A graduate of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Bryant Simon is the Laura H. Carnell Professor of History at Temple University. He is the author of four books about US History, most recently, The Hamlet Fire: A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives (New Press, 2018). His current project looks at the rise, fall, and tentative re-emergence of the public bathroom in the US over the last 120 years. Last year, he was awarded the Great Teacher Award at Temple. He is, in addition, an Organization of American Historians Distinguished Lecturer and an elected member of the Society of American Historians.
The History of Public Bathrooms, A Story of Inequality
A few years ago, two Black men went to a Starbucks in Philadelphia. One of them asked to use the bathroom and was told he couldn’t, unless he bought something. Words were passed, the police were called, and the two men were taken away.
This highly publicized moment represented an all too familiar American moment of racial discrimination. I detected, however, another angle to the story – the bathroom and the key social fact that we can’t have true equality unless everyone – black-white, queer-straight, rich and poor –has equal access to toilets.
Those men were men were looking for a bathroom at Starbucks, in part, because there no other options. According to a recent UN study, the U.S. ranks 59th in the world when it comes to public bathrooms per capita.
To learn how we got to this point of so few public bathrooms, I did what a historian does—I dug into the past.
I found out that early in the 20th Century, government officials determined that the private sector had failed to meet the public need for open and accessible bathrooms. In response, cities from Philadelphia, to Peoria, to Portland, invested heavily in public bathrooms.
When these newly opened public bathrooms attracted an unanticipated crowd of sex-seekers, vandals, and the unhoused, officials started to close them. This meant that anyone in need of a toilet again had to rely on private facilities, which led to spikes in discriminations, similar to what happened in Philadelphia, but it also led to protests at the bathroom door from civil rights, feminist, and queer activists.
My research charts the rise and fall of the public bathroom. This is a story that forces us to acknowledge that if we want to build a truly inclusive present, we need to recognize access to public bathrooms as a fundamental right and a cornerstone to a fair and equitable society.