From the end of the 18th Century, ladies dresses had been worn with increasingly full petticoats or underskirts, following the dictates of fashion, but also, I found noted several times, to protect the dresses from 'body dirt.' The dresses would be of heavy fabrics, elaborately coloured and embroidered and quite impossible to wash (no dry-cleaning then!). Since the ladies would be wearing stockings, even a simple underskirt would keep the dress away from her body, but many more layers, holding the dress well away from the legs, would be needed to protect from the involuntary, or deliberate, release of urine when standing or walking. Similarly, not wearing drawers or knickers, would allow such release without the clothes being soaked.
It also seemed significant that when drawers were first worn from the middle of the 19th Century onwards, they were first fastened round the lower legs only, still not separated into two legs. The need for such garments seems to have come about from the fashion for crinolines, which could tilt and reveal an indecent amount of leg. These early garments would still have allowed discrete urination under the skirt without it becoming wet. Later in the Century, when knickers or bloomers became popular, we find that the fashion in dresses includes the bustle, a cane frame that held the skirt well clear of the body at the back only. The 'official' reason for the bustle was to place emphasis on the erotic zone of the buttocks, but an additional use would have been to keep the dress well clear of wet knickers resulting from un-avoidable urination while standing.
Another minor point was that skirts were made with side pockets just below waist level and many contemporary pictures show ladies with their hands deep in these pockets. Perhaps just to keep their hands warm, or a relaxed way of standing, but also a discrete way for a lady to hold between her legs or gently massage her throbbing, bursting bladder.
This could all be fantasy on my part, but more and more as I studied the subject, it seemed that ladies clothes were actually designed to allow them to do everything possible to contain their urine without revealing their plight and when the body could contain no more, to allow some secret release.
I think it is important to emphasise that 'bodily functions' were a taboo subject in those days and would not have been mentioned even among friends or relatives. Because of this conditioning from childhood, the idea of deliberate urination in public, even under her skirt, would have been unthinkable to any lady and she would try to contain herself until the pressure became unbearable and release involuntary. To emphasise this, a medical book of the time remarks on the prevalence of constipation among ladies living in houses where the path to the outside privy was visible from the house. Many ladies were so embarrassed by the thought of even their family knowing they were visiting the privy that they would avoid doing so if at all possible. Their bladder could be eased in a chamber pot in the privacy of their bedroom, but their bowels had to be clenched shut until they could reach the privy unseen. With such modesty prevailing, how many ladies would be willing to be seen entering a public lavatory on the rare occasions, such as the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace, when they were provided. They might be prepared to enter in a group, behaviour that continues today, but a single lady would not have done so until faced with the worse alternative of publicly wetting herself.
A final point is that photographs and pictures of Victorian groups often show the men standing casually with one or both hands in their trouser pockets, obviously a fashion of the time and as every man today knows, a very convenient way of discretely gripping his penis and controlling a desperate need to pee. Once again, it seemed to me, normal behaviour provided the best way of concealing their desperation. Men, despite wearing long drawers, would have dared not risk even the smallest leak of pee, for fear of an embarrassing wet patch on their breeches or trousers. Alone they might have been able to pee in some alleyway, but even in male only company such behaviour would have been frowned on and absolutely unthinkable when ladies were present.
Towards the end of the 19th Century ladies began to lead more public lives, no longer being content to remain at home raising children and running the household. This could have been one of the golden ages of desperation, as ladies spent more time away from their homes, but there were no public facilities for their relief. By this time most ladies were wearing drawers, so discreet peeing down their legs was no longer possible. They would seem to have had two stark choices, either hold on until they reached home, sometimes suffering unbelievable desperation, or disgrace themselves by either peeing in their clothes or in the street. The fact that this was a serious problem for active ladies is revealed by the existence of containers that were strapped between ladies legs, allowing her to pee 'while travelling.' I have an illustration of such a device and I find it difficult to believe that it would have been comfortable, or even possible to wear for long, particularly when full of pee.
Cycling joined the railways as a fashionable way of getting about and would have provided another circumstance when a lady's bladder would have been strained. Drawers, or Bloomers, were essential wear when cycling, effectively preventing any discrete release of pee while standing or walking, yet I cannot imagine a lady out in a mixed group, dismounting her cycle and going behind a hedge to 'ease herself.' The ones with the smallest bladders, or who had drunk too much tea before setting out, would have suffered the most and there must have been times when they were close to breakdown and disgracing themselves before some excuse was found to take a break. Perhaps there would have been a stop for refreshments, during which the men would walk off 'to admire the view,' and the ladies go the other way into the woods 'looking for wild flowers'. Even then, it would not have been easy for a lady to raise her heavy skirt and layers of under-skirts, then pull down her long drawers and crouch behind a bush to pee.
The greater use of Water Closets and 'proper' toilets as we no know them might have been one influence that encouraged ladies to wear knickers; Before WC's were introduced a lady would have to pee in the open and the easiest way of her doing this was to stand, legs apart and raise her skirts at the front and then release her stream of pee onto the ground. Wearing knickers she would have needed to pull these down and squat to release her pee and this was far easier to accomplish in the privacy of a bathroom than in the open.
The emancipation of women continued, accelerated by the Great War and it was accepted that they did not have to spend their whole lives at home raising children. The first ladies public lavatory in London was built in 1912 and it is probable that theatres and shops were also providing facilities for their female customers. Drawers were now almost universally worn and as skirts became shorter and less elaborate, so knickers first ended above the knee and then in the 1920's shrunk again to cami-knickers, similar to the 'French knickers' of today, under the Flappers' mini-dresses. While there were now places for the ladies to pee away from home, there were also more activities to prevent them using these. Early motorists, already unpopular with the general public, would not have wanted to stop for any reason if they could avoid it, not even to allow their passengers to 'go behind the hedge.' Their only hope would have been that the frequent breakdowns occurred at some convenient place.
In the time between the wars charabanc or coach outings became popular and with slow, unreliable, coaches, many of these outings must have ended with their passengers desperately wanting to 'spend a penny.' Many of the seaside town public loos date from this period, so the need must have become obvious for public money to be spent in this way.
The Second War, (when women were more actively involved than in any previous conflict) caused much desperation and for the first time, some of these were clearly documented. With all their rolling stock pressed into use, it was inevitable that long journeys were made in non-corridor trains, often without a stop and passengers had to manage as best they could. One train of evacuees leaving London is reported to have had to stop at Oxford when passengers pulled the communication cord, because, in the coy language of the official report, 'the pressure of nature had become unbearable for many passengers.' Men would have been able to pee out of the window, or a slightly opened door, even if there were women in the compartment, but the women would have either had to wait, wet themselves as they sat, or squat on the floor in full view of all the other occupants. A group of nurses, lucky enough to have a compartment to themselves, have described how they took turns to pee into a tin mug and empty it out of the window. As the Ladies toilets of even a major station had only 3 or 4 cubicles, imagine the chaos when several hundred desperate women arrived.
I have also read an account by a woman pilot, who was called up to deliver fighters from the factory to the combat units of the problems of long flights. She was provided with a bottle and funnel, as used by male pilots, which it was impossible for her to use when wearing a flying suit. Knowing how much the RAF men wanted to show that she wasn't capable of doing the job, she had to force herself to wait, however desperate. To make matters worse, ground crew would often make her park her plane away from the hangers - deliberately she suspected, giving her a long walk when she was so desperate she could hardly move. Men suffered as well, a bomber pilot writing that even on 12-hour flights it was so difficult to pee that the crew would wait if it were at all possible. All that was provided was a funnel and drain tube and often the ground crew would re-route the tube so that the pee either drained onto another crew, or it overflowed onto the person peeing. Some aircraft did not even have this, the ground crew having the unpleasant task of cleaning the cockpit after each flight, though it may have been fear as much as desperation that caused many pilots to lose control.
Just before and just after the Second War, two royal funerals and two coronations brought enormous crowds to London and I doubt if any extra facilities were provided for their comfort. I have looked at newspapers of the time, which show the procession route and viewing areas, but no indications of public lavatories. A friend and her mother went to the Coronation in 1953, waiting all night to get a good place in the Mall, but their only mention of 'toilets' was that the children were allowed to push through the crowd, but not adults, who presumably had to wait. After the Silver Jubilee procession, with much smaller crowds, there was a long queue for the ladies loo in the Mall, several adults either holding themselves or contorting themselves, legs plaited and doubling over. Twenty-five years earlier I am sure the desperation was even more spectacular, but is there anyone who remembers it and will share the experience?
Post war England saw a great boom in public spending, including the building a many new public toilets in the 1960's and 1970's, as if there was a sudden government decision that bladders must not be subject to strain anymore. Maybe there was some justification for this, because as a child in about 1960 I remember a trip west, along the A30, when we took ages to get as far as Camberley, (maybe 25 miles) by which time all the family were bursting. Even the gent's public convenience at Camberley had a queue and the ladies queue seemed about 50 yards long and we had to wait ages for my mother and sister. I was too young to appreciate the desperation there must have been, other than having some vague memories of some girls holding themselves and my mother making some comment about a coach driver refusing to wait for some 'poor woman who was bursting to go.'
Increasing prosperity meant more people owned cars and were 'out and about' at weekends and holidays, so there was some need for extra toilets, as an increasingly urbanised population could no longer be expected to go behind a bush. The words of the Joni Mitchell song should have been 'See paradise, put up a public loo ....' at least in England.
Perhaps one benefit of the current shortage of public money is that these public loos are now falling into disrepair and being closed, either being replaced with a single 'Tardis' type, which is often broken, or nothing. As in so many things, Britain is adopting the American approach and leaving toilets to private enterprise, who will naturally want to keep these for their customers only. As we enter the new millennium, I have noticed two hopeful signs for desperation fans. Many railway stations, now in private ownership of some sort, are either shutting their loos, or closing them at 8 p.m. 'for security,' which with new rolling stock without loos, is far from convenient for anyone who wants to drink and not drive. Secondly, I know of one motor-way service area that has recently been rebuilt being far smaller; previously they could easily absorb a coach load of bursting women, now even a small coach has a queue out of the door. If these trends continue, then we could be entering another golden age of desperation.
After writing the first 'Peeing in the Past', I have made further studies of the 19th Century, in particular Victorian England, which seems to have truly been the golden age of desperation and wetting. For the first part of the century there seems to have been no formal provision for public relief or easement, as was the term of the day and a rising prudery that made any open declaration or revelation of such 'private' needs taboo in polite society. It might have been accepted that the lower classes would relieve themselves in the street, as being considered generally inferior and much less refined; they might be expected to behave in such an obscene way. It was probably not considered that they did not have much choice in the matter. With no public facilities and only the crudest and most primitive toilet arrangements in their slums or tenement blocks (a landlord would not want to waste space and money on a proper lavatory and would provide only a bucket for 'calls of nature' and expect his tenants to make their own provisions in the street for other needs. It was not uncommon, when bad weather discouraged crossing the yard to the privy, often in a disgusting state and attached to an overflowing cess-pit, for children and even adults to pee in their filthy beds or on the floor of their rooms. From the luxury of 21st century England it is difficult to imagine the plight of he poor in 19th century England. Most lived a desperate existence without the support of any social or health services. Those without a job, who could not afford to rent a room, or house had to survive on the streets and live hand to mouth by thieving, prostitution, or any other means they could. If social commentaries were to be believed, any money they might come by would be squandered on drink, which would give some oblivion from their miserable existence. Drunk and destitute, neither man nor woman would have second thoughts about peeing in the street or in their clothes. Common lodging houses, the only shelter for such unlucky people were frequently described as having a filthy, pee-soaked straw mattresses, suggesting that peeing in the bed was not uncommon. A prostitute, (any unemployed woman with nobody to support her) would think herself lucky if she could charge her customers a farthing (quarter of a penny, equivalent to about £2 or $4 today) for something close to intercourse standing in a dark corner of a street. If she was lucky her customer might have bought her enough drink to deaden her misery at her lot in life and any customer who wanted to see her pee would only have to stay with her until the beer she had drunk took effect to see her go either in her clothes as she walked or crouching in a dark yard, probably used by everyone in her state.
With the lower classes behaving in this way is it surprising that the upper classes tried to hold themselves above such behaviour and would not allow any reference to such base needs? Fortunately for our imaginations, attractive, well-dressed ladies of all ages must have suffered the agonies of extreme desperation when living in a world that made little provision for their comfort and no facilities for their relief from calls of nature. Away from the sanctuary of her home, a lady would have no choice but to hold her pee until she either reached the sanctuary of her, or her friend's home, or released her pee down her legs as discretely as she could and hope nobody noticed what she was doing. I have discussed earlier how the clothes of the time seem particularly suitable for this activity and I am sure it was often the only way a lady could relieve her bursting bladder. Correspondence I have seen on the internet leads me to believe that a lady could empty her bladder in this way, allowing pee to run down her legs and if she was standing or walking over grass or wet pavement, there would be no visible indication of what she was doing, (except perhaps the smile of relief on her face!) Since no well-bred lady would do such a thing deliberately, she would only do this when she could not hold her pee a second longer and would have her thighs pressed together to try to hold it and in this position there would not be any audible hiss as she released her pee under great pressure, nor would her stream gush forward or backward onto her skirts, but would be controlled and flow down her legs, possibly dripping from her knees to the ground, or flowing over her boots tightly laced to prevent any pee running inside them. I suspect that this scenario is the origin of the term 'stretching our legs' now used as a euphemism for a pee stop on a coach outing. Desperate ladies would indeed be grateful of the chance to 'stretch their legs' during a coach journey; walking along the side of the road or across a field would allow them to release their pee down their legs without anyone else seeing what they were doing. Since they all did it, they might know what the other ladies were doing, but not say anything. Gentlemen, whose clothes were no so conveniently designed, had to hold on with one hand in their trouser pockets until they could look for rabbits or highway robbers hiding behind the hedge and get out of sight of the ladies before daring to unbutton their trousers and pee.
Ladies who complain today of the unfair bias towards male toilet facilities might remember that at this time, gentlemen were at a great disadvantage pee-wise, as their trousers would reveal the slightest leak and the casual walking off and standing back to the group or facing a wall or tree, was not socially acceptable. Nor was there room in their trousers for the rubber container to pee into that ladies who were scared of being caught desperate, could hide under their skirts. Is it any wonder that a shy gentleman, or one with prostate trouble, would resort to a clamp or binding on his penis as the only alternative to a wet patch on his trousers? The pain from using such a device would have been nothing to the shame of peeing in his trousers. How many ladies would have longed for such a device to be available for their use on long journeys. If this seems improbable, then remember that this was the age when ladies were regarded as the inferior and weaker sex, who were expected to suffer for such deficiencies in their make up. If it was considered fitting that a lady should suffer the agonies of childbirth, why shouldn't she suffer the pain of extreme desperation if her body did not allow her easy and discrete relief in the street, or that she did not have the strength or endurance of men to be able to contain her pee in such circumstances?
The 'Great Exhibition' is often talked about as the first instance when public lavatories were provided for the comfort of visitors and it is interesting to look at the history of this; it reveals the general attitude of the age towards such provisions, as well as marking the end of the 'golden age.'
When the Exhibition was being planned and the entrepreneur, approaching the organising committee offering to provide W.Cs for the public to use 'on payment of a small fee.' This offer was rejected by the organisers on the grounds that "The public were coming to see an exhibition and not go to the lavatory." (Just imagine Disneyland or a Theme park taking that attitude today and not providing any public loos!) The entrepreneur persisted and this was one of the most popular and lucrative features of the exhibition, with long queues at each WC, so much so that much was done to encourage the public to wait and not use the WC's closest to the entrances. It is interesting to compare the cost of using these WC's with wages of the day and the entrance fee of the exhibition. Using a WC cost one penny, while the entrance fee was one shilling or 12 pennies, about the daily wage of a labourer. To compare with Disney land, imagine paying 1/12 of the entrance fee to use the toilets there, that is about 50p or 1$ in today's money. From another aspect 1 penny would have bought the services of a street prostitute or been enough to have got drunk on. As it was reported that there were queues to use such facilities, imagine the embarrassment of a lady, desperate to pee, having to admit to her companions that she was in such a state of need that she was willing to be seen standing in a queue waiting to pee, in full view of all the visitors. When the popularity of the WC facilities was seen it was commented that it showed the great need for such facilities and level of public suffering caused by there not being any public lavatories. This did not bring about a sudden rush to provide public lavatories as 50 years later we find a celebrated case of George Bernard Shaw campaigning for a Ladies toilet at Camden market and remarking on the levels of suffering and subterfuge caused by the ladies having nowhere to pee.
Go to Desperation Through the Ages Pt 1
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