For more than 200 years, Vercovicium was one of 15 Roman forts that dotted Hadrian’s Wall, 73 miles of turf and stone that stretched from the River Tyne in the east and the Irish Sea in the west. Built between about AD 122 and AD 128, the wall marked the northwest frontier of the vast Roman Empire; at the height of Rome’s power, Vercovicium would have been home to 800 soldiers, men from all corners of the nearly 2-million-square-mile empire—North Africa, the Middle East, eastern and western Europe, central Asia. And all 800 of them would have pooped together in communal toilets, probably even sharing the same few sponge-on-a-sticks to wipe. As far as team building goes, that likely beats a trust fall.
The toilets at the garrison at Vercovicium, now called the Housesteads Roman Fort, are some of the best-preserved Roman toilets in Britain; they might also be some of the best and earliest examples of workplace toilets in the world. Wherever the Romans went, they brought their culture, their food, and their gods with them, so naturally their toilets came too. The toilets at Vercovicium were in a rectangular room with stone benches lining the longer walls. Every 18 inches or so, there was a hole in the bench; it’s plausible that this hole would have had a wooden seat, almost exactly like a modern toilet seat, positioned around it. The holes sat over a cesspit or sewer, and sticks and sponges, dipped in salt water or vinegar, were available for wiping.
They were not entirely clean spaces—there is evidence that despite the empire’s famous love of public bathing, Romans were not any healthier or more hygienic than other contemporary cultures—but they were lively ones. The men at Vercovicium would have spent time gossiping, chatting, trading information, and engaging in the peculiar etiquette of communal defecation. (Significantly, the commander at Vercovicium had his own latrine.) And they were prescient ones, evidence that the Romans recognized then what most other large employers have come to understand: Working people need toilets. It’s just a matter of whether or not the bosses are willing to let them use them.
As the agrarian economy gave way to the industrial age, human-waste removal went through seismic social and technological shifts, all of which had repercussions for the workplace. For much of London’s history, for example, human waste was simply dumped into the streets—or into the Thames or the city’s lost rivers, such as the Fleet, that have been since paved over. This was possible for a while, but by the 14th century, London’s population had grown to around 80,000, and the situation had gotten out of control.
By the 19th century, the question of what a “civilized” society ought to look like—hint, it didn’t include shit-filled streets—was increasingly on the minds of working-class reformers, the burgeoning middle class, and philanthropic types. The Victorians’ obsession with cleanliness and its proximity to godliness, their interest in the transmission of disease, and their prudishness around matters involving nether regions eventually led cities to try to figure out just what to do with all their crap. By 1866, most of London was connected to an underground sewer system designed by engineering hero Sir Joseph Bazalgette. Aboveground, beautifully appointed public pay toilets—well lighted and with mahogany seats and seven-foot-high, floor-length partitions, and in one case, goldfish in the cistern—began popping up all over the city.
Human waste disposal was entering the modern era. So, too, was labor. Trade unions were legalized in the UK in 1824, due in part to the work of activists like the Luddites, artisan workers in the north of England who, after it became clear that the government was unwilling to regulate working conditions in textile factories, took axes to the massive looms in protest. Unions grew in strength and influence throughout the rest of the 19th century, forcing employers curb child labor and working hours, enforcing breaks and mealtimes, and, perhaps unintentionally, paving the way for the appearance of the official workplace toilet.
According to Beverley Cook, curator of the social-and-working-history collection at the Museum of London, factories or other working-class employment facilities would have provided workers with toilets, albeit very basic in form. (Factories, for example, would have had outdoor privies, little more than holes in the ground, but this wasn’t much different than what people would have had at home.) There was little state intervention with regard to requirements for toilets in the workplace; instead, as Cook says, “this would have been solely at the discretion of the employers.”
The problem, Cook explains, wasn’t so much in providing toilet facilities, but rather who they were for: men. Though workplace discrimination on the basis of sex was outlawed in the UK in 1919, many professions used insufficient female toilets as a pretext for not hiring women. In 2017, the Museum of London, under Cook’s curation, acquired a roll of toilet paper designed by the First 100 Years project, a campaign celebrating the history of women in legal professions. The roll features an etching of a seated woman in late Victorian dress, above the words, “Sitting comfortably? Thanks to the courage and tenacity of pioneering women in law, now we all can.” The project designed the roll after collecting the stories of some of those pioneers.
“We had probably more than 20 conversations with senior women in law that mentioned the small fact of the lack of facilities either used as a reason not to accept them for jobs or to be promoted. It was always presented as an unimportant fact. We found it a shocking [one],” explains Dana Denis-Smith, founder of First 100 Years, in an email. And it wasn’t just the legal profession that used toilets as a way to keep women out; it was, as Denis-Smith puts, it, “a barrier in most jobs where women did not have a presence,” such as construction, academia, and medicine. “Until women had a visible presence in a particular field, it wasn’t something that was considered important to build,” she says.
“If you were being generous, you could say it was a sort of lack of planning,” says Cook. But, she notes, this was part of a bigger problem in the British—and American—toilet landscape: public toilets were largely for men, who also had the option of urinating in bushes or “retired streets,” as they called little-traveled alleys. It wasn’t exactly a kind of conspiracy of men—many women, Cook said, would have felt uncomfortable using a public toilet, that act being itself a tacit and inelegant admission that they indeed had bodily functions. But the lack of both facilities and the desire to provide them reinforced the rigid Victorian and Edwardian separation of spheres; men could exist in public, but women had to stay nearer their own toilet facilities.
The lack of toilet facilities for women in professional workplaces was widespread: it remained up to the employer to provide them; however, there was no legal requirement for equal facilities. This persisted for decades, even in Parliament. “Later on—in the ’70s—as the women that did get in and stayed in started to get senior, it was used as a way to reject them from partnership, as some firms had special facilities for partners, but, as they didn’t have women partners, they didn’t think of building facilities for them,” explains Denis-Smith.
In 1974, an act of Parliament, bundled into a law dictating the health-and-safety obligations of employers, made the expectation of adequate facilities for workers official. But though the rules are clear about whether toilets must be present, what’s less clear is whether workers have the right to use them on company time. This is where things start to get a bit Dickensian.
This April, the question of workers’ rights and restrooms was in the news after the revelation that Amazon workers in a British warehouse were allegedly urinating in bottles to avoid being punished for taking bathroom breaks. The only toilets, according to James Bloodworth, a journalist who went undercover as an Amazon warehouse worker to write a book about low-wage jobs, were hundreds of feet away, across the warehouse floor and down four flights of stairs. Workers, Bloodworth said, were worried they’d get in trouble for taking too long. That’s only the latest such incident—in 2009, for example, workers at a meatpacking factory in Lancashire complained to their union after they were asked to clock out for bathroom breaks.
In the US, where the requirement that employers provide toilets has been on the books since the 1970s, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was forced to issue a 1998 clarification reiterating that all employees must have “prompt access to toilet facilities” after workers in industries such as meatpacking and farming lodged complaints alleging that they were being prevented from using toilets as needed. And just two years ago, a report from the nonprofit Oxfam America claimed that workers at a Tyson Foods chicken factory in North Carolina were wearing diapers under their trousers because they were too afraid to ask for bathroom breaks.
Adrian Jones, national officer for Unite the Union, the largest trade union in the UK and Ireland, says that the provision of workers’ toilets in the UK is generally quite good. But there are exceptions. “We have had, over the years, stories where workers are bullied into holding on until their official break,” he says, explaining that employers can put pressure on employees to maintain performance standards, tacitly implying that toilet breaks are frowned upon. “We have had examples where companies have timed the amount of toilet breaks and that sort of thing—they use it as an excuse to bully employees.”
In an age of app-driven delivery and remote offices, mobile workers are the ones who have been increasingly hurt by insufficient toilet provisions; truck drivers, delivery people, taxi drivers, mobile-library staff, and anyone else who works outside of a traditional work space often face tough conditions.
“The stories we get told are pretty disgusting, frankly,” Jones says. Recently, a female delivery driver complained to Unite because she was told she couldn’t use the toilet at the office where she was delivering because she was late for her allotted delivery time. The driver had just started her period, and, she said, was standing there with “blood running down [her] legs”; the duty manager told her he’d let her use the facilities only after she completed her delivery—which involved emptying a 40-foot truck. “This behavior should not be allowed,” she wrote in an email in July to Unite. “It is a human right to be able to use toilet facilities.”
On the whole, access to workplace toilets has improved over the years. But how and where and when and on whose dime are all questions being perpetually renegotiated by new generations of workers and people. In some ways, workplace toilets are useful weather vanes: how well employers provide for this most basic of needs reflects their respect for workers. Some employees, such as those of the London hedge fund Enstar Capital, sit on gold-plated toilets in Mayfair. And others pee in bottles.
At the same time, just as toilet provision was a kind of bellwether of acceptance of women in the professional workplace in the 20th century, so it is now for people whose gender identity is more complicated. At the end of last year, London mayor Sadiq Khan threw the British tabloids a much-gnawed bone with a proposal to make public toilets in London gender-neutral, part of his larger London Plan. The country’s Christian right reacted with immediate horror: “This is the latest casualty of an ideological tsunami that sweeps common sense and biological reality aside,” declared Andrea Williams, chief executive of the evangelical lobby group Christian Concern.
And there’s another side to toilets, too, one that goes beyond their contentiousness. For a few minutes, a few times a day, employees at all levels share a communal experience. In around 2013, some major companies—Google included—started investigating ways to manufacture “serendipitous encounters” among their employees, in the hopes of encouraging creative collaboration. In 2015, the London-based architecture firm NBBJ designed software to test how staff responded to different office layouts and whether those new layouts could promote accidental meetings. Among the suggestions? Moving the toilets farther from people’s desks, prompting conversation along those long walks (and, ostensibly, inside the bathroom itself).
Maybe they should have just taken a tip from the Romans.