When did public toilets become separated by gender?
Recent news reports from the US say that the state of North Carolina has passed a law requiring people to use only the public toilet corresponding to the gender listed on their birth certificates. This affects transgender individuals who identify with a gender other than that of their birth. It got us thinking about when and why toilets became segregated by gender in the first place.
Identifying when people first decided that privacy when answering the call of nature was important. The Romans had rows of open multi-seat toilets where people would sit on un-partitioned benches. However, recent archaeological research has shown that high status Romans may also had single seat private rooms set aside in their villas for themselves and their high status guests, reserving the multi-seat version for their slaves and servants.
Throughout history, up until the Victorian period, public toilets were men-only affairs, leaving women to either make use of facilities before leaving the house or use the gutters. This can still be the case in some under-developed countries around the world.
The first gender-segregated public toilets began appearing in the late 1800s and are now, of course, the norm in Western countries.
The first ‘Monkey Closets’, as they were known, appeared at the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in 1852, devised and installed by a Brighton plumber named George Jennings. In the same year public toilets for men and for women opened on Fleet Street outside the Society for Art but proved unpopular.
Public toilets only really took off in the 1880s after Thomas Crapper improved the flushing mechanism with a cistern, ballcock and chain allowing the toilet to be flushed after every use.