The article examines an effort in the first quarter of the twentieth century to install public toilets in cities throughout the United States, especially in the prosperous industrial region of the Northeast and Midwest. The campaign illustrates the frustrated ambitions in the Progressive Era for a new relationship between public authority and the private body, a relationship in which the state would protect privacy, encourage personal care, and hence refine the inner character of the citizen. In contrast to nineteenth-century public urinals (which were few in number and intended mainly to prevent public health nuisances) twentieth-century “comfort stations” were typically large, underground structures at major public squares. They were to have replaced the privately-owned alternatives in saloons and other businesses that attracted customers by exploiting their bodily needs. Women’s groups, drawing on a long-established belief that women were the prime guardians of private wellbeing and moral discipline, were prominent in the campaign for comfort stations in Chicago, New York and other cities. Municipal governments even in the largest cities hesitated to build more than a few comfort stations because of the high cost of construction and maintenance. Comfort stations proved unsuccessful in competing with department stores, hotels and other privately owned alternatives. Women in particular opted for the consumer model of privacy, which preserved class privilege by excluding the less affluent. Almost all of the early twentieth century comfort stations have since closed, as American cities have abandoned the public role in promoting bodily privacy.


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pp. 264-288
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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