The Urinal: A Brief Functional and Aesthetic History

The public restroom does not, upon first glance, appear to offer especially fertile ground for cultural analysis. Indeed, it is a site of intensely private activity, to be experienced individually and generally a topic of mildly uncomfortable discourse in public settings. However, one artifact commonly associated with the public restroom, the urinal, has inspired a fairly eclectic mixture of social, cultural and historical analyses over the past 150 years. Many of these opportunities for investigation involve gender, as nearly all urinal models have been designed exclusively for males. However, the history of the urinal has intersected with quite a few areas beyond gender, including changes to architecture, artistic expression and the greening of America. In many ways, this object has served as a cultural prism reflecting more than just societal trends, engaging with collective fears, desires, attitudes and values specific to time and place. Since its appearance in the United States following the Civil War, the urinal has played a surprising role in a variety of important changes in American history, many of which involve social progress.

The urinal was first patented in the United States immediately following the Civil War, when Andrew Rankin introduced an upright flushing apparatus in 1866 (Urinal, The device enjoyed widespread popularity in large northern cities, many of which witnessed wide-scale immigration following the end of the Civil War and the subsequent Reconstruction period in the American south. Cities such as New York and Chicago witnessed tremendous explosions in population, requiring overhauls of their public sewer systems; New York had to bring in water from as far away as the Catskill Mountains (History of New York City’s Water Supply System, NYC Environmental Protection). The late 1800s also saw much technological growth, as new industrial breakthroughs signaled a faith in the power of innovation that continued nearly unabated until the horrors of World War I and trench warfare.

A third cultural trend, increased emphasis on privacy, combined with the growing population and its faith in technology to make the urinal a site of distinct cultural meaning. As more and more people became accustomed to denser living conditions, expectations in regards to privacy were somewhat modified. The outhouse was generally a thing of the past and what had been a solitary act for many was now, by necessity, a partially shared experience when visiting a restroom outside the privacy of one’s home. The value of privacy was not completely undermined by the urinal, however, as certain aspects of design were geared toward maximizing personal comfort by minimizing public exposure. For instance, the single unit model became popular at the expense of the more collective trench model and continues to be the dominant form in the United States today. Certainly, throughout the west, trench models, although more cost effective due to the use of a single drain, are never as popular with users. This tendency can perhaps be attributed to cultural fears of abjection, the psychological theory whereby bodily fluids in which we invest much of our notions of privacy and personal identity, mix thoroughly and publicly with those of others.

The allocation of space within factories and other businesses, and eventually the nature of public architecture, underwent a change in the second half of the 19th century, with better construction engineering and methods for smelting stronger wrought iron (Nineteenth Century Architecture, Columbia University). Although the re-envisioning of public architecture during this time had more to do with issues of popular design and structural engineering, the urinal did play a role in the renegotiation of how space was used. Basic sanitation in the age of the European factory had not been optimal, with workers often urinating or defecating in the same river that provided both power for the factory and drinking water for those living nearby.

With the late-19th century growth of the American city, and subsequent fears concerning the disease outbreaks that such overcrowding could potentially foster, came better engineering in regard to sanitation, with larger and more comprehensive sewer grids introduced to meet the needs of the general populace (History of New York City’s Water Supply System). The urinal drastically reduced the amount of space required for a men’s restroom in that several urinals could occupy the same square footage of a single, sit-down toilet stall. Also, as a general rule, workers spent less time using a urinal than a traditional sit-down toilet. During the late 1800s, theories regarding worker productivity abounded, the most common of which was Taylorism. This movement, and other science-based theories of industrial performance, highlighted the need to maximize efficiency by standardizing worker methods and practices while minimizing interruptions. The decision to move restrooms closer to the factory floor and create space for the easier-to-use urinal resonated with these theories. Ever since, the incorporation of indoor restrooms has been a common feature of corporate architecture, forever changing the ergonomic experience of the worker in a positive way.

In addition to the integration of urinals into factories and other businesses, the growth of the city necessitated public-access restrooms. During the early part of the twentieth century, European city planners sought to capitalize on the popularity of this device, and designed outdoor public urinals known as pissoirs. Also called vespasiennes, these public booths were quite popular in France and other large European cities, reaching their zenith in Paris between the world wars. They ranged in design from mostly enclosed, with the booth obscuring all but the feet of the user and allowing maximum privacy, to mostly open, offering minimal protection from the passerby. Pissoirs were only available for use by men, and thus were vulnerable for criticism as devices that perpetuated gender division and male privilege. It is perhaps for this reason that they never became popular in the United States, although certainly much of the American resistance can be attributed to more puritanical expectations in regards to issues of bodily decorum. Today, pissoirs have largely disappeared, replaced by the sanisette(Urinal, These devices, which are popular in contemporary Paris and other European cities, are much larger than their predecessors, and are completely enclosed with a traditional sit-down bowl in addition to a urinal option, thus usable by all. Pissoirs do continue in some British locations, allegedly so that drunken football fans have an alternative to street urination following matches. Other contemporary versions indicate the potential for both humor and political commentary: a pissoir in Iraq has George W. Bush’s face painted onto the background, allowing Iraqi soldiers to urinate into his open mouth.

It is no surprise that, with the urinal symptomatic of several cultural shifts in late-19th century society (privacy, gender equality, and the workplace), a urinal provided one of several fulcrums upon which the conversion from romantic to modernist art turned, when Marcel Duchamp’s La Fontaine sparked a revolution in the avant-garde, highlighting tensions between the high and the low. Duchamp was one of the key modernists, including Picasso, Eliot, Stein, and Joyce, who shattered traditional notions of signification. Duchamp subverted traditional linguistic codes, undermining certain cultural symbols while simultaneously introducing others. By the time World War I began, several cultural shifts had been well underway for over 50 years. The rapid growth of the middle class increased the societal base of those desiring art in their lives. Furthermore, increasingly sophisticated methods of mass production led to visual forms of art (photography and cinema) that spelled the beginning of the post-literate age. These cultural shifts resulted in the democratization of art, a perfect climate for avant-garde artists to mount their text-based challenges to normative signification, including the ability for art to portray artifacts that were esoteric and even profane. It was into this climate of rising challenge that Marcel Duchamp made his biggest contribution.

In 1917, Duchamp entered a urinal into an exhibition titled “The Society of Independent Artists.” After deliberation, the exhibitors agreed to accept the piece, which due to uproar over its inclusion instantly became the most discussed artifact in the exhibition. In order to perhaps imbue it with a bit of mystery, making it more palatable to the public (or perhaps to mask his identity), Duchamp had written upon the urinal’s rim the following cryptic message, in black paint: “R. Mutt 1917.” This artifact immediately sparked controversy even among those who championed modern art, as people were either repelled or intrigued (or both) by Duchamp’s unconventional artistic vision. La Fontaine, as the urinal would become known, tapped into post-Victorian fears and desires regarding the taboo and the profane and called into question the Horatian notion of art as that which pleases or instructs. The furor surrounding this found or readymade object undermined traditional understandings of the artist as creator, also suggesting that low objects (in this case, a receptacle for bodily discharge) could be just as aesthetically interesting or relevant as those held sacred by society. In reconfiguring a urinal as art, and turning what had been purely functional into an object worthy of aesthetic appreciation, Duchamp brought to the surface a debate regarding the boundaries of art.

In 2004, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) surveyed 500 experts in various fields of art regarding the “most influential” piece of art from the twentieth century. Many were shocked when La Fontaine was voted into the top position above more celebrated works such as Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych, and Jackson Pollock’s No. 5, 1948. Although noting his surprise, art historian (and at the time, spokesperson for the Tate Modern Museum) Simon Wilson commented that La Fontaine “reflects the dynamic nature of art today and the idea that the creative process that goes into a work of art is the most important thing–the work itself can be made of anything and can take any form” (Duchamp’s Urinal Top’s Art Survey”, BBC News, 1 December 2004). In choosing an everyday object with such negative connotations, Duchamp served to free art from the twin tyrannies of traditional taste and selection, allowing a far greater range of that which is deemed acceptable.

Following World War II, gender equality returned to the forefront of the urinal and its march through history. As women were beginning to filter into the American workforce in greater numbers, the object became a symbol of the glass ceiling to be broken, as male bathrooms became a site of water cooler privilege to which women were denied access. Urinals for women were experimented with during this time period, although due to awkwardness of use, the potential obstruction of certain clothing items and the lack of a marketing campaign, this technology never achieved popularity. Newer models have been patented in the past few decades; although they have grown in popularity, the female model is still only employed in a handful of locations (Women’s Installations, A final intersection between urinals and the growing call for gender equality occurred in America during the early-’70s, during the state ratification process for the Equal Rights Amendment. After 50 years of controversy, this initiative had, finally achieved support from the President, the Senate, and the House of Representatives. The amendment initially enjoyed substantial traction, with 30 of the requisite 38 states voting for acceptance in the first two years of the seven-year ratification window. However, criticism against the ERA began to intensify, and only five more states approved the amendment before the deadline, leading to the defeat of the initiative (The History Behind the Equal Rights Amendment, The Equal Rights Amendment).

Criticism focused primarily upon redundancy (gender inequity had already been outlawed by the Nineteenth Amendment, the “Right to Vote” act passed in 1920) and the loss of rights (no more exclusion from military conscription, certain union protections, etc). However, some positions highlighted the blurring of the genders. One argument used by detractors, such as Phyllis Schlafly, to erode support for the ERA amongst both men and women involved the alleged mandatory construction of unisex bathrooms, which would not employ urinals (Because Constitutional Equality is so Retro, Feministing, 29 March 2007). Cultural codes of privacy and gender division were too engrained with regard to the public restroom, and in the threat of unisex bathrooms opponents of the ERA found a wedge issue that resonated with both genders. Ironically, it was now the disappearance of the urinal, an object that had long stood as a symbol of male privilege and female exclusion, which constituted an imagined symptom of rapid change vis-à-vis gender relations.

The pace of change in urinal function and design has only increased in the last thirty years, with the manufacturers of this device responding to a variety of cultural shifts and societal pressures. The increased tendency of children to accompany their parents to various sites of public consumption (restaurants, theaters, etc) necessitated the manufacture of smaller urinals for children. Larger than normal urinals were subsequently created for taller people; indeed, in very large public restrooms in airports and other areas with high volumes of daily use, it is not uncommon to see urinals set at three different heights. Airports have also been at the cutting edge of no-touch technology when it comes to the public restroom, not just with urinals but also traditional sit-down toilets, in addition to soap, water, and paper towel dispensers. The no-touch urinal, which utilizes an infrared motion proximity sensor to activate the flushing mechanism (Urinal), was a direct reflection of growing concerns over globalism and the ability to rapidly move from one part of the world to another. Cheaper, faster travel meant more people would be traveling from one region to another, exponentially increasing the potential for germs and diseases to be spread into areas with little or no natural resistance. As the hubs of international travel in ascendant globalism, airports were among the first institutions to employ new innovations seeking to minimize human contact with germs. In the ’90s and after, the fear of viral outbreaks such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and lingering threats of biochemical terrorism have led the Centers for Disease Control and other health organizations to recommend that urinals and other restroom devices should operate automatically and without human touch (Brendan O’Brien, Keys to Reducing Cross Contamination, CleanLink, November 2007).

The most recent substantive change in American culture that has been reflected in changing urinal models is the greening of America, where resources such as water are much more closely monitored, and wasteful practices are discouraged. In the past decade, water-free urinals have been introduced widely across the United States. Incorporating one of these models is a way in which a business can signal their allegiance to a greener profile of operation, and units are often accompanied by a decal that claims one can save “up to 40,000 gallons of water per year” simply by switching to this water-free technology. Although these models are still vastly outnumbered by more traditional flush urinals, this latest innovation will only become more and more popular with the water shortages that are predicted to become a growing feature in certain parts of the United States over the next 50 years. Who knows whether the water-free model will become a regional feature in areas that experience such shortages; one thing is certain, however. American culture will continue to evolve, and these modifications will be reflected in the changing face of the urinal.