Ladies’ restrooms

ladiesroomsignPublic restrooms have been in the news lately because of conflict over transgender rights, but I have been wondering about them for quite a while as part of my project to understand how restaurants developed.

We assume that restaurants will have restrooms for their customers today, but when did they become commonplace? And when did restaurants make an effort to specifically accommodate women with separate toilets? I am still not 100% sure about the answers.

Researching the history of sanitary facilities in restaurants has proved to be very difficult, starting with what terms to search for. Even today both “bathroom” and “restroom” are somehow inadequate. Yet restroom is better to capture the historical fact that those restaurants that had facilities for women usually were outfitted with more than toilets and sinks. They also had space – and many still do – where women could take care of little chores such as repairing their hairdos, or simply rest. [restroom shown below, ca. 1920s]

Prior to the 1860s, most public toilets were outdoors, behind saloons and restaurants, and the same was true of private dwellings. Flush toilets were quite rare in the United States until the 1880s, according to Suellen Hoy’s 1995 book Chasing Dirt: The American Pursuit of Cleanliness. Outhouses were commonplace  throughout the 19th century and well into the 1930s in homes in rural areas and poor neighborhoods.

The earliest ladies’ restroom I’ve found in a restaurant was in an elegant Chicago hotel. It’s likely that other hotels were similarly equipped, even though hotel bedrooms with private bathrooms were rare.  According to a story in 1864, the Chicago restaurant welcomed women diners and invited them to simply “call in for a rest, without intrusion, or being thought an intruder.” “Every provision has been made for the convenience of ladies,” the story said, “and a toilet-room specially apportioned to their use.” This would have been welcome news to women at a time when public accommodations for them were sorely lacking.

The restaurants that had toilets and restrooms for women seem to have been the more substantial ones that enjoyed prominence in their communities, as was often true of restaurants in leading hotels. So it was surprising to discover that an inexpensive lunch room, Cincinnati’s Alderney Dairy, had a toilet room for women in 1878.

Though still rare, the number of ladies’ rooms in restaurants grew in the 1880s with the spread of indoor plumbing and city sewers. According to a story from 1889, restrooms in fashionable restaurants were “sumptuously furnished” with velvet couches, floor to ceiling mirrors, and marble basins. Perfumes, face powders, rouges, lotions, ivory brushes and combs, as well as hat pins were supplied.

Yet, to put the lavish restroom described above into context, the supply of ladies’ rooms in restaurants and offices was still inadequate in the 1890s. In 1891 a restaurant in Portland ME felt justified to advertise that it had “the finest Ladies’ room east of Boston,” a considerable area. Often tall office buildings were constructed with ladies’ rooms only on the top floor. Even though women were increasingly taking jobs as clerical workers in offices, developers did not want to give up income-earning space to facilities for women on each floor. (Men, on the other hand, were supplied with small closets with a urinal-sink on each floor.)


Although the 1890s is often cited as the decade in which indoor plumbing took huge leaps, it is notable that restaurants continued to advertise ladies’ rest rooms throughout the 1920s [above advertisement, 1930]. Although they had become more common during the World War I as more women patronized restaurants, the advertisements seem to suggest that the presence of restrooms still could not be taken for granted.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016


Filed under elite restaurants, sanitation, women

13 responses to “Ladies’ restrooms

  1. mahendra sakya

    I have a restaurant in Patan darbar square, Nepal want to provide a restroom for the ladies.

  2. lmcmanus

    In the 1980s in Paris, my friend and I were eating in a nice neighborhood bistro when she sought the ladies’ room. She came back to the table and told me I needed to go check it out. You walked through the kitchen, out the back door, and into a small shed with a hole in the floor.

  3. Anonymous

    Thank you for this interesting post! Have tried researching ladies’ toilets around 1900 for my latest novel, and it’s almost impossible to find any information. I really like your blog!

  4. Anne Bonney

    I remember the Ladies Lounge in Higbee’s Department Store in Cleveland with sofas and mirrored make up tables. All gone now. I appreciate knowing the history of this phenomenon.

  5. Leon Tong!

    “Men, on the other hand, were supplied with small closets with a urinal-sink …”. I think I would instantly lose my appetite if I went into a restaurant restroom with such a combined facility! Nice article Jan 😉

  6. My mother, born in 1929, grew up with an outdoor toilet living just on the outskirts of Appleton, Wisconsin, with functioning farms west of my family’s property. She cannot recall exactly when her father installed indoor toilets but must have been in the early 40’s.

    • Interesting. I think farms stuck with outhouses pretty late. But even in the 1920s, many people in cities would get a kitchen sink before a toilet.

      • My grandmas house and her brothers house in Latvia only have outside toilets. They probably even don’t plan on getting plumbing in either as they still use outside well.

  7. Lovely written post.
    I’ve been wondering similar. I think it’s awkward that we have separate toilets for genders. But that’s maybe because I got used to it in my school where there were mostly girls, so all toilets were just toilets.
    End of the day we use same toilets at home, at least most people.

  8. Thomas Byg

    Such an interesting post Jan, thanks

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