Latrines and Public Toilets

Is there such a thing as a ‘private’ public space?  I’m not talking about privately owned space that is opened up to the public (will get to that someday), but rather spaces that are public, but provide privacy.  Is that possible?  Is it an oxymoron?

What about public toilets?

I certainly expect at least the illusion of privacy when I got into a public bathroom, though of course the ‘privacy’ walls between stalls don’t provide anything other than a visual barrier.  Even that is only the illusion if there is a child between the ages of 2.5-5 in there with you (hi under there!).  There is certainly no auditory or olfactory privacy!  I suppose men have even less privacy.  How does that even work at the urinals?  One of the great gender unknowables I guess.

I have this expectation of visual privacy though, and we in the modern West just pretend we don’t notice anyone else in there with us.

Pissoir, Paris 1865

Pissoir, Paris 1865 photograph by Charles Marvill

Is this true elsewhere though?  I’ve spent a lot of time travelling in various parts of the world, and am quite comfortable with the squat toilet.  However, while travelling in rural Cambodia we stopped at a small family-run roadside stop.  The guys I was travelling with just peed off the side of the road, but the threat of land mines meant I couldn’t just go into the jungle to find a handy bush.  The family that owned the restaurant showed me to their private toilet, which consisted of two boards to stand on, surrounded by a low curtain.  As the family children watched me, I demonstrated why locals wear skirts as the curtain wasn’t even as high as my hips and I couldn’t figure out how to pull down my pants while maintaining my dignity.  The existence of the low curtain shows that the locals desired privacy, though I didn’t get any.

Note to future self: when travelling in landmined areas, always carry a Shewee.

Roman toilets from Ostia Antica (by Fubar Obfusco)

Roman toilets from Ostia Antica (by Fubar Obfusco)

I’m not sure how prevalent this expected ignorance and imaginary privacy is though.  Certainly in ancient Rome, people had a very different view of elimination.  While people could relieve themselves at home in a chamber pot, and there were apparently a few rich folks with private toilets, there were also public latrines, where people would socialize and chat while seated next to one another on long benches.  This was clearly a public space and was clearly used for the creation of community.  People created and cemented relationships while on the john.  Can’t get more public than that.

So clearly public toilets haven’t always been ‘private’.  And in fact, there is the stereotype of the groups of women who head to the bathroom together in order to gossip, primp, and chat while out of the ‘public’ eye.

Interestingly, they have introduced ‘smoke toilets‘ in Japan.  These are public toilet cubicles with a transparent door.  The door goes opaque when someone enters, but if there is no movement for 35 seconds, the door goes transparent again.  Apparently, this has caused some concern!

No shit.


In many places these days, public toilets aren’t even freely accessible, requiring desperate people to pay to use toilets.  I have experienced this in Turkey, where captive bus travellers must pay to enter and use toilets at rest stops.  Theoretically, this money is used to pay people to clean the facilities and for toilet paper, but I have remained unconvinced.  This is also the case in many places in Europe, where electronic turnstiles keep people from entering until you’ve paid.  I do admit that this cuts down on the lineups and the gratuitous primping in front of the mirrors, but I resent scrabbling for a coin when I’m dying for a pee.

Does this make them less public though?  I suspect one of the main, yet unstated, reasons for the emergence of these pay toilets is to cut down on their use by homeless people.  This use of public architecture to control homelessness is something that has come up a couple of times on this blog (here and here, here), and I have struggled with the wider question of whether ‘public’ spaces that you have to pay to access are truly public (places like public pools for instance).  Does it change because bodily functions are necessary?

So when did we go from communal pooping to individual?  Should we have to pay to pee?  Are public toilets really public?


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4 Responses to Latrines and Public Toilets

  1. Re the end question – something I’ve thought about often! I’m convinced people at Çatalhöyük used middens as ‘public’ latrine areas. I follow this campaign which is v interesting about present day ‘open defecation’ as it’s called

    • Wow, that link is really interesting, thanks for sharing!

      As for Çatalhöyük, I think it definitely makes sense for using middens as latrines, but they could have used curtains for privacy, as I experienced in Cambodia? Or some other temporary privacy screen?

      • Totally possible, I’m guessing it wouldn’t leave an archaeological trace? They might have used woven reeds, but there’d be no way to tell that apart from discarded matting/roofing.

      • Hardly any trace at all. And any trace there might be, like small post holes, would probably be ignored. Hardly anyone plans the details of the open spaces. Drove me nuts during my PhD. The site reports would say they found pits, postholes, ephemeral fire pits, but no indication of where these features were. I’m sure you’ve noticed too.

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