Toilet doors in the U.S. and Britain

Float around the internet for long enough and you’ll find Americans asking what the British think of the U.S. Or what the English think of it, because a fair number of Americans are convinced that Britain and England are the same place. And in their defense, it’s not easy when a country has overlapping names and when American history textbooks start out by talking about England, then swap that for Britain without bothering to tell anyone why they’ve done it or what the difference is.

On top of which–let’s be honest here–my beloved country does cultivate a powerful strain of ignorance about the outside world.

So you might expect that people calling their country by the wrong name would get a mention when the British form their opinions of the United States. And you might be wrong about it. Here’s the real, unvarnished truth, direct from a neighbor, Melanie, who was in the U.S. recently and posted the following on Facebook.

Observations about America:

  • Your breakfasts are excellent.
  • Your supermarkets are something else.
  • People really are super nice.
  • Roads are easy to drive on.
  • But where the fuck has the bottom part of your toilet stall doors gone?

Irrelevant photo: A camellia, added for the sake of balance.

If she’d asked me about the U.S. before her trip, I wouldn’t have mentioned toilet doors, but the Rapid Response Team here at Notes has come to work early on a Wednesday morning to explain the question, research the answer, and then shut down the computer and make an American breakfast. Then it’ll go back to bed, because this isn’t going into print for several weeks. The Rapid Response Team isn’t in charge of scheduling. Once it responds, it hands things over to the Pokey Publishing Team.

But to Melanie’s question: There is no secret location where the bottom part of toilet doors get dumped. They were never there to start with. 

The doors on American public toilets start–and I’m guessing at the measurements here–some 12 inches above the floor. They’re low enough to cover the relevant body parts but high enough to show the user’s feet and ankles, with a fair bit of leg attached. They’re high enough for the average adult to slide under. And, although Melanie didn’t mention it, they don’t go anywhere close to the ceiling. The dividers are roughly the same height.

What about British toilet doors? They’re doors. And the walls are walls. They may not go quite all the way to the ceiling, but they go high enough to give the user a comfortable illusion of privacy.

Before we go any further, let’s figure out what we’re calling the walled-off area around a toilet. Is it a stall or a cubicle? Divided by a Common Language (an authoritative site kept by a linguist) says the British call them cubicles and the Americans call them stalls. I’d been calling them cubicles and figured I’d slipped into British usage without noticing it. I’ve lived in Britain for–good lord, I think it’s twelve years now. I don’t think my accent’s changed, but a few words have walked out on me and their British twins have replaced them. It’s not what I want–as a writer, I’d like to sound like I’m from some geographical part of this planet, not a mix-and-match of several–but it does happen.

Then I reread Melanie’s comment and noticed that she wasn’t saying cubicles but stalls. Did Divided get it wrong? Did those breakfasts lure Melanie into using American English? Do different classes in Britain use different words for the spaces that enclose toilets? For that matter, do different regions of the U.S. call them different things?

Good questions. I can’t answer any of them.

Divided does point out that in the U.S. a cubicle is a semi-open bit of office space marked off by movable dividers. The British call that an open-plan office. In British English, stalls are a category of theater seats or what someone sets up in a market to sell stuff. In American English, those are called–um, something, but I don’t know what. In a market, stands, probably. In a theater? I still haven’t figured out what the stalls are, so I’m not much use with that.

But back to toilet doors: When I was in grade school–American grade school corral kids from roughly age six to twelve, keeping them off the streets and giving them the illusion of something useful to do–some percentage of the kids thought it was a great idea to climb on one toilet and look over the divider at the person sitting on the one next to it. Or–before they grew tall enough to look over the dividers–to lie on the bathroom floor and look under the door. Or to lock the door from the inside, slide under the door, and toddle merrily off to class, leaving the janitor to slide under and unlock it. If the janitors in your school weren’t the friendliest people in the building, this might explain why.

And that was the girls. I can only imagine what the boys got up to.

In I can’t remember what grade, some kid asked about the doors, the dividers, the general openness of the cubicles. Whatever teacher we had that year told us they had to be that way in case someone got stuck in one. And I believed that until recently. Because a teacher said it and teachers know these things. 

In hindsight, I’m pretty sure it was a desperate grab for some sort of logic in a logic-free zone. Imagine that you’re teaching a class of, let’s say, fourth graders, kids who are roughly 9 and 10 years old, and in the middle of a class about volcanoes or the Louisiana Purchase one of them asks about toilet doors. You don’t feel free to say, “How should I know? We’re talking about magma.”

Or maybe you would, but this particular teacher didn’t. She or he (I’m damned if I remember which but I’m pretty sure it was one of the two) gave us an answer, and even if it was a complete on-the-spot fabrication, we believed it. Because it came from a teacher.

It’s enough to make me wonder what else I should have thought to question.

So what’s the real answer to why American toilet doors are so sketchy? It’s probably not so rescue crews can extract kids from toilet stalls where they have, with the the predictable unpredictability of kids, locked themselves in. Or extract adults who’ve collapsed from heart attacks, strokes, or overdoses.

It’s probably also not so Woman A can ask Woman B in the next stall if she has paper in there because Woman A just discovered that her stall doesn’t have any. That happens, and it’s handy, but it’s an effect, not a cause. I don’t know if men do that. I suspect not, because in researching this post (in case you think reading this stuff is weird, you should just try writing it) I read several comments from men who say that men don’t talk to each other in what Americans call restrooms and the British call toilets. Women do. I’ve had some short but memorable conversations with strangers in them.

I might as well take this opportunity to say that Americans, despite the openness of the walls in their public toilets, don’t like to be reminded of what we’re doing there and go to extreme lengths to avoid calling toilets toilets. We’ve created plenty of euphemisms–restrooms, ladies’, gents’, the facilities–but the most generic word, I think, is bathroom, although even that has a bit of an unpleasant ring. That’s the problem with euphemisms. Eventually you figure out what you’re talking about and after that bathroom sounds too much like toilet and you end up asking for the little girls’ room.

And yes, it’s odd that a culture so phobic about calling a toilet a toilet leaves the user in not-quite-public view. I’m not even going to try to explain it. The way adults handle it is to pretend we don’t see them.

In Britain, the generic word for toilet is toilet. The bathroom is where you take a bath. Ask where the bathroom is in, say, a cafe and you get a strange look. It’s also called the loo if you’re either polite or a bit fussy. Or–well, I’m an immigrant here. I don’t understand the resonances. Like most things in Britain, what word you use has to do with what class you come from or what class you want to sound like you belong to, and it might have a layering or regional difference on top of that. I don’t expect to ever get the subtleties right. 

So in the journalistic tradition of using multiple sources–we want to be sure something this important is accurate, don’t we?–I googled toilet-door-related topics and found an assortment of comments from shocked Brits. Some were worried about the gap at the bottom and others about the gaps on the sides of the door, which are variously described as a quarter of an inch wide, a full inch wide, or the width of a finger. Whose finger? Which finger? I live in Britain and can’t go to a random selection of American restrooms to see if Cinderella’s glass slipper fits between the edge of the door and the edge of the frame. There’s a gap. That’s all we really need to know.

In addition to shocked comments, I found a selection of explanations for why the doors are the way they are, including that they make the floors easier to clean, that they discourage drug taking and sex, that they’re cheaper, and that anyone passing out in one would be easier to see,  although that assumes they’re clever enough to fall on the floor instead of staying seated.

A few people (including one architect) commented that the more money the users of an American restroom are likely to have, the more privacy they’re likely to find. Now that, unlike the British signals of class, I understand.

My best guess is that the doors are the way they are because they are the way they are. Some things in a culture can be explained. American racism? Go back to slavery and it all begins to make sense. The British gift for not learning languages well? The place has been an island since its early in its pre-history, and on top of that it had an empire so it could convince (or force) other people to learn English. American toilet doors, though? They started that way and so they continue to be that way.

There is a downside to British toilet doors. I know two people who’ve gotten locked in toilets, one child and one adult. It took a bit of work to get them out, but both were  extracted after a bit of pounding and yelling. I also know a woman who got locked in a toilet cubicle at the Vatican. It took so long to get her out that when she finally walked free she announced that she’d been beatified.

*

My thanks to Melanie for letting me quote her. I don’t suppose I’ve been helpful, but I’m glad to hear people were nice over there. And the breakfasts? They really are wonderful.

 

62 thoughts on “Toilet doors in the U.S. and Britain

  1. Other than a few pixels, I wonder what the difference is between toilet doors and toilet doers.
    (that kind of words thing happens when it is 05:12 in the morning and my messy health has had me awake all night) As for the doors, I wonder if old architectural catalogs might have commentary with an answer.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love breakfast – favorite (or is that favourite) meal by far. However, I had the best breakfast sandwich I’ve ever had in Ipswich. My friend ordered it for me and called it an “egg and bacon bap” which makes no sense at all, but it was excellent.

    Having once cleaned bathrooms in a bowling alley, I’d be tempted to go with it being easier to clear the floor if the door doesn’t go all the way to the bottom. Not just the floor, but you’d have to wipe the mop gunk off the bottom of the door.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Hi Ellen,
    Talking of “a fair number of Americans are convinced that Britain and England are the same place”: doesn’t that – the indiscriminate use of the two terms – hold true for “USA/US” and “America”, too?
    Regards,
    Pit

    Liked by 1 person

    • It sure does. And even though I’m careful about the distinction between the U.S. and America, I’m still stuck with using “American” when I talk about citizens for the U.S. I’d be willing to guess that a large majority of Americans have no idea what the problem is–or even that there is one.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. The gaps ,around the stall doors really are too wide at times, makes me uncomfortable. And I have never spoken with another man while seated. Nope, no way! Our common language is so different. Does that make sense? 😮🤔🇬🇧🇺🇸

    Liked by 1 person

  5. go to extreme lengths to avoid calling toilets toilets….
    I was wondering if you’d mention that. I find it hilarious.

    As for the US/ USA/ America one, I remind my students when writing essays that ‘America’ is a continent, the United States of America is a country. We are resigned to “Americans” though. ;)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. When I first visited America in 1995, I was horrified by the doors on public toilets. For me, it wasn’t even the gap between the door and the floor, it was the gap between the door and the frame. I felt horribly exposed. I could see people waiting on the other side of the door so they sure as heck could see me too. It was awful. I once had someone peek through the door crack as if she could not tell the cubicle was occupied from my flipping legs being on display at the bottom. I read recently that public toilets are now being deliberately designed with just a sliver of a pelmet of a door in the mid-section in order to actually discourage people from using them. It is all about the cleaning and maintenance costs apparently. Basically anyone of average height in the restroom will be able to see over the top of the door. I cannot imagine that will be a pleasing experience for either the observer or the observed. They will do away with doors all together soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I haven’t looked at any British public toilet doors in any detail recently, but in the olden days (1950s – 1970s) they used to have locks on them that were worked from the inside and flipped an indicator on the outside that said “vacant” (in green) or “engaged” (in red), as appropriate. But the subtle point about these locks is that on the outside, in the middle of the plate that displayed “vacant/engaged”, was a screw head with a slot in it. And this screw allowed an official person to use an official screwdriver/key-thingy to undo the lock from the outside, thus providing access to the cubicle if someone had been taken ill inside it and was incapable of unlocking the door themselves.
    So you got privacy with emergency access when required. Neat design, eh?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi Ellen,

    I love it when you apply your keen wit to these ‘taboo’ topics! In my very small-town grade school in the American South, the boys’ restroom (toilet, loo) was one large open room with toilets spread all the way down one side of the long room…with NO dividers–stalls, cubicles, doors–no separation of any kind between each of the dozen or so toilets (commodes to some Yanks). To make the space even more unattractive, and down-right dangerous, it was located in the basement on the backside of the main building. Add the older class bullies to such an unsupervised mix and it caused me to develop a keen hatred for using public restrooms (toilets) for the rest of my life. Having two older sisters, I was aware that the situation (design) was different in the girls’ restroom and I was quite jealous. I literally would try to hold ‘it’ (all types) until I got home–so for nine hours with long bus rides each way–which, of course, wasn’t always possible. I had to seek creative alternatives. Talk about being marked for life by experiencing a few years of such negative toilet design fallout!

    American restroom doors: personally, I appreciate the ventilation offered by half-doors (as opposed to being totally enclosed) which allows certain odors to dissipate before the next person has to use the stall (cubicle). Most of all, I love where these discussions lead–not to ‘potty humo(u)r–but to interesting discussions about our common denial of certain biologically necessary bodily functions.

    You may remember my post on toilet hygiene around the world—AKA, how to clean one’s butt (bum)! Now, that was fun to write because I still don’t ‘get’ how the hygiene-phobic Yanks, Brits and other Westerners can be so unconcerned about walking around all day with shit (shite) smeared up their cracks when there’s clearly a better option as exemplified by the ubiquitous butt (bum) sprayers used by everyone in Muslim regions of the world. It’s just a no-brainer.

    Thanks SO much bringing a BIG grin to my face!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I confess, I had second thoughts about posting this. And third thoughts. But the Facebook post that set me off was funny enough that I overrode my hesitations. We are, culturally, pretty messed up on the subject. We can’t talk about it, we can’t be seen doing it, and as a result it all becomes obsessionally powerful.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. For clarity; I used ‘stalls’ as opposed to cubicle because I was ‘talking to America’, therefore I felt it was only polite to use American terms, not British. :)

    Liked by 2 people

  10. I consider myself a toilet expert, since I have travelled a bit with bowel problems. I have gotten that vacant stare when asking for the bathroom (sale des Bain’s, in France). Adjusted to calling them toilets, and, what you didn’t mention, is felt the history in the indentations in the stone paths to a British toilet,

    And if someone with an American accent in the next stall is chatting, that’ll be me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • D’you know, I’ve never noticed the indentations. I have noticed them on stone stairways and been thrown into fits of isn’t-that-amazing and all those thoughts about the footsteps of generations long past. Maybe my mind’s focused on other things when I’m headed to the toilet.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. you missed a golden opportunity here. you should have said that the toilet doors were part of a US Government project and there were cost overruns and there had to be cuts and then we they noticed the doors which they could be cut shorter and there ya have it.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Who could have imagined you could put so many words together about the gaps in our bathroom doors? Haven’t read the comments yet, but I’m suspecting that “rest room” was left out of your euphemisms. I like the sound of that one, but haven’t ever done anything all that restful in one. When remodeling, in order to expand our bathroom, we ended up putting the toilet in a separate little room with it’s complete walls and door… we ended up distinguishing it from the BATHroom, by calling it the tiny room. No one else apparently knows what we’re talking about. Except you, now. It’s like code.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Did I forget to mention restrooms? I really have been gone a long time. Don’t they just conjure up an image of couches and lounge chairs and coffee talbe?

      Having the toilet and the bath in separate rooms is a very British approach, and although it often leads to claustrophobic little cubbies for both, it’s handy for family life, or even coupledom. One can be occupied and the other’s still accessible.

      Like

    • Many houses in Britain were built with the toilet and bathroom as separate rooms, even as late as the 1970s. And yes, people did (and still do) refer to the toilet as “the smallest room”.
      However, the pendulum seems to have swung the other way these days; I recently saw a lifestyle type program on TV where the master bedroom had an en-suite bath and toilet that weren’t separated off from the main room in any way, so that you could sit in bed and watch your partner on the loo!!!

      Liked by 2 people

  13. While I’m not fond of calling public washrooms “bathrooms”–because there’s no bath in them–let’s not pretend like the word “toilet” is any less euphemistic than those other words. “toilet originally meant a cloth bag for clothes (diminutive of “toile”), then a tablecloth for a dressing table, then the act of dressing, then a room for dressing which happened to have a lavatory attached (and don’t get me started on what a lavatory is in various places), and finally the porcelain fixture we know today.

    And incidentally, “toilet” meaning the room is originally an American euphemism. Also, in the UK “toilet” is apparently non-U, while “lavatory” and “loo” are U.

    Here’s a link: https://www.etymonline.com/word/toilet and you can look it up in the OED too if you have access.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Ellen, of course the real reason for the cheesy stalls/cubicles are that they are cheaper! I agree with previous commenters who said the gaps are more disturbing than the short doors. About theatre stalls: that is the name for ground level seating (but why?). And don’t talk to me in the stalls (either kind!).

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Yes, I struggled to find the right vocab when I visited the US and wanted direction to the bathroom. I soon realised that I understood most American vocab (bathroom, restroom etc) but Americans had no idea what I was on about (toilet).

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I admit, I get very excited at any public place that has a room, or even floor to ceiling doors, or oh my goodness, private compartments with tiled walls, completely enclosed. I hate the cracks in the frames. I’m not particularly modest, but I don’t actually feel it’s private with the gaping holes. Distracting, as well, depending on what I’m doing there.
    In the ladies’.
    I say I’m going to the ladies’ and I say it as little as possible. Heaven help me when I’m forced to ask “Where are the restrooms?”
    Breakfast is so good, we eat it all day :)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Susan. As someone pointed out elsewhere in the comments, the word toilet was itself originally a euphemism. At a certain point, though, our evasions catch up with us. Which is probably a good thing or we’d never figure out what we’re actually talking about.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. Nicely detailed and quirky reporting. As someone who has had to spend an inordinate amount of time in the “loo” lately, I can appreciate how weird it would be to devote hours to exploring the topic on line. Googling the words “toilet” or “bathroom” alone would have an inherent risk of inappropriate images that I can only imagine with horror!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve stopped thinking about the implications of the strange things I google. Anyone tracking my interests will–well, it doesn’t matter, since it’s all done by algorithms. So far, though, no ads for toilet paper or plumbing have found their way to me. I think I’ve dodged the bullet.

      Liked by 1 person

  18. At work, we have a mens’ room, a ladies’ room, and a family bathroom. The family bathroom is pretty much a room that locks with a toilet, sink, and baby changing table. One night, one of our (male) employees went in to use it and discovered that another employee had died in there. Fortunately he had not locked the door. Who knows how long he might have been there with the door locked, people assuming that the room was just occupied.

    Liked by 1 person

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