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How Paris’ Open-Air Urinals Changed a City—and Helped Dismantle the Nazi Regime

During World War II, the stalls served as rendezvous points for French Resistance fighters

Photographer Charles Marville captured this snapshot of an open-air urinal with three stalls in 1865. (Public domain)
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To keep precious military intel out of enemy hands, forces fighting in World War II resorted to some pretty creative communication tactics. The English had carrier pigeons. The Germans had the Enigma machine. And the French had open-air urinals.

As Digby Warde-Aldam reports for the Guardian, the pissotières of Paris—public pee-spots first installed in the 1830s—became popular rendezvous points for members of the French Resistance to covertly exchange information on enemy movements.

Of course, dismantling the Nazi regime wasn’t the pissotières’ original purpose: The structures were initially commissioned to expand options for well-hydrated (but lazy) men looking to empty their bladders.

Nowadays, these public urinals have all but disappeared from French streets. But a new exhibition is slowly writing the long-gone toilets and their tumultuous, scandal-ridden history back into the public eye.

Curated by photographer Marc Martin, “Les Tasses: Public Toilets, Private Affairs” features, among other images, snapshots of famous figures from artist Edgar Degas to writer Charles Henri Ford using pissotières. The show, which recently wrapped up its tenure at Paris’ Point Éphémère arts space, will cross the pond to New York's Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art in 2020, according to Agence France-Presse.

A picture taken on January 1, 2013 shows a public street urinal for men located in the 14th district of Paris. (Jacques Demarthon/AFP via Getty Images)

“It’s a shame to sweep this little human story under the carpet,” Martin tells AFP.

In their first iteration, public urinals were phallic-looking columns commissioned by a Parisian city prefect fed up with the flocks of Frenchmen who regularly peed on sidewalks, streets and even the sides of buildings. Called colonnes vespasiennes, the outposts provided convenient receptacles for men to relieve themselves while still enjoying the fresh—and now urine-tinged—air. (Women were offered no such “luxury”: Officials deemed the construction of female-friendly stalls and toilets a waste of space, reports Warde-Aldam.)

The idea caught on, and by the 1840s, some 400 public urinals speckled the street, reports Andrew Ayers for Pin-Up magazine. Over the next few decades, the structures grew increasingly sophisticated: More stalls were added, and sturdier materials were used to reinforce their walls.

Emboldened by the privacy urinals afforded them, Paris’ marginalized population of gay men started to use pissotières for sex. In response, conservatives began to batter the urinals with criticism, complaining that they were compromising the city’s reputation. Police began to lurk outside the stalls, hoping to catch men in the midst of illicit—and, at the time, illegal—acts.

Then, the turmoil of World War II began to cast the pissotières’ versatility in a less controversial light. During the German occupation of Paris, Allied soldiers and spies used the stalls to pass messages and weapons away from prying Nazi eyes, according to AFP. By this time, the urinals numbered more than 1,000: They were the perfect spot, it seemed, to hide in plain sight.

Paris open-air urinal 1865
Photographer Charles Marville took this snapshot of a single-stall urinal in 1865. (Public domain)

But pissotières’ brief stint as military meetup spots wasn’t enough to save them. By 1960, Ayers notes, the number of public urinals had begun to decline, and in the 1980s, city officials began to actively replace them with Sanisettes—enclosed, unisex cubicles that automatically cleaned themselves after use.

Today, just one open-air urinal remains in Paris. Situated just outside of a prison, the Boulevard Arago pissotière now caters largely to taxi drivers passing through the area.

Last year, Paris revived pissotières in hopes of keeping the city’s pavement free of pee. But the urinals—still adapted only for men—sparked rapid backlash, with protestors maligning them as sexist and discriminatory. The public pee-spots, many argued, reinforced a troubling double standard: While men are actively encouraged to expose themselves in public, women are criticized for doing the same, even for acts as innocuous as breastfeeding their infants.

This summer, a French start-up called Madame Pee began installing female urinals throughout Paris. The company hasn’t confirmed how permanent the fixtures will be, but their presence inspires some hope: Addressing the gender gap in public peeing may yet become a number one priority.

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a Boston-based science journalist and Story Collider senior producer whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Undark magazine, Popular Science and more. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard University, and was Smithsonian magazine's 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.

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