“Where’s the bathroom?” It’s one of the more routine requests fielded daily by our visitor services staff. From the main entrance, walk straight ahead, take a right at the mural, and take the elevator or stairs down to Level 1. If you accidentally find yourself upstairs in Experience Oregon, you’ve gone too far. For most of us, the existence of public restrooms in museums isn’t a particularly inspiring topic, but they likely rank as one of the most frequented spaces in the building — sorry, exhibits curators.
The location of public bathrooms, their state of repair, and how they’re accessed are all considerations deliberated behind the scenes. While seen as places of mere necessity on the surface, public restrooms are also important cultural spaces. By the nature of their function, they are areas where exclusion, integration, and ideas about privacy are all practiced (and sometimes challenged). Public restroom facilities are also places of unmentionable inevitability, and like it or not, when you have to go, you have to go.
So, what happens when these private yet public spaces also become a museum attraction? They provide an opportunity to chuckle, blush, and expand the collections!
Thanks to the internet and several curious visitors, OHS staff rediscovered a piece of our institutional history: the Kohler Hygeia, a 1960s-era women's urinal. Yes, a women's urinal. A photograph of the fixture installed in OHS’s Level 1 restroom lives in posterity on Urinal.net, which is dedicated to “showcasing the world’s largest collection of urinal photographs.”
We were made aware of the website in 2018, when a few guests asked our lead visitor services coordinator to see — not use — the bathroom. They were disappointed to find that the space in question had been renovated in 2003, and OHS had replaced the urinal with new fixtures. Thankfully, a member of our facilities staff had the foresight to save it from the dumpster! Curiosity about the toilet led to staff in several departments — visitor services, museum, facilities, and the research library — to work together to locate, learn about, and preserve this interesting piece of OHS history.
Kohler Hygeia was one of a handful of female urinals produced by major toilet manufacturers between the 1950s and 1970s. Among Kohler’s competitors was American Standard, which marketed its Sanistand fixture as offering “the same convenience and cleanliness for women that the standing urinal does for men.” Bottom line, toilet manufacturers discovered that most people didn’t (and still don’t) like to sit on public toilet seats. Architect Alexander Kira echoed this sentiment in his 1966 book, The Bathroom. The book was the culmination of a rather extensive and costly study at Cornell University to develop criteria for designing hygiene fixtures, taking into consideration the psychological, physical, and “human engineering problems” associated with using the bathroom.
With all the attention to specific users’ bathroom needs during that time period, it’s no surprise that a women’s urinal made it into Zimmer Gunsaul Frasca’s (ZGF) 1966 design specifications. What most designers (men) at that time failed to account for when installing this innovative design was the mechanics of women’s attire — undoubtedly including panty hose — which likely made the fixtures pretty unpopular.
For all its merits and faults, the Kohler Hygeia earned a spot in OHS’s collections, and our museum team has accessioned it, cleaned it, photographed it, and stored it. According to our museum database, we have three toilets in the collection. The urinal, however, is the only one of its kind, and in my opinion, is a pretty unique and important object. Not only does it preserve a piece of OHS’s original 1966 building design, it also provides a window into social considerations employed during the mid-twentieth century. As more of us explore the broad spectrum of bodies and relationships to gender, perhaps these fixtures might make a comeback — an old-school style with a new, more inclusive purpose.
So, the next time you stop by the Oregon Historical Society, be sure to give a nod to our visitor services staff for their tireless work to make sure we’re informed, safe, and prepared for when nature calls. And for all those using the women’s restroom in the building, be sure to check out the mini exhibit coming soon in the Level 1 bathroom, the former location of our mildly famous women’s urinal.
Harvey Molotch, “Introduction,” in Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing, Harvey Molotch and Laura Noren, eds. (New York: New York University Press, 2010).
Barbara Penner, “Entangled with a User: Inside Bathrooms with Alexander Kira and Peter Greenaway,” in Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing, Harvey Molotch and Laura Noren, eds., (New York: New York University Press, 2010), 229–37.
Alexander Kira, The Bathroom (New York, Viking Press, 1976), p. 232–35.
“Standard-Dominion Plumbing Fixtures,” trade catalog, Toronto, Canada, n.d, Association for Preservation Technology, International, Building Technology Heritage Library.
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