Today is World Toilet Day.
Part of me wonders who comes up with these commemorative “holidays”, but another part of me wonders what we’d do without toilets.
In my first child care job in the very early 90s, we had a plumbing problem, and we needed to use porta-johns, for us and the children, ages 3-5. Not only did we have to use the porta-johns, they were outside the front door, so every time anyone needed to use the toilet, we’d have to go outside and wait until they were finished. It is a horrible memory. I think it might have lasted a few weeks, maybe a month, but it feels like much longer.
When my siblings and I were kids, we did quite a bit of traveling with our family. My parents believed in the family vacation. I wish things were less expensive and I could give that to my own kids. It was a brilliant childhood and fostered my love of history and other cultures, including those regional differences just along the East Coast where we typically went. We drove everywhere, even to Florida. No planes for my mother. Driving had its own charm; sometimes. Every trip began at around 4am and we drove into the sunrise. Sometimes we left in our pajamas and got dressed at the first rest stop, hours later. Many hours later.
Although, sometimes, those long, lovely travels trapped in the backseat fighting over the windows or who didn’t want to sit on the middle hump, were punctuated by bathroom requests beginning from whenever the first one woke up.
My father used to ask if we were writing a book on the bathrooms across the country for the amount of times we asked to stop. We just had to see every bathroom. Three kids and we never needed to use the bathroom at the same time. As a parent now, it is pretty ridiculous, but such is life. In fact, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
When my oldest son was young and began to use the toilet, we’d stop on the way to Grandma’s (who lived far away). For some of those long trips we carried a portable potty with us so he didn’t have to use the dirty public ones on the road. First time parents; what can I say?
As a joke we decided to take photos of my son in front of the places where he used the bathroom (outside), like McDonald’s, the thruway rest area, etc, and we made a picture book for my Dad. He loved it! He thought it was the best thing in the world! He had a great sense of humor.
I have a recurring nightmare that takes place in a toilet. It’s horrific. I won’t even describe it here; it leaves shivers on my spine. Suffice it to say, it has to do with not finding a clean toilet, wet floors, and I’m the only one bothered by it. I’m not even a germophobe; this dream really is the stuff of nightmares.
We are a very spoiled people here in the United States. You can go into any bathroom, assuming there is indoor plumbing, which more than likely there is, and there is no way to make a mistake. None. It’s almost relaxing how easy our toilet flushing systems are. Even using a port-a-potty at an outdoor event or in an emergency, it’s all pretty obvious where everything goes or how to get rid of the “evidence”.
My travels in the United Kingdom, especially in 1987 still pump terror through my veins if I think too long about it.
Before England, I’d never seen a pay toilet before. Or a paid shower for that matter. Nothing was automatic like it is today. You had to pump your own soap, turn on your water, turn it off, and find the paper towels. I can’t remember, but I don’t think there were any hot air dryers back then. Most water faucets had a hot knob and a cold one, but it wasn’t always standard which was which.
For one pub toilet, you had to slip past the first stall while someone was using it to get to the end stall. My friend and I went in together and out the same way. I don’t even remember if it was single gender.
There were no second glances using the men’s room, or pretty much anything else as long as whatever it was was finished with, “Sorry, I’m American.” Shrug and smile, and a college student on holiday could get away with almost anything. After all, the men’s toilet lines were much shorter than the women’s, especially on New Year’s Eve.
To the toilets themselves, because as most of us know, the English bathroom doesn’t contain the toilet but the tub. No showers unless you were in a hostel or had an updated loo. Usually no sink either, but sometimes there was one alongside the toilet. Saved time and grime to wash before you left the stall.
I never put much thought into flushing a toilet before. I don’t think I spent this much time on the topic since my kids were potty training and even then it wasn’t rocket science.
Like ours, most are the typical seat with the tank right there. Almost none of them had a flushing lever attached to the tank, though. Once in a while, but it was never guaranteed.
It was a scavenger hunt every time I used the bathroom.
There were push buttons on top of the tank, on the side of the tank, on the floor to the left, right and back of the tank, on the wall behind the tank, and quite possibly near the door for on your way out. I personally liked that one because if there’s a problem with the plumbing you’re long gone before your shoes are wet.
But wait, that is a mere sampling of the flushing techniques on display in jolly old England.
Some had chains. Chains from the ceiling, chains on the side of the tank.
One had a tank about eight feet high attached to the wall with the chain hanging down like a light chain. The chain was the only way I noticed the tank in the first place, and I’m sure I did a double take.
I remember one had a metal rod sticking out of the tank that you had to push down, maybe like part of the thing you’d use at an old-fashioned water pump.
Toilet paper was scratchy, and there was never enough.
There wasn’t anything really in the way of latches. It was really a hope for the best that no one walked in on you.
Bathrooms were also very cold. No central heat, but they did have towel warmers which sadly hasn’t made it across the pond, at least not in a middle class home way.
There were big changes when I returned in 2009. I didn’t have quite the toileting adventures that I had twenty-two years earlier. There was central heat in most places. I stayed in mostly hostels, so those loos were dormitory style, all shared, with showers in another room. There were, however also bathrooms with weird blue lights. Apparently studies found that this put people off, particularly teenagers, so they didn’t loiter in the bathrooms doing whatever it is that teenagers loiter in the bathroom for. Smoking, drugs, sex. And this wasn’t even the pub; this was in the grocery store.
As much as I complain about our plumbing and antiquated septic system at my house, I know that when I flush ninety-nine times out of a hundred it leaves and doesn’t come back. I know exactly where it goes, in fact, so no matter how you flush it, I can spend my adventures on something simpler, like which plunger to buy next.
I was excited to learn that Japan has a museum dedicated to toilets.
For further reading, please click:
A Brief History of Toilets
Is it Time to Kill Off the Flush Toilet?