“We shall deal here with humble things”

The bathroom connects our daily domestic lives with large-scale infrastructures of water, waste, and sanitation.

Clockwise from top left: Toilets in Ontario, Canada; Los Angeles City Hall, California; Porto, Portugal; Hamilton County, Ohio; Dharamshala, India; and Kashihara, Japan. [Photos by Max Henschell, Monica Griesbach, Paolo Martini, Carl Mydans, James Ratcliffe, Frans Person]

We shall deal here with humble things, things not usually granted earnest consideration, or at least not valued for their historical import. But no more in history than in painting is it the impressiveness of the subject that matters. The sun is mirrored even in a coffee spoon. … Modest things of daily life, they accumulate into forces acting upon whoever moves within the orbit of our civilization.

— Sigfried Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command (1948)

In the summer of 2009, I went on a pilgrimage. My destination: the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. The Arts Center is famous for its magnificent artist-designed public bathrooms. Kohler itself has long history of bringing together art and plumbing through its Arts/Industry program, which offers artists the opportunity to produce work in the company’s pottery (one of the world’s largest), iron and brass foundries, and enamel workshop. In this sense the Arts Center’s bathrooms can be seen as the consummation of the company’s interest in uniting the most basic of human needs — the need to urinate and defecate — with the most elevated of our faculties — the ability to appreciate beauty.

The Coordinator of the Arts/Industry program, Mike Ogilvie, offered me a tour of the Center’s bathrooms. They were a revelation. One highlight was Merrill Mason’s women’s room, Emptying and Filling. In a series of marble niches, Mason had installed an array of delicate objects — gloves, lipsticks, hair combs — all cast in iron, perfectly capturing the tensions of the female toilette and the discipline required to achieve beauty. Mike then guarded the door as I inspected the men’s rooms, though the precaution was probably not necessary. (At the Center each sex routinely trespasses into the other’s bathrooms to view the art.) Matt Nolen’s The Social History of Architecture was an art historical tour de force: each fixture, representing a particular period, playfully riffed on the idea of the toilet as a “seat of power.” But it was in Ann Agee’s Sheboygan Men’s Room that I experienced my eureka moment, when my various ideas about the toilet all coalesced.

Ann Agee, Sheboygan Men’s Room, 1998. [Photos courtesy of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center]

Upon entering Men’s Room, my first impression was of a rather bijou space, filled with detailing that evoked times past: Delft-style blue-and-white tiles, Chinoiserie decoration, picturesque views. Initially taken in by the prettiness of it all, I became aware only gradually that it was anything but an exercise in nostalgia. As I contemplated what at first seemed to be a view of a quiet pond, the penny finally dropped: the “pond” was actually a tank, part of the city’s sewage treatment works. In fact, as I looked closer, I saw that all the Men’s Room vignettes depict Sheboygan’s water system in action. And in case one misses the point, a schematic diagram of Sheboygan’s water treatment system is located on the wall above the paper towel dispenser, functioning as a key to the whole.

Quite apart from their artfulness, Agee’s vignettes inspired me because they portray things that we use or experience in a fragmented and remote way — a lake, a pool, a car wash, a water gun, a sprinkler, a protozoan, a waste treatment plant — and clarify their interconnectedness. By organizing these episodes into a single space and decorative scheme, the vignettes replicate the ways in which water and sanitation infrastructure enables and links disparate moments in our daily lives, both mundane and pleasurable, small and grand. Standing in Men’s Room, we begin to understand that we are also implicated in all this: that even our most basic actions — flushing the toilet, turning on a tap — makes us part of the scenes on the walls.

Like Agee, I do not consider the bathroom to be a discrete and enclosed site. My aim is to emphasize how the bathroom meets and interacts with the world beyond; how it moves between different sites, scales and conditions; and how it hooks up technology to the body, infrastructure to individuals, public to private realms. Above all I aim to break down what some perceive as the disconnect between the architecture of the system and the reality of its use and thus to allow for a more holistic and situated understanding of this most humble but complex space.

Small Rooms and Big Systems

The challenge of bridging this disconnect is easy enough to declare; but it goes against deeply ingrained habits and conventions, not to mention the design of the system itself. For the disconnect is actually plumbed into the western world’s water systems, which are created to render not only the user but also the impact of use invisible. In our modern contemporary bathroom, the process — the goal — is to “flush and forget” — to remove the sight and, possibly even more important, the smell of our waste. The vast majority of people take for granted that treated, potable hot-and-cold water will be on tap 24 hours a day and that waste will be speedily flushed away. Our everyday routines, our standards of hygiene, and our understanding of civility are all constructed around these ordinary facts. We tend to assume that access to water and its unfettered use is our right and we do not spare much thought as to what happens before or after.

Bathroom in Harlan Ranch, California. [Photo by Andrew Ranta]

This sense of disjunction is further emphasized by our tendency to treat the bathroom as private — the most private space in the house — where we indulge in the most personal of all our routines. Sometimes we refer to the bathroom as “the smallest room” to reflect both its intimate scale and its intimate relationship with our bodies; and we value this space precisely because it allows us to shut out the outside world. But as Sheboygan Men’s Room underscored, from the very moment of use this smallest of domestic rooms is linked to the larger worlds of engineering and infrastructure; here the interior of our house meets the complex networks of pipes, pumps and treatment plants. Much of this infrastructure, of course, is only semi-visible: much of it is underground or peripheral, relegated to the edgelands of towns and cities, though it sometimes surfaces proudly within semi-monumental structures. Dams, reservoirs, pumping stations, treatment plants and water towers all remind us (if we pay attention) that enormous technological and human effort is necessary if we are to enjoy our hot shower in the morning.

The difficulty of conceptualizing the bathroom as part of this larger system, then, is due partly to the difficulty of representation and visualization. How do we counteract this plumbed-in invisibility, this taken-for-grantedness? How do we advance our understanding outwards from the small room to the big system upon which it depends? The difference in scale between these worlds is immense. Aesthetically, too, they are miles apart: the decorative surfaces of the bathroom bear little relation to the industrial architecture of the system. Indeed, as Agee’s installation so wittily highlights, decoration and representation work against connecting the bathroom to infrastructure, precisely because the artful prettiness or exoticism of its detailing distract from what lies beneath.

Even when we turn to more conventional renderings of bathrooms, e.g., in manufacturers’ catalogues, we find fixtures represented in perspective views as discrete objects, free of context or use. The one exception is the cutaway section, where we see the house sliced through vertically, walls and all, to reveal its networks of pipes and drains. This didactic technique emerged in the 19th century, as a way of revealing the new complexity of infrastructural systems. During the Victorian era, as the pipework proliferated, houses were increasingly likened either to machines, designed to regulate the flow of services, or to living organisms. The idea of the house as a biological organism has persisted, most notably with industrial designer Bill Stumpf’s “Metabolic House,” of 1989, which takes in oxygen, food and water, and expels it again; here the home becomes literally a metabolism.

“Woman’s Sphere,” illustration from Harriette Merrick Hodge Plunkett, Women, Plumbers, and Doctors: Or, Household Sanitation, 1884.

Bill Stumpf, The Metabolic House, designed for The New York Times, 1989. [From the Collections of The Henry Ford]

The metabolic metaphor has been used not only to make sense of the home; since the 19th century, it has also been deployed to conceptualize the many layers — the arteries, veins, organs — of the modern city. Director Alfred Hitchcock drew on this longstanding tradition when he revealed to François Truffaut his desire to make a film about a day in the life of a city that would focus on food — its arrival, distribution, sale, purchase, preparation and consumption — and conclude with scenes that would follow the waste into the sewers and out into the sea. “So there’s a cycle,” he explained, “beginning with the gleaming fresh vegetables and ending with the mess that’s poured into the sewer.” 1 Like many others, Hitchcock intuited that this ongoing and everyday cycle of in-flows and out-flows epitomized the story of modernity.

The metabolic view rightly underscores that most modern infrastructural improvements share one critical goal: improved circulation. Above all else, capitalism and industrialization demand efficient circulation to enable the movement of goods and people; a primary role of civic authorities since the mid-19th century on has been to regulate the movement of water, goods, traffic, people and waste. As part of this remit, municipal authorities began to intervene more actively in the city’s workings to provide a host of public services: paving streets, installing lighting, establishing fire protection departments and, crucially, constructing and managing water and sewerage systems. Cities also began to enact public health legislation to ensure that private homes and businesses were properly hooked up to these centralized systems; and it is here that the story of the modern bathroom truly begins.

But the metabolic view can only go so far in conceptualizing modern infrastructure. It suggests that infrastructural systems grew naturally in response to functional requirements, rather than to a host of contingent and historically specific factors. 2 Moreover, these systems were never simply about material structures or technologies; they were always driven by — and even came to symbolize — larger social processes and attitudes. My own approach is thus best described as a sociotechnical one: it sees society and technology as bound together in overlapping and intertwined networks that mutually shape each other. This process of mutual shaping can spur the creation of new, hybrid forms and spaces, at the places where bodies, technologies, and urban systems meet.

Outhouse behind New York City tenement, 1912. [Photo by Lewis Hine]

Flush with Ideology

Perhaps the simplest way to begin to describe the sociotechnical view of the bathroom is to note that just as turning on a tap plugs us into a hard network of pipes and plants, it also plugs us into a soft network of social attitudes and beliefs. This is (at least partially) what provocateur Slavoj Žižek has in mind when he asserts: “As soon as you flush the toilet, you’re in the middle of ideology.” In other words, ideology follows us even into those private spaces that we assume to be separated from the outside world, and once there it shapes the equipment that we use so unthinkingly. Žižek further develops this theme through graphic descriptions of the variations in toilet design from country to country. If technology is neutral and its form determined by rational or functional considerations — as modernist histories assert — then how do we account for such national variations? Žižek’s point is that they cannot be explained without referring to social factors which are equally — or more — significant in determining design.

Chief among these social factors, in Žižek’s account, are our ideas about health: our understanding of the causes of disease and the regimes we then follow in order to prevent their spread. At a collective level, Žižek is no doubt correct that evolving understandings of public health and fear of disease and contagion have been the most significant factor in bathroom provision and design. As is well understood, it was only as a result of devastating outbreaks of cholera and typhoid in the 19th century that governments began to take serious responsibility for sanitation and to fund the construction of sewers. And ever since theories about hygiene have influenced the appearance and maintenance of the bathroom and its fittings. Just consider the shift from the richly furnished bathroom of the Victorian period to the spare, bright white and almost clinical one of the early 20th century; all in the cause of better exposing and eradicating dirt — and expressing a cultural commitment to doing so.

But other ideas have exerted nearly as much power over bathroom design; for instance, the emphasis on bodily privacy that has prevailed in the west since the 18th century. No less than the rise of the field of public health, it was the modern invention of privacy that caused a decisive break with earlier attitudes toward the body that had marked much of human history. Historically speaking, most bathing cultures have been public ones, and bathing complexes have been important sites of sociability. The most famous public bathing culture was that of the Romans, which was extended across much of their empire in Europe and North Africa; but it has been an integral feature of other civilizations as well. Think of Turkish hammans, Finnish saunas, the Japanese Sent?. And throughout Europe bathhouses or thermal baths continue to thrive, from venerable old establishments like Munich’s Müllersches Volksbad to stunning new ones like Therme Vals, designed by Peter Zumthor.

Peter Zumthor, Therme Vals, 2009, Graubünden canton, Switzerland. [Photo by vlad]

But the rise of privacy has resulted in the general privatization of western bathing, though this did not happen evenly or all at once. And given that private was increasingly equated with exclusive, it is not surprising that private and often very luxurious bathrooms first appeared in European aristocratic or bourgeois homes. Up until the 1920s, and sometimes well after that, the urban and rural poor were mostly left to carry on as before with communal privies (which remained sites of socializing) and public bathhouses, showers and swimming pools. But privacy and related concerns about decency began to shape these establishments, too; communal privies were downsized and public baths were more rigorously subdivided to ensure the segregation of men from women, and, with partitions and cubicles, men from other men and women from other women.

Such highly atomized bathing arrangements are now so naturalized in the west that we have trouble imagining them any other way. The ancient communal latrine still visible at Hadrian’s Wall, for instance, or even the two-seater privy in the garden of William Morris’s Kelmscott Manor in the Cotswolds, seem quite alien to visitors who stumble across them now — amusing curiosities from a distant past. But there are many parts of the world, such as southeast Asia, India and Africa, where open or communal bathing and toileting remain the norm. These arrangements are often flagged up in travel guides and are regularly the subject of amazed commentary in travelers’ blogs. For better or worse, many tourists’ most memorable encounters with the Other — those moments when they feel their otherness most keenly — still happen in the bathroom.

My own research has made me more than ever convinced that bathrooms, far from being straightforward pieces of technology, are culturally determined and historically specific. Social factors like gender, class, race and religion shape their design and arrangement and inflect their use. Furthermore, bathrooms do not simply reflect what some historians have described as society’s most “cherished classifications”; they actively reinforce them. 3 This process is most evident in public and semi-public facilities — especially in transportation hubs, workplaces, institutional or commercial buildings — and their typical segregation of users. Even today, when few other sex-segregated facilities remain in the west, we still expect to be presented with two doors, one marked LADIES and the other GENTS. Consider, however, that in the American South up until the 1960s and in South Africa into the 1990s, users would have been presented with two doors marked COLORED and WHITES, or WHITES and NON-WHITES, in addition to or instead of the division by sex. That bathroom segregation changes according to the ruling political regime underscores that there is nothing “natural” about it.

Segregated rest stop on the road from Louisville, Kentucky, to Nashville, Tennessee, 1943. [Photo by Esther Bubley]

By preventing “promiscuous” social mixing or activities, these segregated spaces reflect and shape not only the binary division between men and women but also the “proper” relations between people of the same sex. Segregated bathrooms are spaces of discipline, in the sense that Michel Foucault defined the term: as well as separating users, they are often designed to enable external surveillance and policing. But no matter how effective the stalls and walls may be, just as powerful are the mechanisms of discipline that we users have internalized (not least through “toilet training”), and these significantly shape everyday bathroom behavior: think, for instance, of the complicated etiquette of avoidance that governs men’s gazes at public urinals.

Far from resenting the disciplining design of bathrooms, many users welcome it as a necessary means of protection from physical attacks and bullying or from contamination of various kinds by some “Other.” And of course such concerns about safety and health can be prompted not just by real threats but also by broader social anxieties. When people worry that they might “catch something” in a public convenience, they often have in mind an illness or disease transmitted by a stigmatized social group (e.g., other ethnicities, homosexuals, the homeless). In the 1980s, for instance, toilet seats were widely believed to be breeding grounds for the HIV virus. Erroneous or not, such fears have real social consequences; they are often used to enforce the status quo.

Unless we understand the extent to which bathrooms serve to enforce power relations, it is hard to understand why proposed changes to their arrangements are often so bitterly contested. The recent “toilet wars” in South Africa, where the provision of sub-standard toilets led to violent protests, political clashes and the intervention of the Western Cape High Court, prompted surprised remarks from journalists. But why were they so surprised? Such facilities have often been at the frontline of civil rights challenges; they are places where claims for equality are made and tested — and sometimes brutally put down. It should not be forgotten that one of the first deaths of the American civil rights movement occurred when black activist Samuel Younge, Jr. tried to use a whites-only bathroom at a filling station in Alabama and was shot and killed by the attendant (who was subsequently cleared by an all-white jury). 4 And restrooms were a crucial testing ground for the Freedom Riders, who set out in 1961 to see if the interstate train stations and bus depots of the South had been desegregated in compliance with a recent Supreme Court decision.

Lobby of the Standard Hotel, Los Angeles, California. [Photo by Rick Audet]

The very real threat of violent retaliation has not stopped a steady parade of marginalized or disadvantaged social groups from staking their claims for equal rights in the bathroom, from people with disabilities to the transgendered community today. In fact, campaigns for improved access have been around almost as long as public facilities themselves. Those for women’s conveniences, however, have been among the longest running and most far-reaching; having first begun in western countries from the United Kingdom to Belgium to New Zealand, these struggles are now reaching Asia, too, as female activists in Guangzhou demonstrated earlier this year with their Occupy Men’s Toilets campaign. Some important victories have been scored in the last two decades, such as the passing of American “potty parity” laws that mandate that there should be two female water closets provided for every one male — but as any woman who has recently been to the theater or even the London Olympics can report, the queue for the Ladies’ is in no danger of extinction.

Of course, some of the most resonant acts of resistance are not performed collectively but individually, through small but transgressive daily acts. Even the most utilitarian bathroom can serve as a site of relaxation, bodily pleasure and reinvention; public facilities are also sites for queer sexual practices such as cruising. Although these acts might offer personal release or liberation, they can also destabilize larger social norms and taboos. The inspiring Iranian documentary The Ladies Room/Zananeh, of 2003, focuses on the social life fostered by a women’s restroom in a public park in Tehran. As we see in the film, the women’s restroom in Laleh Park offers its users, mostly homeless women or prostitutes, a space for sociability and uncensored conversation. In the shelter of the public toilet, they can smoke, discuss forbidden topics, even remove their veils in violation of Iranian conventions. 5

As this short summary demonstrates, bathrooms are impossible to decisively categorize. They are among the most regulated spaces in contemporary society and the most potentially liberating. They are emblems of civility and containers of social threat. In them we confront our basest bodily needs, even as we transcend them, or flush them away. They are places of passage and of transformation — one enters dirty and leaves clean — so that even today bathing retains some sense of the purification ritual about it. Indeed, one of the most iconic works in the history of modern art, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), teasingly asserted the quasi-spiritual aura of the urinal. But of course, by leaving the urinal unplumbed and turning it upside-down, Duchamp made it unusable, perversely denying us the release that encounters with urinals (and with art) are meant to provide.

Thanks to Duchamp, generations of artists have been inspired to incorporate sanitary fittings into their works or to site their works in bathrooms. Some have reworked Fountain itself: for instance, Sherri Levine’s bronze cast, of 1991. Many have simply drawn from Duchamp the lesson that bathroom fittings are ambiguous. They unsettle and provoke. They are anything but “plain pieces of plumbing,” as Duchamp’s supporters ingenuously maintained. 6 Artists today especially use the bathroom to probe personal and collective repressions and the way in which these affect identity. In this genre the bathroom emerges as a classic “back-stage” space: it might hide the messy realities of the female body (Judy Chicago’s 1973 Menstruation Bathroom) or of queer sexual desire (Terence Koh’s 2006 Medusa); or it might permit moments of revelation and remaking (tropes beautifully enacted in some of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills).

Left: Sherry Levine, Fountain (Buddha), 1996, exhibited at the Zabludowicz Collection, London. [Photo by Danny Birchall] Right: Alex Schweder, Bi-Bardon, 2001. [Courtesy of the artist]

It is important to acknowledge these artworks; they speak powerfully of the body and the experience of bathroom use and abuse — subjects often suppressed in polite discourse and which emerge instead in euphemisms or jokes. We mustn’t ignore the fact that for many people, rather than being too inconsequential for words, bathrooms remain embarrassing, even unspeakable; this is true even for some in the design professions. Art that reimagines the bathroom and its fittings, like Alex Schweder’s “Siamese” urinal Bi-bardon (2001), addresses this kind of strategic silence, often with wit and humanity. Such work opens up questions: why are bathrooms designed as they are? Could they be designed differently? And if they were, how might our society be transformed?

The Bathroom Travels

Most histories of bathroom design have downplayed use and consumption. They have tended to overlook distribution and dissemination too, as if the rising popularity of bathroom equipment and the spread of the waterborne infrastructural model were somehow inevitable. The unspoken assumption seems to be that newer and “superior” forms of technology naturally superseded existing ones through a Darwinian process. In this familiar view, more advanced technologies take over while obsolete ones wither away — a one-way march of progress. Yet this simplistic conception of technological change proves shaky when we scrutinize our modern world. The best refutation of the technocratic view of unimpeded progress is the fact that now, over a century since the waterborne infrastructural system ‘”triumphed,” traditional and older dry sanitation systems are being revived in the face of global concerns about water scarcity. And as noted, in many countries these older systems have never gone away or been replaced by anything else.

In fact, one of the revelations of my ongoing research has been to discover that many alternative models of waste removal, from earth closets to vacuum systems, actually remained in play for decades after the apparent triumph of waterborne sewerage systems in the west. Another revelation was just how many doubts about conventional sewerage and plumbing arrangements have been aired over the past century and a half by diverse thinkers from Karl Marx to Buckminster Fuller. Since the beginning of modern plumbing, it seems, many have questioned the wisdom of a system that makes no distinction between water for drinking and water for waste disposal. Just as 19th-century reformers could not understand the logic of a system in which the local river was turned into the local sewer — and inevitably became dangerously polluted — today some critics today fail to understand the logic of treating all water, even when used for toilets, to a potable standard. One observer damningly sums up the paradox:

If I urinated and defecated into a pitcher of drinking water and then proceeded to quench my thirst from a pitcher, I would be undoubtedly considered crazy. If I invented an expensive technology to put my urine and feces into my drinking water, and then invented another expensive (and undependable) technology to make the same water fit to drink, I might be thought even crazier. 7

Given such legitimate concerns, we have to question not only how a particular technology and system is established but also how it becomes so “locked in” that further change and progress comes to seem impossible. Sewerage is, in fact, frequently cited as an example of a self-perpetuating system, largely because the initial investment is so large that alterations seem prohibitive and difficult, even if evolving circumstances makes change desirable. As urban planner Eran Ben-Joseph writes, “Historical decisions … have locked our current practice into a specific mode of operation.” 8

Huey P. Long Bridge, Administration Building, Jefferson, Louisiana. [Photo by Marcus Lamkin]

This is equally true of the bathroom interior. As sociologist Harvey Molotch has argued, even the most modest bathroom interior has been shaped by many actors: organizations who set national standards and write model building and plumbing codes; governmental bodies empowered to adopt these standard building and plumbing codes (or make up their own); public health and planning boards; water companies; bathroom manufacturers; sanitary engineers; architects and industrial designers; developers; plumbers; retailers; activists of all kinds; users and consumers. 9 Occasionally a single historical event has a strong and immediate impact, such as the enactment of Americans with Disabilities Act, of 1990, which mandated that bathrooms in public buildings throughout the United States be made accessible to people with disabilities. More typically, however, bathroom design evolves over long periods in response to anonymous forces.

The complexity of forces that work to shape bathroom interiors and fittings goes some way toward explaining why these spaces can seem so mysterious; they are inherited environments whose logic may now be obsolete, lost in old codes or outmoded customs. While much valuable recent scholarship has analyzed the inadequacies or inequities of existing bathroom systems, too often we do not consider how these environments came into being in the first place. It is only if we acknowledge the prosaic realities of inherited spaces, standardized designs, customary ways and limited budgets that we can begin to grasp why certain features endure, thwarting even the most determined of activists. Molotch sums it up perfectly; musing upon his own failed attempt to erect unisex restrooms in his queer- and trans-friendly academic department at New York University, Molotch concludes that, for any innovation to happen, “A whole lot of stars need to be aligned”: which is to say, many actors need to believe in and show love for the project for it to succeed. 10

A good first step is to identify the various forces at play in the production and dissemination of the bathroom — and here architectural and design history can contribute significantly. Yet the anonymity and complexity of bathroom spaces poses real challenges for the historian. How can one do justice to the many forces that shape bathroom space? How do we understand the driving motivations and factors? On the one hand, this is a story of (mass) production, standards and regulations of various kinds; but on the other, this is a story of how a particular model of sanitation and hygiene was “sold” internationally. World expositions, hygiene fairs, model dwellings, trade catalogues, bathroom showrooms, movies — the entire modern apparatus of sales and promotion — are central to the story of the bathroom and extend it again far beyond physical space or the discourses of engineering and production.

Ladies’ public toilet, Lanark, Illionis, ca. 1909. [Courtesy of the Library of Congress]

Until recently England and America have been the two most influential shapers of our modern bathroom culture. Many bathroom elements have existed for millennia — baths and lavatories, for example — but it was English inventors and manufacturers who first began to make high-quality goods at scale, lowering costs and making them affordable for a wider cross-section of the populace from the 1850s onwards. Moreover, the English were the acknowledged world leaders in the most genuinely revolutionary sanitary technology of all: the water closet. And from the 19th century on, it would be not only particular English products and technologies that were adopted, but also the whole English sanitation model, which was emulated and exported to cities across Europe — and, of course, to Britain’s colonies.

For the story of how western bathrooms came to be locked in is not only a story of trade but also a story of empire, colonial expansion and war. Even today the water infrastructure of many nations dates back to colonial times, and was constructed with reference to the “home” nation. In 1927, Columbia University political scientist Parker Thomas Moon described these infrastructural interventions (approvingly) as “sanitary imperialism.” As American and European sanitary models reshaped colonial cities from Bombay to Manila, colonial subjects were themselves “modernized” through encounters with new sanitary technologies and theories of disease. 11 Again, it is important not to overstate the practical success of these projects, but some scholars have argued that the symbolic importance given to infrastructure (and the accompanying fear of dirt and disorder) retains a firm hold on postcolonial governmental policy-making and on standards. And the flush toilet itself remains a potent indicator of civilization: The Economist uses it as a measure of progress in developing countries.

Despite the dismantling of empires after World War II, the exportation of the western bathroom continued as part of the process of Americanization. In tracing the dramatic postwar change in Japanese bathroom culture, for instance, Rose George notes the influence of American troops stationed in Japan, who expected to use the same facilities as at home. 12 Increasingly, however, American-style sanitation and hygiene were carried abroad by multinational businesses. McDonald’s was without doubt the most important in this regard, as the fast-food chain sparked what anthropologist James L. Watson describes as a public hygiene “revolution” among East Asian consumers. 13 Meanwhile, sanitary ware manufacturers were themselves becoming more international. Although they had long exported vast quantities of their goods, in the 1950s and ’60s they actually opened factories in countries like South Africa and India to serve new markets. Starting in the 1980s, the situation would shift again, as many companies, even the most venerable, were consolidated into larger multinational entities: for instance, American Standard is presently owned by the private equity firm Sun Capital, with Mitt Romney’s former company, Bain Capital, as a minority partner. And today the vast majority of sanitary ware is manufactured in southeast Asia.

Squat toilets, Shanghai Expo, 2010. [Photo by Jennifer Martinez]

Another significant factor in the bathroom’s spread was the rise of mass tourism and of global events such as world expositions and the Olympics. Standardized pictograms to depict Men and Women were first introduced at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and ever since the installation of sex-segregated public facilities, complete with international pictograms and throne-style toilets, have become a crucial way for countries to emphasize their claims to civility and world-class status. Just consider the initiatives to build western-standard public toilets in preparation for global sporting events such as the 2002 South Korea and Japan World Cup or the 2008 Beijing Olympics. These events have left a lasting imprint, and southeast Asian countries now lead the international crusade for sanitary facilities. The former Mayor of Suwon, South Korea, Sim Jae-Duck, founded the World Toilet Association, an NGO devoted to ameliorating sanitation provision: such was his belief in the cause that, in advance of the WTA’s 2007 inaugural meeting, he built a $1.1 million house shaped like a toilet. 14 The WTA has since been joined by the Singapore-based World Toilet Organization, run by social entrepreneur Jack Sim, who fully deserves his reputation as one of the planet’s most dynamic campaigners for improved sanitation. Sim is also planning yet another monument to toiletry — the World Toilet Museum, shaped like three interlocking toilet rolls.

Preparations for the 2010 World Exposition in Shanghai also included the by-now familiar push to remake the city’s bathroom culture. Expo drew over 72 million visitors and was reputed to be most expensive event ever staged. In the same way that thousands of Olympic Toilets were installed throughout Beijing (with five-star models at tourist sites), Model Toilets were installed throughout Shanghai, with an impressive barrage of signage to enable people to locate them. And in the Expo site itself, bathrooms were everywhere, prominently signed and reasonably clean, available in WESTERN (throne) or ASIAN (squat) models. However, appropriately enough in an event devoted to intercultural communication, a large number of Chinese visitors to Expo seemed not to discriminate. In the LADIES, many women entered whatever stall was nearest and went about their business with the doors wide open — no doubt the legacy of using communal facilities without doors. Through one open door, I caught a glimpse of one older lady perched acrobatically on the seat of throne toilet, transforming it into an instant squat.

I include this anecdote as a reminder that the process of cultural translation is often not straightforward: that is, the western bathroom and its associated fixtures and practices do not simply get inserted into other contexts. Rural habits and longstanding traditions die hard (in the case of China, for instance, villagers resist indoor bathrooms because, sensibly enough, they don’t want to bring dirt into their homes). 15 The demand for Western bathrooms has reshaped middle-class homes from Ankara to Djakarta, Moscow to Karachi, but these bathrooms have generally been modified to suit local customs or traditions. Religion is a particularly important influence in the production of hybrids: one example is the installation of “Muslim showers” in Western-style bathrooms in Islamic countries.

Urine diversion dehydration toilet, Mwijo, Kenya. [Photo by Sustainable Sanitation]

A Social Good

Today no fewer than 2.6 billion people are estimated to lack access to basic sanitation; 5,000 children are still reported to die every day of diarrheal diseases, deaths that basic sanitation could do much to prevent. Such shocking figures have served to nudge sanitation higher up on the agenda of the international development community. The United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, for example, has set the target of halving the number of people without basic sanitation by 2015. Although this goal still looks very far away (and, in 2010, the UN admitted that it was the most off-track of all its targets), the field of sanitation has lately been energized by the arrival of new champions with fresh approaches. Long one of the most unloved and moribund areas of government sponsorship and NGO support, sanitation now has the strong backing of organizations from the World Toilet Organization to WaterAid, and recently the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has thrown its considerable heft behind the cause through the “Reinvent the Toilet” challenge.

As the program’s name suggests, the Gates Foundation — along with many others — are going back to the drawing board to solve the sanitation crisis. The idea of conventional sewerage is now subject to radical questioning, and is widely considered to be unrealistic for many areas due to the high cost of the infrastructure as well as water scarcity. In the quest to reinvent the toilet, then, new technologies and ideas, from solar power to tiger worms, are being deployed with a visionary verve that would have warmed Buckminster Fuller’s heart. And while these efforts are primarily directed at countries in the Global South, it is likely that innovative water-conserving systems will be increasingly valuable in the Global North too, where concerns about supply and conservation are beginning to bite. New building regulations have been put into place, for instance, to enforce the use of less water-hungry bathroom fixtures such as waterless urinals and dual-flush toilets. But will such measures be enough? Or will changes eventually need to reach deeper? Will hard-wired water consumption habits have to change as well?

Just as important, the rethinking of sanitation systems focuses not only on new technologies, but also on new ideas about how these technologies should be distributed to local populations. The emerging consensus is that any new sanitation system — if it is to truly take hold — must be desired by the user. And if that desire is not present, then a combination of persuasion, hygiene education and business techniques should be used to bring users round. As Melinda Gates has argued, in order to stimulate demand in remote parts of developing countries, the toilet needs to be repositioned “as a modern, trendy device.” 16 In her view (which is broadly shared), Coca-Cola can serve as a good model for how local perceptions may be altered through aspirational marketing.

Reinvent the Toilet Fair, Seattle, Washington, 2012. Bill Gates (top left) and prototypes by Delft University (top right), University of Singapore (bottom left) and Stanford University (bottom right). [Photos courtesy of the Gates Foundation]

While one can understand this turn towards market-led — or marketing-led — approaches to the sanitation, is aspiration really is the only way? This leads to a fundamental question, which again, is just as relevant in the so-called developed world as it is in the developing countries: How should the bathroom be treated and valued? Does treating toilets or washbasins as consumer goods ultimately demean their value as “social goods”? At present, cultural views towards the bathroom might be characterized as inconsistent and ambivalent — even schizophrenic. In private homes, bathrooms are becoming more lavish and apparently more valued than ever; for those who can afford it, they are exhibitionist showpieces, with freestanding bathtubs and monsoon showers. This trend toward private comfort contrasts sharply with the general condition of public bathrooms, which are clearly not valued in the same way; in fact, 50 percent of U.K. public facilities have been closed since 1995. 17 The lack of response — much less outrage — about a move that negatively affects so many people seems to assert our collective indifference.

Yet, and yet. I would like to end by discussing an incident that has by turns amused and intrigued me. In 2010, when the pugnacious boss of the no-frills airline, Ryanair, suggested that his company would soon begin charging one pound ($1.50 USD) for the use of the onboard lavatories, it made headlines. Public opinion was so negative that the measure was never implemented. Given that Ryanair is known to operate by stripping away all extras, from baggage carriage to food service, and that its chief executive flaunts his lack of regard for passenger comfort, the climb-down was telling. In fact, there is no statutory requirement that airlines provide lavatories, and people are accustomed to paying for such facilities elsewhere, for instance, in train stations. What was different here? Why did lavatories mark the limit of customers’ tolerance for Ryanair’s famed “anything-to-make-a buck” approach?

It might simply be the case that Ryanair had at last pushed people’s tolerance too far. But I prefer to think that the reaction, consciously or no, reflected a value judgment about the bathroom; that customers were essentially rejecting the distasteful proposition that they should have to pay to access something which is, after all, a human necessity. To say that carriers like Ryanair are not legally obliged to provide free lavatories is thus to miss the point: people believe the airlines should provide sanitation free of charge not because they must, but because it is the right thing to do, from the perspective of passenger comfort, safety and, most of all, dignity. The incident reveals that bathrooms, in some circumstances at least, are still recognized as social goods, fundamental to a decent quality of life and a high level of civility in public. 18 It is a belief that lies at the heart of my research.

Editors' Note

“We shall deal here with humble things” is excerpted from Bathroom, by Barbara Penner, forthcoming from Reaktion in fall 2013. It appears here with the permission of the author and the publisher. We are pleased that this essay is appearing in coordination with World Toilet Day, observed annually on November 19.

  1. François Truffaut, Hitchcock by Truffaut: A Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock (New York: Touchstone, 1983), 320.
  2. Annmarie Adams, Architecture in the Family Way: Doctors, Houses, and Women, 1870-1900 (Montreal, 1996), Chapters One and Two.
  3. See Patricia Cooper and Ruth Oldenziel, “Cherished Classifications: Bathrooms and the Construction of Gender/Race on the Pennsylvania Railroad during World War II,” Feminist Studies 25/1 (1999), 8.
  4. James Forman, Sammy Younge, Jr.: The First Black college Student to die in the Black Liberation Movement (New York: Random House, 1968).
  5. For a more detailed discussion, see Olga Gershenson and Barbara Penner, editors, Introduction to Ladies and Gents: Public Toilets and Gender (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009), 21-22.
  6. Louise Norton, “The Buddha of the Bathroom,” The Blind Man 2 (May 1917), 5-6.
  7. Wendell Berry quoted in Eran Ben-Joseph, The Code of the City: Standards and the Hidden Language of Place Making (Cambridge: MIT Press 2005), 78-79.
  8. Ben-Joseph, 80.
  9. Harvey Molotch, “On Not Making History: What NYU did with the toilet and what it means for the World,” in Harvey Molotch and Laura Norén, editors, Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing (New York: NYU Press, 2010), 255-272.
  10. Molotch, “On Not Making History,” 256.
  11. Quoted in Daniel Max Gerling, “American Wasteland: A Social and Cultural History of Excrement, 1860-1920,” unpublished PhD Thesis (University of Texas at Austin, 2011), 6.
  12. Rose George, The Big Necessity: Adventures in the World of Human Waste (London: Portobello, 2008), 51.
  13. James L. Watson, Golden Arches East: McDonald’s in East Asia (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006), 33.
  14. Today, following Jae-Duck’s death in 2009, it lives on as the Mr. Toilet House Museum.
  15. Oliver August, “China scrubs up to impress global elite of sanitation,” The Times (Wednesday November 17, 2004), 40.
  16. Rebecca Mead, “The Real Thing,” The New Yorker, October 4, 2010, 37. See also “Melinda French Gates: What nonprofits can learn from Coca-Cola,” TEDxChange Lecture (September 2010).
  17. For an authoritative account of their rise and decline, see Clara Greed, Inclusive Urban Design: Public Toilets (Oxford: Architectural Press, 2003).
  18. This argument is indebted to Michael J. Sandel’s recent book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (2012).
Barbara Penner, ““We shall deal here with humble things”,” Places Journal, November 2012. Accessed 02 Oct 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/121113

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Past Discussions View
  • 11.19.2012 at 01:46

    great research! I can't wait for 'Bathroom' to publish in fall 2013!