Science

Why Can’t We Have Decent Toilet Stalls?

They don’t go to the floor or the ceiling. And what’s with the gaps on either side of the door?

An eye looking through the gap in a bathroom stall door.
Natalie Matthews-Ramo

In America, our toilet stalls are awful. The flimsy partitions start at least a foot off the ground, don’t go anywhere near the ceiling, and fail to block the reality that we’re pooping and peeing right next to each other. Sometimes, these stalls are so shoddily constructed that there is a gap at the edge of the door through which a toilet sitter and someone outside the stall can make eye contact.

I started thinking about this problem a couple of weeks ago, when my colleague Dan Kois wrote a piece arguing that it was time to do away with gendered restrooms entirely. He’s correct: They’re dated, they cause problems for gender-nonconforming folks, the women’s room can have an unfairly long line. But his solution is absurd: He suggests dividing bathrooms by purpose, one set for No. 1 and another for No. 2, arguing that this will make peeing at work more pleasant and pooping at work less taboo. He is right about the goals, but he is wrong about the approach: We don’t need to divide bathrooms by function. We just need stalls that stretch floor to ceiling so that every toilet sits in its own tiny private room.

This is very obvious! And yet we’ve been living with the indignity of flimsy toilet partitions for a hundred years. One of the first places they cropped up is factories around the turn of the last century, says Laura Norén, a sociologist and co-editor of the book Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing. “They were sort of similar to indoor outhouses … but with plumbing,” she told me in an email. The bad design was promoted by a surprising source: Frank Lloyd Wright himself pioneered some of the first off-the-floor partitions in the Larkin Building in Buffalo, home to a mail-order soap company, according to an analysis of how his work shaped public life. The design makes it easier to mop beneath them.

Then the partitions were codified in bathrooms across America. A patent for metal partitions that brace against (but do not extend to) the floor and ceiling and could be installed in bathrooms was granted to an inventor in 1918. A main draw of the design was their practical, versatile functionality: They would work in bathrooms with uneven surfaces or strange dimensions, where full walls would require more serious and expensive construction.

Aside from the cleaning perks and cost benefits, flimsy partitions have been justified precisely because they offer no privacy. They make it easier to see if someone is, say, doing drugs or having sex in a stall, explains Kimberly Worsham, a water and sanitation specialist who runs a business called Flush (she is pro-floor-to-ceiling partitions). This isn’t a very compelling argument for keeping them, though. We already have single-toilet bathrooms at Starbucks and gas stations, some hotels and bars have the floor-to-ceiling stalls in unisex rooms (my favorite Brooklyn location with this setup did not return my request for comment), and they seem to be getting by just fine. Europe is a floor-to-ceiling stall haven, too. Living in a free society means giving up a little safety in exchange for a bathroom door without gaps.

Besides offering an arguably more pleasant experience, the floor-to-ceiling design “provides more privacy for people who need to do more personal matters in the stalls,” Worsham points out, whether that be manage an insulin shot or change clothes. The design would make it possible for folks with pee shyness or bowel issues to use the toilet without fear of judgment. In Norén’s imagining, the ideal public bathroom would not only have floor-to-ceiling stalls but also a little shelf for things like phones and insulin syringes and the option to turn on some nice noise-covering sounds.

Unfortunately, this is never going to happen at a large scale. This is America we’re talking about. We’re a nation built on convenience and cost savings—even if it comes at the price of occasionally making inadvertent eye contact as we pee.