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Inequality at the bathroom door: How public restrooms ‘make mapmakers of all of us’

Temple University Professor Bryant Simon
Joseph V. Labolito
Temple University
Temple University professor Bryant Simon is writing a book about the history of public restrooms in the U.S.

The story of public restrooms in America is largely a St. Louis story. In the early 20th century, the city was actively involved in a campaign to build public restrooms across the metro area.

“They saw this campaign as a way to advance St. Louis as a modern city, as the kind of city that would be among the great cities of America and the world,” said Temple University professor Bryant Simon, who is writing a book about the history of public restrooms in the U.S.

An elegant tiled corridor inside the former St. Louis Union Station
Carol M. Highsmith
Library of Congress
An elegant tiled corridor inside the former St. Louis Union Station

He said one of the clearest expressions of the restroom building campaign can be found at the entrance to one of the men’s restrooms in the former St. Louis Union Station.

“On one of the mezzanines, there's a men's room that you can walk into, and above the mezzanine is a gilded overhang, and it's kind of amazing to me. This is saying to people that they matter — that their access to public space should be adorned and should be embellished.”

These restrooms, however, were not truly public. From the outset, they were built segregated.

“They were built completely not ‘separate but equal’” Simon said. “One of the famous pictures of public bathrooms is of three doors, and it would say, ‘Ladies, Men, and Colored.'”

Not only were public restrooms never completely open to everyone, Simon said they have become more unequal, and less common, over time.

From the calls for women’s toilets in the early 20th century (the first public bathrooms involved urinals only), to Freedom Riders attempting to integrate restrooms during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, to the calls of today’s transgender and nonbinary communities to access restrooms that match their gender identity, “almost every social movement of the 20th century has a bathroom story to it,” Simon said.

Midway through the century, the public restrooms that were created and celebrated at the beginning of the century began to disappear, and many cities today lack an adequate number of facilities. In Los Angeles, a city of nearly 4 million, there are just 14 permanent public restroom stalls on the streets.

This shortage affects those without permanent housing in particular.

“The lack of public facilities has led to hepatitis B and deadly outbreaks in San Diego. Stores in areas where the unhoused live find that every day, they arrive to open up their doors and there’s excrement in the storefront,” he said. “The lack of access to clean, safe and available places for bodily functions is now becoming a public health risk to everyone.”

“Public bathrooms make mapmakers of all of us,” he added. “Whether we think about it or not, we're constantly making maps about where we can go.”

A map many people rely on is one of accessible restrooms throughout a city and its establishments. Gabbi McMahon, who runs the “Bathrooms in St. Louis” Instagram page, reviews privatized restrooms found in businesses and restaurants across the region. She hears regularly from people who appreciate how her page lists details like how far the washroom is from the dining area, whether you need to traverse stairs to access it, or whether there’s room to change a diaper in the facilities.

Gabbi McMahon, who runs the “Bathrooms In St. Louis” Instagram page, says Songbird's restroom (left) is the most distinctive one she's seen yet.
Gabbi McMahon / Miya Norfleet
Gabbi McMahon, who runs the “Bathrooms in St. Louis” Instagram page, says Songbird's restroom, left, is the most distinctive one she's seen yet.

McMahon and Simon joined Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air to discuss the past and present of using toilets outside the home — and what it will take for public restrooms to become truly accessible and welcoming to all.

“If we want to build a truly inclusive present, we can't do that without acknowledging people's need for access for places to go away from home — for that access to be equal and for people's bodies to be acknowledged and not demeaned in those spaces,” Simon said. “I do think we've reached a crisis point where we're going to have a bathroom building campaign, but it's not going to be on the scale and elaborate as the one in the [former] St. Louis public train station.”

Listen to the conversation on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast or Stitcher or by clicking the play button below.

Hear: Bryant Simon and Gabbi McMahon on "St. Louis on the Air"

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.