I receive quite a few questions about French toilets. So let's see if I can answer yours here at PumpjackPiddlewick

I have been thinking about French toilets. Don’t we all? Okay, maybe not most of you. But I have discovered as a guide, that it turns out many visitors to France have questions about them. So let’s see if I can answer some…

A Little History

Toilets started life as a hole in the ground, and actually it took many many many centuries to progress further. Even with the advent of castles, it was still a pit. Or a moat. Where the doings of the nobility let gravity do the work. And much of human waste was used as compost.

In the 14th century, Paris started to legislate human waste requiring all houses to have private toilets. But this actually simply meant you were not allowed to let human waste empty on to the street. The toilets were still pits toilets, just inside. Or at the end of your garden, if you had one.

The first flushable toilet was invented in the 16th century in the UK. Still a pit toilet essentially, but with water above in a cistern that flushed the refuse away a bit better. The 18th century saw the first patent, which included the S bend stopping gas from sewers backing up into the bowl. And finally in the late19th century, Thomas Crapper invents the first widely used toilets, and lends his name to the necessary. (The ‘necessary’ was and is also a term used for the toilet / WC or water closet / rest room or bathroom, particularly in the south of the US. Interestingly, the bathroom in private houses in France is literally the bathing room, with the toilet found in a separate room on its own.)

Weirder Types of French Toilets

In France the squat toilet was particularly popular for public restrooms. Considered more hygienic because there is no physical skin contact. For a squat toilet you don’t sit, but rather squat above a hole set in a porcelain ‘pan’ to do your business. There are usually ridged foot imprints you stand on, generally facing away from the wall, and you squat, sort of hovering over the hole.

There is also the Sanisette. These are often circular cubicles found on the street. In some cases, it is literally a rounded piece of metal that discreetly hides the body from knee to above head. However, often not below the knee. So everyone walking by can see what you are up to. Needless to say, these are being phased out these days for fully enclosed, self cleaning cubicles.

Where to Find Toilets

Finding a toilet when you need one in France is not always an easy thing. Most public transport hubs, such as train stations will have them. But you will have to pay, anything from .50 to 1 euro or more, for the luxury of it being cleaned regularly. Rest areas along motorways will have toilets, whether a fully serviced area or simpler stop. At the simpler stops you will find sit down toilets, as well as urinals for the men. And occasionally a squat toilet.

Besides the aforementioned lone sanisettes found on the odd corners of streets in cities, there are also sometimes a collection of these self cleaning toilets near popular tourist sites and tourist offices. Signs will indicate the way to them.

But outside of the cities, and even within, public toilets are not abundant. In a pinch, head into a cafe or bistro and search out their facilities. Or be certain to make use of them if you have stopped to enjoy a coffee or menu of the day.

Don’t Be Shy

Peeing by the roadside is ubiquitous here in France. Some say it’s a national past time. Pass a layby with a car in it you will most likely see a man standing with his back to the road relieving himself. Or a woman holding a child, with pants around their ankles. There is no shyness to needing to pee here. In fact, you wouldn’t typically say I need to go to the toilet, but rather ‘je dois faire pipi’.

This lack of shyness, especially in men, stems from many centuries of public urinals in cities and towns. And over time it has prompted a variety of styles of urinals. Some more public, some less. (The BBC have a more in-depth look at the Paris pee problem.)

Brushes with Toilets

The question that really stuck with me and had me ruminating on toilets in France was specifically about toilet brushes. It’s one of those things I had gotten so used to I no longer thought about. Until I was asked by a guest, what should one do with it? And in particular, why was it there?

You see, almost all French toilets, including the public ones, will have a toilet brush set down by the side. This is for you, and the next person along, to use to clean the toilet bowl. Yes, even in public ones. It’s considered gauche to not clean up after yourself in France, whether it be litter, or merde.

More French Musings

If you enjoy my musings on France, please check out my Life in France writings. And especially my French Findings, where I look more in-depth in to the unique French differences. Here’s a random few:

Talking Rubbish

Recycling in France

The Weather in France

Is French Life Better?

And if you are a Francophile like me, and interested in buying particularly French things. Check out my French Silks Scarf Shop (selling vintage scarves) or my Pumpjack & Piddlewick Shop showcasing vintage and antique finds from France (including a few items for the necessary). Here’s a taste :

Simply click on an image to see more.


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