Old Cincinnati Expressed An ‘Indispensable Want’ For Public Urinals

Cincinnati had a dire need for public urinals in the late 1800s.

Between 1860 and 1870, Cincinnati endured significant population growth, packing in 34 percent more people. Approximately half the 200,000 residents were men and, like most men, they believed that the world was their urinal. The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune [20 April 1867] demanded action:

“Public Urinals: These are also an indispensable want. Our alleys and byways have long enough been contaminated and rendered breeders of pestilence. This nuisance can be abated at small cost, and should be attended to at once.”

Weeks later, the Commercial Tribune [5 June 1867] quoted Councilman Hugh McBirney arguing against adjourning Council until the matter of public urination had been resolved:

“‘Let’s do all we can to-night. The alleys down town were used as urinals, and the bad smell created in that way caused most of the complaints about the city being dirty.’ He moved, therefore, that the Mayor be requested to procure hose and employ men to flush out the alleys used in this way.”

Cincinnati City Council had actually passed a resolution to install public urinals early in 1866, but no action had been taken by spring, leading the Cincinnati Gazette [4 May 1866] to thunder:

“Some months since Mr. [John F.] Wiltsee secured the passage of a resolution in Council, directing that a public urinal be erected on Third Street, at the junction of Bank Alley, as an experiment, to see what effect it would have on the immodest and offensive practices so common in such localities. We think it would be well for some member of Council this afternoon to inquire who is at fault for not carrying the resolution into effect. Conveniences of this kind are very much needed in all central localities in the city.”

Municipal inertia being what it was (and is), it was another year before a single public urinal was installed in Cincinnati. One could almost feel the relief of the Gazette [27 May 1867] in reporting that the device “gives universal satisfaction; and we believe is free from all objections offered to other affairs of this kind.”

That single, pioneering pissoir was installed through the lobbying of its inventor, Cincinnati cider merchant Samuel Males. Mr. Males received a handful of United States patents for original designs of public urinals. Newspaper descriptions make it almost certain that the 1867 installation giving “universal satisfaction” was based on a design for which Mr. Males received a patent in 1868.

Samuel Males’ improved urinal, patented in 1870, clearly describes an alternate design suitable for female use, but it is obvious that all of Cincinnati’s public urinals were intended for men only.

Digitized by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Image extracted from PDF by Greg Hand.

Ironically, (especially for a man named Males), his improved urinal, patented in 1870, clearly describes an alternate design suitable for female use, but it is obvious that all of Cincinnati’s public urinals were intended for men only.

Over the next four years, Cincinnati located 65 public urinals throughout the downtown area, but still the newspapers and city Health Officer William Clendenin asked for more. Problem was, Mr. Males’ design was not yet perfected. The Enquirer [24 May 1871] reported:

“Mr. [J.C.] Fiedeldey, chairman of the committee on [public urinals], reported that out of sixty-five put up in the city sixty-three had been examined; twenty-seven were in good condition, twenty-five tolerably good, eleven decidedly bad and nuisances, and moved that the number be further increased. New ones should be placed at the corner of every alley where a sewer is located.”

Mr. Males’ pissoirs were, indeed, connected to the sewer and were supplied with a source of water to flush the receptacle. Installation was apparently less than ideal and property owners reported fluids seeping through their walls, or water not flushing correctly, resulting in puddles in the alleys.

From the mid-1860s through the dawn of the 1880s, public urinals occupied a lot of City Council’s time. Nearby property owners complained about the nuisance, council complained that the single employee charged with maintaining and cleaning the installations was slacking off, budget hawks whined about urinal inspectors billing the city for $4 to hire a hack to make their rounds. The Enquirer [25 June 1870] noted the volume of eloquence expended on the topic:

“The cacoethes loquandi, in other words, the speech madness, has broken out in the Board of Aldermen with fearful virulence. The rage for speaking is always in inverse ratio to the importance of the subject. A new public urinal forms a delightful theme upon which the gravest of the reverend seignors fairly slops over with Ciceronian rhetoric.”

Perhaps some these complaints ought not be spilled at the doorstep of Mr. Males. It turns out that Cincinnati had another inventor, restaurateur William M. Kepler, who also patented a wall-mounted public urinal. Kepler’s 1869 design is very similar to Males’, but it is unclear whether any of his models were ever installed in Cincinnati.

Cincinnati restaurateur William M. Kepler also patented a public urinal, but there is no evidence that any of his designs were among the 65 pissoirs installed here.

By 1875, Cincinnati was losing interest in foul-smelling solutions to a foul-smelling problem. In a report to the Board of Health, according to the Cincinnati Gazette [23 June 1875], a subcommittee determined:

“The owners and occupiers of property at which the public urinals are or have been located, with a single exception, regard them as an intolerable nuisance – a nuisance far greater than the one they are intended to prevent; and in this opinion your Committee fully concur. Some of them might, with propriety, be repaired and kept in order; but others should at once be removed.”

Newspapers insinuated that public toilet facilities were responsible for outbreaks of cholera and small pox. For most of a decade, the topic vanished from the pages of Cincinnati’s newspapers. It is unlikely that men kept their trousers buttoned but, when the debate about public “necessary” facilities reemerged later in the century, it was in the more equitable form of “comfort stations” provided for both genders.

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