Patenting The Pissoir: Queer Bodies and Proprietary Technologies

By Chris Chitty |

The following is a piece from our late friend, Chris Chitty. Chris was a radical thinker, a committed activist and scholar, and a cherished comrade. As a queer Marxist and prolific writer, Chris produced incredibly exciting work about sexuality and the history of capitalism, much of which is yet to be posthumously published. His writing was fearless, tenacious, antagonistic. Perhaps the world was not ready for it – or at least that was the world in which we lost him.

In 1841, Paris made history by installing the first standardized public urinals along its busy city thoroughfares. Named after pioneering civil engineer and hygienist Comte de Rambuteau — who began many of the modernization projections Haussmann often gets credit for — the urinals were incredibly phallic structures, towering 12 feet above the street, capped with a round glans-like finial. An alcove cut out from the cylindrical column provided a discrete space for the fulfillment of the bodily function in question.

However, this municipal provision of sanitary conveniences couldn’t break Parisian men’s habit of relieving themselves wherever they saw fit. The number of columns erected could never satisfy the demand. In April of 1843, the Gazette Municipale reported that men continued pissing en plein air on the streets; bourgeois women and children could no longer look out their windows or leave their houses without suffering “outrages against morals,” for “public decency is too deeply and too frequently damaged by the ignoble spectacles which the authorities provide neither surveillance nor serious repression.” [1] Even when men did use the Rambuteau columns, women could still catch glimpse of a penis from the street, and demanded partitions erected around the columns to cut off all lines of sight.

Urinoir a une stalle, cast iron and masonry, rue de Faubourg Saint-Martin, Paris Xe. Circa 1875
Urinoir lumineux a trois stalles. Societe Parisienne de Publicite. Paris Vle. Circa 1875

These were primitive provisions of sanitary convenience — essentially an iron slab with no drainage. Structures were erected throughout Europe during the mid-nineteenth century on more or less the same architectural principle, outside pubs, in alleyways and parks. Jame’s Wright’s seminal 1891 text for sanitary engineers, titled Plumbing Practice, describes the bourgeois affect of disgust regarding such urinals in London:

“On entering one of these places the person’s eyes begin to run with tears, and the pain of the nostrils is similar to that just before a fit of sneezing, so strong are the ammoniacal vapours. Although these places are for the use of the public, a great many of them are private property. When they become so bad as to be a public nuisance, they sometimes get washed down and a coat of lime-white may be laid on the walls. A few days afterwards these white walls are invariably found to be covered with disgusting literature and quack doctors’ hand-bills. The sooner the sanitary authorities seek out these places and have them removed the better it will be for those unfortunate people who reside near them, and those who, from sheer necessity, must make use of them.” [2]

I’ve presented you with two, rather typical primary sources articulating the kind of outrage these public conveniences provoked from the 19th century publics. There was a virtual flood — so to speak — of middle class discourse, predominantly female, about the placement of urinals in large cities throughout Great Britain and Northern Europe. While urinating in the street apparently caused an “outrage against morals,” the provision of urinals could cause a “public nuisance,” which ran the gamut from the handbills, stench and sexual latrinalia detailed by Wright, to the loitering, cruising, masturbation and sex between men of concern to the police of major cities throughout Europe at the time.

Urinois kosque a 6 stalles. Plateau French Theatre. Paris First. Circa 1875.

To state the policy problem facing these mid-nineteenth century sanitary reformers as clearly as possible: middle-class women considered the sight of men’s penises and urethral functions to be an “outrage against decency” and demanded that municipal authorities contain or enclose such activities within an architecture that would shield them from view; however, the new architecture of enclosure concentrated the practice in urban space around a few nodal points along busy thoroughfares and erotically intensified the experience of urination in public by providing a semi-private, same-sex space in cities for this bodily function. These were, if you’ll permit the metaphor, temples of urethral eroticism. Although I don’t have time to go into any more detail about these subjective responses of bourgeois women and working class men to the the architectural enclosure of public urination — I hope you’ll take me at my word when I say this political struggle over the presence of the phallus in public space says a lot about the great divide in psychosexual subjectivity between the bourgeoisie and working class, between men and woman, and the differing notions of sexual freedom which were mutually exclusive and in competition with one another.

I’ll trace the politics of this sexual struggle over the phallus in broad strokes: The entry and influence of middle-class women into the “public sphere” is the decisive factor in policing the public displays of sexuality in cities (ie. prostitution and homosexuality). Middle-class women extended domestic norms of sexual consent — consent to co-presence with sexual acts — from their own households into the public spaces they circulated within. For the nineteenth and much of the early twentieth century, working class men and women did not enjoy any kind of “privacy” in their own homes, as they lived crammed five or more to a room in boarding houses, or with relatives. The only privacy working class people had was paradoxically to be had in public. As middle-class women extended their domestic norms of consent into the public sphere, the previously male-dominated public sphere was domesticated over the course of the nineteenth century. The material history of urinals and social history of their placement in urban space demonstrates the growing influence of concerned middle-class women. As the example of Manchester indicates, women call for the construction of urinals to prevent “public indecency” and also push them out of neighborhoods when they become centers of homosexual activity.

Jennings Urinal System. Plateau of the Ambigu. Paris Xe. Circa 1875.

During the nineteenth century, urinal design shifted from a kind of primitive communism of the open trough or slab without drainage, to an individuating architecture of partitioned spaces, enameled basin and a drain for making the urine and its offensive ammoniacal vapors, disappear. George Jennings design for what he called “Monkey Closets” popularized this new architecture. His urinals were first installed at the Crystal Palace at the world’s fair of 1851, and were the highlight of the fair for many contemporaries. His designs were installed throughout Europe and imitated by municipal authorities and other plumbing companies around the world.

This shift in plumbing practice coincides with the mid-nineteenth century shift towards a feminized public sphere and with the psychological definition of homosexuality by forensic medicine in France and Germany. The architectural shift, toward partitions and individuated troughs, gave each man his own sex and anxiety about that of the man whose sex he could not see. His bodily fluids no longer malingered with those of other men and now disappeared down a drain. Urinal design during this period reflects these new kinds of anxiety about homosexual activity in pissoirs and the example of George Jennings’ popular design could be considered as an architectural expression of the contradictory sexuality and new sexual pleasures spawned by bourgeois senses of propriety.

Rather than go into that social history here, I’d like to show you some engravings from George Jennings’ patent book, which I found at the New York Public Library this summer. I’d preface these pictures with reference to Joanna Drucker’s concept of “visual epistemology,” where she says that engravings and prints mediated scientific knowledge production by serving “as a site for focus inter-subjective exchanges among professionals — contributing to the creation of a scientific community.” [3]

It would be interesting to consider this proprietary technology as a precursor to later commercial architectures of homosexual sex like bathhouses, video arcades, and now phone apps like Grindr and Scruff. But I’ll leave you all to draw such comparisons in any greater detail. I’d like to focus on how these images were used to market urinals. Is the homoerotic content of these images unconscious? Or is the homoeroticism of the monkey closet precisely one of the attractions for urban reformers? The juxtaposition of text, detailing some of the struggles between reformers and shop keepers and others concerned with offenses against decency around the placement of a urinal at Tottendam Ct Road and St Pancras,with image, showing a gentleman hailing stage coach, while families with women and children all stroll by paying no heed to the structure on the sidewalk beside it.

What was this image meant to communicate? Is it the inoffensive presence of the urinal in public space? Why are there men loitering outside it? And what’s going on inside this space? The engraving gives us a glimpse of a male figure on the right hand of the structure, just inside the entrance, with his back turned to us, elbows out, as if he is holding his member or unbuckling his pants, yet the architectural plan for the structure shows that the nearest urinal is in the opposite direction, or ten feet away.

Are we reading homoeroticism into these images, or is this precisely how they were appreciated at the time? If this content is unconscious in these images, did that add to the appeal of the design?

Urinal cast in two stalls with screen. Chaussee de la Muette, Paris XVle. Circa 1875.

All photographs are by Charles Marville (1813-1879), and have been lovingly restored by Laurent Gloaguen of, from images in the collection of the State Library of Victoria.


Works Cited

[1] Qtd in Claude Maillard, Les Vespasiennes de Paris ou les precieux edicules, (Paris: La Jeune Parque, 1967), 31.

[2] James Wright, Plumbing Practice, 1891, p. 246

[3] Joanna Drucker, “Graphesis: Visual Knowledge Production and Representation,” 2

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