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Washrooms of future past


When did the first public washrooms open in the UK? How did they compare to today’s smart facilities? Essity’s Stuart Hands takes a step into the past, and considers how they will evolve in the future.


Away-from-home washrooms are an essential part of our everyday lives. When out and about we naturally expect there to be toilet facilities provided in every office, store, restaurant, hotel and leisure facility we visit.


But extraordinarily, public washrooms were extremely rare until as recently as the 1850’s. Although communal toilets were sometimes situated adjacent to the public baths in ancient Rome, there were few reports of any other such facilities until the early 19th century when rudimentary public washrooms opened in Paris and Berlin.


Meanwhile in the UK, public toilets were non-existent. If a man needed to relieve himself when out and about, he would simply do so discreetly down a side alley. As for women, they were not expected to spend a sufficient amount of time out of the home in order to need to use the toilet at all.


In polite society, any females wishing to leave the house would need to carefully plan their activities to enable them to stop off for a comfort break en route to their destination. This meant that most excursions were restricted to visiting friends and family where toilet facilities could be guaranteed.


This situation placed huge restrictions on people’s lives. But it changed virtually overnight in 1851 when the Great Exhibition was staged at Crystal Palace.


The Great Exhibition was a huge World Fair held in London’s Hyde Park whose aim was to showcase the achievements of nations all over the globe – and of Britain in particular. The organisers sought to attract huge crowds, but how could visitors be expected to linger if no washroom facilities were provided?


A plumber named George Jennings came up with the solution in the form of the nation’s first-ever public toilets.


58 | WASHROOM HYGIENE


These were dubbed ‘closet rooms’ and installed in rows in Crystal Palace, separated from one another by means of seven-foot high partitions. Jennings’ toilets featured mahogany seats and a flush chain and were available to all visitors – along with a comb and a clean towel – at the cost of one penny, which is where the phrase “to spend a penny” comes from. Records show that 675,000 pennies were spent on the toilet facilities during the six-month exhibition.


"Modern breakthroughs have been helping to compensate for the shortage of monitored public washrooms."


To say that public washrooms were an overnight success after this would be an exaggeration, since many women remained reluctant to be seen using such facilities. But the concept caught on slowly and when Crystal Palace was dismantled, Jennings moved his toilets to Sydenham where they went on to raise £1,000 a year in entrance fees.


In the late Victorian era, demand for public washrooms began to grow. However, few towns and cities had sufficient space to build them which led to underground facilities springing up in towns and cities.


Another breakthrough occurred in 1928 when London’s Selfridges store provided washrooms for its customers


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