The Evolution of Restrooms

I find the changing world fascinating; the progression of technology, advances in medicine and the evolution of social norms.  I remember my mom saying, “What will they think of next?” and I sometimes wonder what she, my dad, and my grandma would have to say about modern day items and practices.  Which leads me to today’s topic.

I’ll spare you a history lesson that goes back to the beginning of time by only covering that which I remember during my lifetime, so 50(ish) years.  I’ve always lived with running water and flushing toilets that haven’t changed much in those 50 years.  However, I do remember some less than modern facilities when I was away from home.  Let’s start with rest areas.  I remember traveling Up North (as all Michiganders know, Up North is a place) on our regular family vacations.  When we stopped at rest areas, we were not met with air conditioned buildings featuring vending machines, banks of daily cleaned bathroom stalls, and a map of Michigan with a dot declaring ‘You Are Here.’  Michigan rest areas in the late 60s consisted of pit toilets and, perhaps, an unpainted wooden picnic table riddled with slivers.  My inner five year old remembers the smell, the fact that there was not a door (the facility was blocked only by maze-like wall dividers), and the plastic green corrugated “windows” which let in the smallest amount of light.  There was no electricity and no running water.  Mom would have wet-naps in the glove compartment to clean your hands.

The rest area memories are pretty clear, but then I have some old and choppy memories of some other strange facilities…

  • Pay toilets, where you had to put a dime in the slot to get the stall door to open
  • Odd shaped toilets without seats (Were those urinals in the ladies room?) 
  • Restrooms with banks of stalls; some with doors and some without 

That was always odd to me.  Did they run out of doors?  I certainly wasn’t going in a stall without a door no matter how badly I had to go.  But some brave soul, or maybe someone who just couldn’t take it anymore, would sometimes move to the end of the bank and use a doorless stall.  I do remember a long line of women and girls waiting for the stalls with doors.  I also have an odd recollection of stalls with half doors.  What’s the point of that?  Was that real?  As some of you know, I occasionally have dreams about weird bathroom situations – and toilets without seats and stalls without doors are often featured.

But I digress. Back to the late 60s and early 70s… where were these weird restrooms?  Department stores?  Amusement parks? The memories of the venue of these public restrooms is not as clear in my mind as the restrooms themselves.  That’s a bit of a sad realization. 

And for the next forty years or so, I feel like the bathrooms in my life were status quo.  Then a new millennium ushered in a new concept:  the family restroom.  I had a bit of a giggle when I first heard of them. I pictured a family (mom, dad and three kids) all having to go to the bathroom at the same time and wanting to use the same space.  In reality, family restrooms were a practical response to modern day needs.  One common example are the single dads (or moms) with a child that needs assistance in the bathroom, but there are many other situations in which having a private space can make a world of difference to someone’s comfort.

Next on the evolution chain – gender neutral restrooms.  I have strong personal opinions, but I really try not to use my writing as a political platform.  Suffice it to say, that although I support gender neutral restrooms, I will be sad to see the end of whimsical gender identifying signs.  I enjoy the creativity.  Blokes and Sheilas at Outback restaurants, Guys and Dolls at a local theatre, and at one non-memorable place, the memorable and amusing signs indicating Pointers and Setters.  However, a quick Google search assures me that sign creativity and whimsy is not dead. 


If you have an extra moment or two, I encourage you to do a Google image search on “gender identity bathroom signs.”  Or, just as fascinating is this website  belonging to the American Restroom Association.  Although they are not qualified to give legal advice (per their disclaimer) they do promote several advocacy groups, and under the Public Restroom tab, there is a section for Restroom Stories and Anecdotes.   

And one final tip for the day, check out the app store on your smartphone.  I just downloaded the free app:  Flush – Toilet Finder.  It’s the quickest, simplest way of finding a public restroom near you.  You’re welcome.

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