Vespasiennes: Does a Roman Emperor Deserve This?

Our home offices are in two adjacent rooms. While exploring one of my favourite Paris websites, Paris en Images, I called to Philippa, “What’s a Vespasienne?” and was instantly told, “A public urinal.” There had to be a blog in that.

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Once there were over 1,200 Vespasiennes in Paris, but this is the last one standing, a forlorn structure on the Boulevard Arago by the wall of the Santé Prison. Will it one day be thrown onto a scrap heap or will it find a home in the Musée Carnavalet? Will there be protest marches – “Sauvegardez la Vespasienne!” – to block the crew sent to dismantle it? Time will tell.

Admittedly, this is not the handsomest example of historic street furniture. But the nicer versions, such as this lovely gingerbread structure on the Place de la Madeleine from 1875 are no longer with us. It was called a chalet du nécessité.

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We have devoted other blogs to efforts to keep the city clean. It is a neverending struggle for all big cities. Part of the problem is the need to satisfy the call of nature (satisfaire aux besoins naturels) in a city where life is lived very much on the street. An early royal edict forbade urinating on the streets of Paris, but it was widely ignored. And measures to discourage men from relieving themselves in corners (informally known as empêche-pipi, and the subject of an entire book by Jacky Legge, a Belgian author), were not always successful.

Things started to change when Antoine Raymond Jean Gualbert Gabriel de Sartine was appointed Lieutenant of Police of Paris on November 21, 1759, a position he held until 1774. His wide-ranging powers started with public order (and he had a formidable secret service to help with this task), but ran also to cleaning, maintaining, and lighting the streets, as well as food supply, public health, and hygiene.* This early creator of modern Paris restored fourteen public fountains to give greater access to drinking water. Around 1770 he had casks or barrels (barils d’aisance) placed at street corners into which one might “ease oneself.” Privacy seems not to have been a particular concern and clearly these were only for men and boys. I have not found any illustrations of this innovation nor do I know how long they were kept in service.

Public urinals made a short-lived appearance in Paris in spring 1830. During the July Revolution, the urinals proved even more useful as material for street barricades. The revolutionaries overthrew the French bourbon monarch King Charles X and replaced him with his cousin Louis-Philippe, Duke of Orléans. But Paris was still dirty, smelly and wracked periodically by epidemics such as the deadly cholera outbreak of 1832 that in six months left 19,000 dead.

In 1833 another of the great city of Paris reformers took his post as Prefect of the Seine. A career administrator born in 1781, Claude Philibert Berthelot Comte de Rambuteau set out to create a cleaner city. He did far more than is generally recognized to make Paris the city it is today. In Transforming Paris: The Life and Labors of Baron Haussmann, historian David P. Jordan writes, “Rambuteau put in place all the instruments for urban transformation that Haussmann would later appropriate.”

There was much to be done. If one was to have a less disease-ridden and more enjoyable city one had to tackle the problem of human waste in public spaces. Imagine going to a theatre or concert hall and finding no convenient facilities marked “Gentlemen” and “Ladies.” You have just imagined Paris before Rambuteau. He demanded that theatres and public entertainments provide urinals, whether fixed or mobile.

An even bigger sanitary problem was on the streets. Rambuteau attacked the problem by integrating his urinals into columns used for notices and advertisements. His initial installation of over 450 urinals made for a more agreeable Paris, but there was an unintended result.

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This photo from about 1865, taken on the Quai de l’Hôtel de Ville, is clearly meant for one person; paradoxically, it features a prominent ad for perfume. It is also identified as a “colonne Rambuteau.” How would you like your name forever associated with urinals? The Prefect of the Seine was not amused.

He dealt with the issue by giving them a new name: Vespasiennes. It was a somewhat back-handed compliment to the work of Roman emperor Titus Flavius Vespasianus who ruled Rome for 10 years beginning in 69 A.D. Vespasian, too, had been a city improver who had worked hard to restore law and order to a civil war–ravaged city. Rome’s Colosseum is part of his legacy.

Vespasian loved money. He instituted public urinals in Rome to earn money. There are various versions of the story. One is that he introduced a tax to cover the costs of these public conveniences. Another is that he levied a tax upon businesses that would benefit from such public facilities, such as fullers and tanners, who use urine in processing wool and leather. Perhaps he did both. When criticized by his son, the future emperor Titus, for stooping so low as to make money from urine, Vespasian is said to have thrust some coins under his son’s nose and asked if the money smelled badly. Vespasian then reputedly said, “Yet it comes from urine.” (This little anecdote comes from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by C. Suetonius Tranquillus; one of my ancient history professors at McMaster University warned us, “Suetonius was an unreliable gossip.” Other versions report that Vespasian actually said, “Money has no smell.”)

So with a little knowledge of ancient history, Rambuteau was able to deflect the naming problem. And yes, there was money to be made. Advertising space was not free, nor was admission into the finer examples of this genre of street furniture.

The urinal in front of the Batignolles public gardens clearly shows the combination of public convenience and advertising space. A metal surround provided privacy from the calves up while the piercings provided a modicum of ventilation.

1b485a5ba1c70e335e9269b35d7b3536What is described as a “new model of urinal, chaussée de la Muette” in the 16th arrondissement certainly provided greater possibilities for ventilation; the waist-high barrier was common to many urinals. It has certain architectural pretensions, with the advertising cupola surmounted by a gas lamp. Many Vespasiennes were surmounted by lamps, to make them easy to find at night.

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This more compact model in front of 44, rue de Rennes, 7th arrondissement, provides even more privacy while taking up less space on the pavement.

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As urinals gained in popularity and greater numbers appeared, the manufacturers increased the number of users. In the photo below taken about 1870, the “urinal with 6 boxes” at the Place de la Bourse in the 2nd arrondissement combines capacity, privacy, and architectural features at the top.

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The same number of occupants could be served by this six-sided kiosk urinal at the place du Théatre Francais in the 1st arrondissement. The top bears a striking resemblance to a Morris column.

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The image below, taken in 1876 on rue Rambuteau at the corner of rue Baltard, reveals several efforts to make a more sanitary, cleaner, and pleasanter Paris. The twig brooms leaning against the tree speak of the clean streets so much a part of modern Paris. The gas lamp standard was part of the quest for a brighter, safer city, and the urinal with six slate boxes is part of greater sanitary convenience. (Slate was regarded as a cleaner material than cast iron.) The building in the background of cast-iron construction is part of Les Halles, the central markets, and the Vespasienne does rather resemble stalls for animals.

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The photo below wonderfully captures a Paris moment, something Charles Marville excelled at as he set about documenting Paris before Haussmann.

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For a single-box urinal, surely this cast-iron and brick version on the rue du Faubourg Saint-Martin must have set new standards in elegance. The advertising appeared inside.

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This eight-box urinal with two gas lamps is rather unusual. Rather than the customary metal privacy band, bushes provide privacy. Of course, it was in the Champs-Elysées garden.

8a6d7797c5ac2fe809454af50c32aa73This installation on avenue Victoria outside the Café Estaminet proudly advertised Gaz and sported a gas lamp on top. The sunshine reveals the patterned piercing that provided some ventilation.

47d12268dc5510bbcc1923fb4e21c9cdAs with any technology, Vespasiennes changed over time. Their capacity was increased, and different materials were used in the construction, but perhaps the biggest change came in the late 1860s, when the roles of public toilet and advertising post were separated. Vespasiennes remained as public conveniences and Morris columns became signposts and storage facilities.

This photo was taken in the 1860s in front of the Théâtre de l’Ambigu on Boulevard Saint-Martin. The photographer Marville identifies it as an example of street furniture (mobilier urbain) using the Jennings system (a British manufacturer of sanitary plumbing). Note the separate Morris column in the background.

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Today, Paris has “sanisettes” – functional, bland, unisex, with nothing more in the way of decoration that a street map on the side. But free (if they are not “Hors de service”). Vespasian would consider them a waste of an opportunity to profit.

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Gone are the days when one might have wondered what this building was for. A mausoleum? A ticket office for an electric street railway system? Architectural folly? It is difficult to make out the writing in this 1870s photo, but above the door one can make out the word “Toilette” and on the side what looks like “Cabinets d’Aisance.” It is identified as a Cabinet water-closet by Dorion, a concessionaire who had the right to provide such facilities in Paris. (He also owned the lovely Gothic style facility shown in the second image of this blog and on which one can make out the words “Water Closet” and “Cabinet de Toilette,” along with the prices.) And the location of the grand edifice above that is long gone? The Avenue Champs-Elysées. Where else?

Text and contemporary photograph by Norman Ball; historic photographs from Paris en Images.

 

*The Lieutenant of Police who commissioned the Halle au blé now known as the Bourse du Commerce also instituted an education program for the poor. In part it aimed at keeping them from a life of crime, along with supplying artisans for the luxury goods trades which were becoming so essential to French prosperity.

About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
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9 Responses to Vespasiennes: Does a Roman Emperor Deserve This?

  1. Susan Mitton says:

    Thank you for this very interesting report on vespasiennes….but most seems designed to accommodate men only. What were women expected to do?

    • In the early days, women above a certain class were not out and about as often as men. One reason for the huge popularity of the department stores were that they offered comforts and conveniences for women. Not just ladies’ rooms, but sitting rooms where they could rest. The department store made it possible for a woman to be out longer. Otherwise, they could not stray too far from home.

  2. Jackie says:

    Great article ! Did the women have public urinals too ?

    • I believe the little chalet in the photograph probably accommodated women. Otherwise, they used the facilities in department stores and other public buildings where they were able to come and go freely. For working-class women, the options were more primitive, no doubt.

  3. Phil lebon says:

    Pour être complet, vous pourriez mentionner que le terme “vespasienne”, bien connu des Français, n’était cependant pas très utilisé dans le langage courant. C’est le mot “pissotières”, sans être spécifique aux “chalets d’aisance” parisiens, qui était le plus souvent employé. Mais pour les homosexuels, il n’y a qu’un mot d’argot pour les désigner : “les tasses”, propices aux rencontres masculines et chères aux “soupeurs” dont je vous laisse deviner l’activité…qui a justifié leur disparition !
    https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soupeur

  4. Pingback: Deterrent 009 | tiresome moi

  5. frenchnews1online says:

    Great story and photos Norman; pity a couple of the more sumptuous pissoirs shown weren’t preserved as little architectural gems. They’re rather more impressive than the aluminium cabins a certain advertising firm litters Paris with these days.

  6. Great article and photos. In addition to the vespasienne on the Boulevard Arago, I believe there is one as well in the Luxembourg Gardens, just behind the boules pitch.

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