloths to their noses and mouths, lest they faint from the fetor. It was gross.

“The Silent Highwayman”, a cartoon depicting death on the Thames, published in Britain’s Punch magazine in 1858, at the height of the Great Stink.

It’s not as if everything had been hunky-dorky in London before 1858. The poor suffered in close quarters with their own waste and that of their neighbours. Cesspits were the norm. The Thames and other rivers stagnated under the burden of feces (all those progressive thirteenth-century acts to help clean up the streets instructed Londoners to remove their filth and flayed horses directly to the Thames). But the Great Stink was different. It was the first time the practice of dumping raw sewage into a body of water had affected such great numbers of Londoners. Not only that, but it was the first episode, really, where it affected people who otherwise weren’t much involved in taking close care of their excreta. The castle- and manor-dwelling drop-toilet crowd certainly weren’t down in the moats and cesspits slopping their shit into buckets. Parliamentary caucuses weren’t likely in the habit of hearing from night-soil men.

The Great Stink was just the kick in the arse needed to get the city driving toward the modern waste-management era. There was something in the air—literally, in London, but metaphorically in many other major cities, too. Paris, New York, and Toronto embarked on their modern storm and sanitary sewer systems around the same time as Bazalgette got his assignment in London. Chicago started in the 1860s; Washington, DC, in the 1880s. Many Commonwealth countries and those under colonial rule took a nod from the practices of the English and got moving on major sewer projects before the turn of the twentieth century.

That modern sewers were needed had everything to do with the rise of flush toilets from about 1800 onward. Toilets after early tinkerers Cummings and Bramah were increasingly reliable and less smelly—and so more welcome inside homes. Barbara Penner, the architectural historian, has found evidence of about two hundred thousand dotting London around the time of the Great Stink, adding volume to the Thames’ woes Bazalgette was charged with making better. It could have been worse—indoor flush toilets at this time were firmly the preserve of England’s wealthy, a norm that lasted into the 1920s. Multi-family outhouses were common in some urban areas even through the 1960s and 1970s. If the Great Stink almost shut down Parliament, imagine how much greater the stink if flush toilets had then been as common as they are today.

What the indoor bathroom also changed was the notion that toileting (and, for that matter, bathing) was a communal exercise. With interior water closets, it became possible to enjoy complete privacy while urinating and defecating. And with the flush mechanism, it became possible to instantly flush away one’s own feces and urine. To plausibly pretend that bodies did not excrete. After all, even drop-toilet users could see and smell those piles of fecal mush below them.

Over time, the luxury of privacy morphed into a must-have. It became not only desirable to be alone on the can, but necessary for anyone who wanted to stay on the right side of morality. People who did not practise solo toileting were regarded as lacking in decency. And that went double for women. An inescapable physical function became shameful. It’s difficult to overstate the impact this prudery had on Western culture. It’s front and centre today in our toilet humour, and in the epic number of euphemisms we employ to talk about excreting. A notion grew along with the status-symbol toilet: sharing a bathroom with those outside your family was something to avoid. It’s even come to the point, today, that we don’t want to smell, hear, or feel any evidence, such as warm toilet seats, of those who’ve gone before us. Bathrooms remain one of our central taboos. So, by early in Queen Victoria’s reign, private pooing had become a mark of prestige. The masses, of course, wanted it. And George Jennings would give it to them.

Over time, the luxury of privacy morphed into a must-have. It became not only desirable to be alone on the can, but necessary for anyone who wanted to stay on the right side of morality.

Jennings, a sanitary engineer, installed the first public flushing toilets in London—for both men and women—at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Jennings installed his “monkey closets” at the Crystal Palace, the almost one-million-square-foot temporary building set up in Hyde Park from May through October to house the exhibition. These inaugural public conveniences boasted lush waiting rooms and two dozen attendants. Users paid a penny or halfpenny for access to small private cupboards with flush toilets inside. The monkey closets were a marker of national pride and a banner of English technological progress to show off to the twenty-eight countries represented at the fair. Historian Lucinda Lambton notes in her book Temples of Convenience & Chambers of Delight that women in the nineteenth century suffered embarrassment at the idea of water closets. No doubt—they lived in a society that told them to act that way. (A history of Thomas Crapper & Co. says women were given to fainting at the mere sight of his window displays.) But some, at least, overcame their shame. Jennings’s closets were used more than eight hundred thousand times over the course of the exhibition. The Crystal Palace toilets were a watershed. They gave many Londoners their first look at (and first chance to try) flush toilets. They also gave regular citizens the idea that flush toilets and urinals could—and perhaps should—be a matter of public concern.

Public bathrooms increasingly became conveniences of moral, political, and hygienic necessity—not to mention sparkling exemplars of nation-building. Little expense was spared in building them in the UK’s major centres. Public toilets in England’s largest cities became a proud part of the urban landscape (though many were actually underground, often in response to surrounding business owners who linked public bathrooms with impropriety). Their entrances were magnificent, their urinals and countertops marble, their windows leaded stained glass, and their fixtures ornate. Dignitaries dedicated them. Americans and Canadians swelled with the same pride—and no dearth of competitiveness—in providing public health benefits to city dwellers. In the second half of the nineteenth century, free public baths and pools were cities. Toronto constructed lavish underground on-street public conveniences with attendants and services like shoe shining and boot cleaning.

A drawing of one of George Jennings’ “monkey closets”

Jennings’s Crystal Palace monkey closets were what pushed toilets into the spotlight, allowing them to transform in the public imagination from private luxury to urban necessity. And seven years later, London’s Great Stink was the movement that turned the bowels of the city’s jury-rigged sewer system into a public project and a civic responsibility.

But it wasn’t all guts and glory.


s the twentieth century progressed, on-street bathrooms mushroomed in the UK, and their installation became common in the US and Canada in transit stations, shopping centres, airports, and other commercial and public buildings. Built into all of them were design and access barriers, and built into those impediments was a series of fights about the right to public space that would continue through that century and beyond. Despite the public-good zeitgeist that surrounded them, early-twentieth-century Western public bathrooms cemented themselves as places for able, adult, white men. And not many others.

Crystal Palace aside, women were largely left out of this provision parade. In fact, it wasn’t until four decades after the Great Exhibition, in 1893, that the first permanent public toilets for women were installed on London’s Strand. In Toronto, early onstreet public bathrooms were, likewise, built only for men. Even in locations where women later enjoyed conveniences alongside men’s, the number of water closets for them were dwarfed by the number for men, who also had urinals. Women’s public conveniences were diabolically chicken-and-eggish at this time. The dearth of toilets both reflected that women weren’t out of the house as much as men and reinforced that women could not go out, lest they be caught short due to the lack of provision. In any case, very few working-class women were able to afford the common penny or halfpenny fee. (Men were only required to pay for the use of water closets; public urinals were free.)

In reality, women had begun to travel urban areas in great numbers as part of the growing workforce many years before, during the Industrial Revolution—but they weren’t always visible. A certain level of denial was at play here, on the part of men and women who couldn’t handle the upheaval to women’s “natural” place in the home—quite simply, people refused to acknowledge that women were part of city life. There were also myriad measures in place that hid women in plain sight. For example, the main branch of the Bank of Nova Scotia in Halifax was built in 1931 with a separate “ladies’ banking room.” (Today, I understand, it’s someone’s office, so though I am a lady—ha!—I was allowed to pay the balance of my car loan at a regular teller.) Early children’s public bathroom needs were even more unspoken than women’s, so family bathrooms and changing tables were unthinkable. Forget “seen and not heard”—when it came to public toilet provision for children in the nineteenth century, it was more like not seen and not heard.

The challenging of racially segregated public bathrooms wasn’t quite so slow-moving, but what it lacked in red tape, it made up in blood.

It’s not surprising that the first of the great post-Victorian public bathroom campaigns argued that women needed provision that at least mirrored men’s. But women and children weren’t the only ones being left out of the potty party. Aids for people with mobility challenges started to creep into private homes and institutions mid-twentieth-century, but few, if any, grab bars, deep sinks, or larger stalls were found in public bathrooms. In the US, standards for accessibility were laid out in 1961. The rules were the world’s first, which deserves some ballyhooing, but they lacked any accompanying legal stipulations. It wasn’t until the 1990s that accessibility regulations were actually enforced throughout the US, the UK, and Canada. Up to that point, wheelchair users took a chance when they left their houses; they could find themselves in any public building or on any downtown street without a bathroom to use. And as we’ll see, the fight is far from over.

The challenging of racially segregated public bathrooms wasn’t quite so slow-moving, but what it lacked in red tape, it made up in blood. A bathroom-by-bathroom, drinking-fountain-by-drinking- fountain movement took place across the US starting in 1961, when groups of self-organized Freedom Riders travelled by plane, train, and bus through the American South. Along their travels, they undertook the deceptively simple acts of loitering in waiting areas or using public facilities—white Freedom Riders used “Coloreds Only” public spaces and African-American Freedom Riders used facilities labelled as separate for whites. Their actions were to ensure that the December 1960 Supreme Court ruling forbidding discrimination in transportation services against interstate passengers was being upheld.

It wasn’t.

Many Freedom Riders were beaten and aggressively arrested. In rural Alabama, a mob attacked a Greyhound bus carrying Freedom Riders and others. The gang of men firebombed the bus and tried to barricade the door. They then beat passengers as they escaped. Throughout the 1960s, the patchwork of Jim Crow laws that kept segregation in place legally, and allowed it to flourish socially, was dismantled. But segregation dies hard. Black and Hispanic Americans still report being denied access to public bathrooms. It’s rarely overt racism these days. But the actions of store employees, who can choose who gets to use locked bathrooms and who doesn’t, can amount to the same thing.


hat all this toilet strife points to is how culturally constipated we are when it comes to our conception of the bathroom, and how much public bathrooms represent the ways we see others. And, of course, how resistant we humans are to change.

Bathroom fixtures went public in a big way right at the heyday of mechanized manufacturing. And when I say fixtures, I mean exactly that. Prefabrication became the norm for toilets, urinals, sinks, and cubicles at the end of the nineteenth century. Suddenly, bathroom components simply were. If users found they didn’t quite fit into bathrooms, it was the users who adapted, not the hardware. It wasn’t only that design variations weren’t much talked about or seen. The source material the industry worked from to create designs for everyday users was drawn from a small pool of data—in the US, from studies of military personnel—and little else. (It’s pretty laughable to imagine the physical measurements of young, fit military men being used to design a bathroom for my grandmother.)

Then along came Alexander Kira.

The Cornell University professor led a study from 1958 to 1965 to delve into how people actually used the bathroom. From faucets to farts, showers to the squat position, Kira wanted to scrap bathrooms—private and public—and rebuild them completely from the user’s perspective. He set himself no easy task—how does one change something no one’s willing to talk about? “While we can create new technologies to satisfy our demands,” Kira wrote, “we can also ignore particular technologies and allow them to lie idle for years.” He makes a good point: the toilet hasn’t changed its essential design since George Washington was commissioned as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army.

Kira published his monumental study in book form. The Bathroom came out in 1966 (not to be confused with Barbara Penner’s Bathroom). In it, he didn’t just rejig existing design. He considered the psychology of bathroom use, took into account the young and the old, and didn’t assume men and women approached or used bathrooms in the same ways. He conducted research in a thousand US homes and in his lab at Cornell. Kira observed, measured, and photographed men and women performing bathroom activities. The Bathroom was a quantitative and qualitative jackpot. It concerned itself, for example, not only with the ideal dimensions for a bathtub in order for a woman to fit into it, but with how the bathtub could be sized and shaped to accommodate the different positions she might use for relaxing, to clean herself, and to enter and exit the bath.

Kira didn’t picture one bathroom for the young or able and

A page from Alexander Kira’s 1966 paean to the toilet, “The Bathroom”

a completely different one for the old or infirm. He saw the ideal bathroom as a versatile space—with uniform safety measures for any users who needed them because of age or temporary or permanent disability. He saw the bathroom as a space that should be easy to modify for changing bodies and changing needs—a bathroom for a lifetime.

The Bathroom is fascinating because of the way Kira both listened to what his subjects told him and, frankly, didn’t. On one hand, he suggested bathroom changes based on what study participants reported would work better, respecting their intuition. He wanted higher sinks that didn’t require hunching over for adults to use. He wanted them shamrock-shaped, so that the water would spread instead of splash, and with faucets that would spray in an arc for drinking. But he also came up with stuff that the people he studied likely never would have come up with, or which they probably would have laughed at. One of his suggestions was a conventional toilet with added foot pegs for modified squatting—picture little foot holders near the top of the bowl, toward the back; using them would situate your knees a little above belly-button-level as you sat on the toilet. Squat defecation is uncommon in the West, and it’s unlikely to have been the position any of Kira’s mostly middle-class US research subjects would have settled into to have a poo. But Kira’s research, and others’ since, shows that squatting both makes it easier to fully clear the bowels and decreases the likelihood of hemorrhoids, among other medical conditions. Kira pushed for modified squatting, even though it went against the cultural norm.

Why don’t we all squat to shit, anyway, if it’s so much better for us? In a word: culture. Just as we’ve had a hard time, historically, changing our understanding of who deserves space in public bathrooms and what it means to guarantee different user groups a seat, we also resist design changes. An example is the bidet, which more effectively cleans the perineal area than toilet paper (assuming people wash their hands well after using it; otherwise the hygiene benefit is wiped out). The bidet has never taken off in North America, even though we pride ourselves on over-the top cleanliness. Japan-based toilet manufacturer Toto has been making the Toto Washlet, a combo toilet-bidet with a heated seat and oscillating spout, since the 1980s: Toto’s net sales in the 2016–17 fiscal were us $311 million. But less than 25 percent came from outside Japan. We in the West prefer, instead, to ineffectually scrape at the remnants of our last bowel movements with dry, rip-prone toilet paper. We use soap and water to clean every other part of our bodies, but not the dirtiest. (The market for flushable wipes has more than tripled in the past decade, but it’s at best a halfway measure, and one causing full-blown, fatbergian grief to urban sewer systems.)

For our bodies to meet the bathroom in different ways requires, perhaps, that our brains meet the bathroom in different ways first. While The Bathroom is something of a bible among those who study the cultural impact and meaning of toilets, Kira’s infinitely sensible modifications never really caught on with the masses. They were too far from what people were used to, and dealt with functions too far beyond the pale of bridge-game chitchat. We have preferred to let our bathroom technologies, in Kira’s words, “lie idle.”


he effects of standardization hit hardest when automation comes into play. Automated public toilets, or apts, which dot many high-population centres, are the extreme example of a technological ‘fix’ to bathrooms. They were first installed in Paris in 1980, and later in the UK, the US, and around the world. In most models, users insert a coin or two to open the bathroom’s door. Once it shuts, a timer starts, at the end of which the door unlocks if the user isn’t already out. The timer means no one can stay in for too long. I was told by a San Francisco outreach worker that a homeless family in that city had tampered with the timer mechanism and taken up residence in one for several months, but in most apts, the door opens in ten to fifteen minutes—long enough to use the washroom, but not enough time for a half-decent nap or any other, um, leisure activity. Once the door closes again, the devices have a wash cycle wherein the whole interior becomes like the inside of a dishwasher, sprayed and soaped and rinsed top to bottom once a user leaves (or, let’s hope once she leaves—horror stories abound about users being trapped in these self cleaning toilets, but most of the reports I’ve read are about children who go in alone and can’t unlock the door; the fatalities are myth).

Airpnp was an app-based service for people seeking bathrooms in a hurry. Private toilet providers listed their toilet and the fee for its use, anywhere from three dollars to fifteen—a far cry from the Victorian allegiance to the public good.

Less drastic automation has invaded everyday public bathrooms, too. Automated electric air dryers control the length of time people get to dry their hands—often too short and then, with another push of the button, too long. The motion-activated versions demand vigorous hand flapping to achieve the necessary drying time. The volume of air cannot be controlled, nor the temperature, though simple discount-store hair dryers have achieved this level of complexity. Soap comes pre-portioned, regardless of whether we need to lather our hands or faces, or clean an explosion of ketchup off a silk blouse. Water flows from taps at a predetermined volume, for a predetermined time, and at a predetermined temperature. Paper-towel dispensers decide the size of sheets we will need. Automated flushers are triggered by light, time, and movement. Irus Braverman writes incisively about all this automation hoo-ha in her essay “Potty Training: Nonhuman Inspection in Public Washrooms” in the collection Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing. As Braverman describes it, automated flushers assume “a standard person with more or less standard needs engaged in an anticipated standard behavior. So it is a single individual (not with a helper or child, for example) making a single bowel movement (rather than a series) or making typical movements in a stall (not preparing for an injection, for example).” I personally defy readers—especially women—to tell me they have never been the victim of an automated flusher. So an occasional sopping backside is the price we must pay for automation? But wait, what’s the benefit on our end? Better bathrooms, or so the argument goes, are less subject to some users’ anti-social behaviour, such as clogging and overfilling sinks or not flushing toilets. But aren’t these primarily benefits to the operators? Not the users?

Automated fixtures in public bathrooms may deter human users from messing around, but they are so narrowly controlling, they also deter activities well inside the spectrum of normal bathroom use. I’d like to be able to drink water from bathroom faucets, but what comes out is too cold for tea and too warm for refreshment, and I, lowly user that I am, cannot be trusted to decide the temperature. Even the boon to operators—that automated bathroom fixtures lessen the need for human oversight—isn’t an absolute given. When automated flushers and faucets and hand dryers stop working, no human is there to know except the users, who have, precisely as a result of automation, been alienated from the space and feel no need to go out of their way to report, for example, a non-flushing and rapidly filling clogged toilet.


f there’s a common theme to this book, it’s this: public bathrooms are hard to get right. And no wonder. They are mired in cultural baggage, stuck in the fixedness of fixtures, and bound by massive, often ancient infrastructure. That chest-puffing Victorian desire to provide for the public was long ago flushed away. Governments today see bathrooms as more burden than duty. In Canada, the US, and the UK, there are no statutory requirements on the part of governments to provide bathrooms to the public. So, where users dare to be too needy, and where inclusive design is hard to achieve, the government solution isn’t to adapt, but to pull the plug.

This is real. Remember, half of public toilets in London, once a paragon of lavatory provision, have closed. The reasons, laid out in a 2006 Health and Public Services Committee investigation into the loss of public loos, echo with the news stories I read every day about disappearing toilets in cities all over: underground toilets, built by well-meaning but decorum-obsessed Victorians eager to provide-but-hide, are too costly to retrofit for statutory wheelchair access. Authorities are similarly cranky when it comes to non-bathroom bathroom behaviour—illicit drinking, taking drugs, or having sex (and don’t forget smoking in the boys’—or girls’—room). But instead of working to curb these activities, by employing bathroom attendants, for example, governments shut them down. It’s cheaper and easier to eliminate a bathroom than to work out its issues, and that’s no big deal where governments have no legal responsibility to provide.

But biology’s a killer. People still have to go. Media companies are leaping into the vacuum, providing on-street automated toilets that act as billions-generating billboards. Some businesses for immense numbers of users, banking on the knowledge that those who come for the free toilets may stay for the Caramel Frappuccino or the fries. A new bathroom business venture arose in 2014 out of the Airbnb model of people renting out temporary lodging. Airpnp was an app-based service for people seeking bathrooms in a hurry. Private toilet providers—many merely people selling access to their home bathrooms—listed their toilet and the fee for its use (anywhere from three dollars to fifteen dollars for a specified time). Airpnp, which went kaput sometime in 2016, was a far cry from the Victorian allegiance to the public good. Those early stabs at public toilets may have been wilfully ignorant of diverse needs, but at least they were spurred by concern for well-being, not money-making.

We will always produce urine and feces, and we will always, as a society, be forced to find ways to deal with it. Joseph Bazalgette’s original sewer was a city-saver. But London is edging up to a population of nine million, four times the number Bazalgette built his system to serve. About fifty times a year, the system is deluged by rainwater and overflows, spurting raw sewage into the Thames—enough each time to fill a football stadium. The solution is a so-called ‘super sewer,’ a twenty-five-kilometre west to-east tunnel under London, ferrying feces and overflowing stormwater to a treatment centre. It’s the first time Bazalgette’s mid-nineteenth-century plans have been reworked. The super sewer should be complete by 2021 and is promising to take care of the city’s sewage overflow woes for a hundred years to follow. After that? Who knows.

Lezlie Lowe

Lezlie Lowe is a Halifax-based freelance news columnist, feature writer, radio-documentary maker, and journalism teacher.

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