“It’s a shame to sweep this little human story under the carpet,” Martin tells AFP.
In their first iteration, public urinals were phallic-looking columns commissioned by a Parisian city prefect fed up with the flocks of Frenchmen who regularly peed on sidewalks, streets and even the sides of buildings. Called colonnes vespasiennes, the outposts provided convenient receptacles for men to relieve themselves while still enjoying the fresh—and now urine-tinged—air. (Women were offered no such “luxury”: Officials deemed the construction of female-friendly stalls and toilets a waste of space, reports Warde-Aldam.)
The idea caught on, and by the 1840s, some 400 public urinals speckled the street, reports Andrew Ayers for Pin-Up magazine. Over the next few decades, the structures grew increasingly sophisticated: More stalls were added, and sturdier materials were used to reinforce their walls.
Emboldened by the privacy urinals afforded them, Paris’ marginalized population of gay men started to use pissotières
for sex. In response, conservatives began to batter the urinals with criticism, complaining that they were compromising the city’s reputation. Police began to lurk outside the stalls, hoping to catch men in the midst of illicit—and, at the time, illegal—acts.
Then, the turmoil of World War II began to cast the pissotières’ versatility in a less controversial light. During the German occupation of Paris, Allied soldiers and spies used the stalls to pass messages and weapons away from prying Nazi eyes, according to AFP. By this time, the urinals numbered more than 1,000: They were the perfect spot, it seemed, to hide in plain sight.
Photographer Charles Marville took this snapshot of a single-stall urinal in 1865. (Public domain)
But pissotières’ brief stint as military meetup spots wasn’t enough to save them. By 1960, Ayers notes, the number of public urinals had begun to decline, and in the 1980s, city officials began to actively replace them with Sanisettes—enclosed, unisex cubicles that automatically cleaned themselves after use.
Today, just one open-air urinal remains in Paris. Situated just outside of a prison, the Boulevard Arago pissotière now caters largely to taxi drivers passing through the area.
Last year, Paris revived pissotières in hopes of keeping the city’s pavement free of pee. But the urinals—still adapted only for men—sparked rapid backlash, with protestors maligning them as se
This summer, a French start-up called Madame Pee began installing female urinals throughout Paris. The company hasn’t confirmed how permanent the fixtures will be, but their presence inspires some hope: Addressing the gender gap in public peeing may yet become a number one priority.