How did I come to be writing about toilets for a women’s blog? I just happened to mention in a comment on a QV Woman post that I once thought of writing a book about toilets and before I knew it, I was challenged to write a blog.
My fascination with everything toilet started when my adventurous immigrant parents decided to live a nomadic life along the West Coast of Canada and the United States from the time I was “toilet trained” until I needed to start school. Living in a car meant that I would visit a different toilet just about every time I needed one. I even learned how to pee discretely on the side of the road. Dad was magic because he could pee standing up.
There were American “restrooms”, simple outhouses, Canadian “washrooms” which were further differentiated by location: restaurant, gas station, grocery store, motel, picnic/camp grounds and the occasional private home of kind souls that took us in. Living with different families was a gift for this only child. It was also where I learned that boys could not aim and adults could not “go” without a cigarette. Public bathrooms often had vending machines installed too high for me to discover what treasures they might dispense. In the United States some toilets were not meant for people with my skin colour. I didn’t understand the relationship of skin to toileting and I was shushed when I asked. My parents didn’t understand it either, they merely wished to avoid attention from authorities who might take issue with these Bohemian-like non-Americans. In fact, it was a wonderful part of my childhood, full of adventure that built a foundation for a lifetime of curiosity and appreciation for people, places and situations different than my own. Plus, the extensive exposure to diverse toilets prepared me for future encounters with even stranger elimination devices and cultures.
The real toilet-related challenges came in 1967 when we visited the extended family back in “the old country”. The U.K. had two faces, new and old. One was swinging with bright clothes, long hair and brilliant music while mounds of rubble still littered the bomb sites nestled among decaying brick neighbourhoods. The toilet system and culture reflected the rich history, traditions and embedded class system of this ancient country that was my ancestral home.
The first thing I noticed was the extensive vocabulary associated with the toilet. In public a sign would read “toilets” or “lavatories” derived from old French words referring to dressing and washing. Even more baffling was “WC” for “water closet”. I had absolutely no idea what that stood for; maybe a central plumbing closet? Privately my extended family took advantage of a lexicon of working class and ex-military terminology for what were essentially outhouses behind rowhouses. The toilets were odd contraptions with a separate tank up the wall and a chain you pulled to flush. Known as the “loo,” “the bog, the “khazi,” the “john,” the “netty,” the “head,” the “privy.” the “crapper” and other terms I wasn’t supposed to hear. On occasion my father’s family would break into toilet songs like “The Sheik of the Lavatory (pronounced lava-tree) all the pennies belong to me….”, a satirical version of a 1921 movie ditty “The Sheik of Araby” (likely with all the racism and misogyny of the time). The song refers to the toilet as a source of revenue. Even though the public toilets were often decrepit, we were expected to pay for their use. I became accustomed to carrying small (also a relative term) change when I went out just in case.
Fifty-plus years later I have seen many interesting toilets on my travels. From squat toilets without doors to luxurious powder rooms with attendants bearing gifts: they have delighted and challenged me. I have seen Roman ruins where the toilets and sewage systems could be operational today, bidets with jets that could hit the roof and demonstrations of the toilets used on the space station. I tear-up at the memory of the toilet with the blue flowers painted in the bowl where Anne Frank lived in secret. I have learned who to call for a good time and where to find a decent pension/hostel, all from the inside of a stall. I learned how to request the location of the nearest toilet in at least a dozen languages and quickly adapted to queue protocols without sustaining injuries, merely a few threats and insults. Beyond the pre-occupation of travellers, toilets are central to public health, home decorating and of course, humour. We have all heard of someone who gave birth or died while on the toilet. I have spent countless hours seeking the elusive public toilet, even during a pandemic which made the quest absurd. Beyond necessity, I happen to be very fond of some, particularly those with fancy buttons and heated seats. Maybe the infamous toilet technology of Japan is in my post-pandemic future.
"Kenna McCall is a lapidarist, metalsmith, jewelry designer and owner of TerrAdore Jewelry. Following a career as a mental health professional, she now cuts gemstones and creates one-of a-kind-art jewelry from her studio in Merrickville, Ontario Canada. You can find her on social media and at www.terradore.com.