11 Nov World Toilet Day
Toilet History Museum and More
World Toilet Day is observed on November 19, near the Thanksgiving holiday, whether coincidentally or not but appropriately. Another blessing to thank for.
The old-folk-talk about their past annoyed me as a child. Well, here I am… The additional wrinkle, so to speak, for us, Soviet immigrants, is that more distance from our former lives brings hair-trigger urgency to reflect and to share. So I was not surprised by the flood of memories unleashed by someone’s mention of a Toilet History Museum in my hometown of Kiev, the capital of Ukraine.
Opened about ten years ago, it has become the largest of its kind in Europe and the only one in the former Soviet Union. The Guinness Book of Records lists its collection of souvenir toilet bowls. From its website I also learned of the World Toilet Day. The UN designated it to bring attention to the fact that “poor sanitation and hygiene are at the heart of disease and malnutrition.”
Bathroom Is Not Important
Anyone born in the USSR has countless stories on the topic of Soviet bathroom culture. Growing up, plenty of big-city dwellers of my generation did not have a bathroom at home. One lived where one’s parents or grandparents had somehow ended up. A dash to an outhouse fifty yards away or across a busy street was just part of life. Marriage merely subtracted from the tenant count of one communal apartment while adding to another. We survived—the popular wisdom that hardships make people stronger has to be true.
Then Stalin passed on, carelessly leaving a gap for the bourgeois concept of a private apartment, bathroom et al. Smaller towns and most villages lagged behind cities. The vacation hotspot Sochi has the 2014 Olympics to thank for its serious plumbing makeover.
My outhouse experience is limited to the summers spent in the country both as a child in the late 1940s and as a mother 25 years later. Nothing had changed. The frogs scurrying on the long narrow path to the outhouse and the slippery path itself terrified my two-year-old daughter and me equally. But then, dachas provided fresh air and farmer’s cheese, nobody expected modern conveniences.
Bathroom Is Important
Speaking of fresh air. If you didn’t know where a public bathroom was, you located it by smell. Not that there was an over-supply—apparently working people, unlike the bourgeoisie, had no decadent needs. It didn’t occur to anyone to stop at a cafeteria or restaurant (I remember my astonishment that it was common practice in the West).
Kiev, a city of about two million had a public bathroom at the railroad station and on the main street, Kreshchatik. They also served as a branch of black market specializing in imported bras and panties. I’d rather not elaborate on the condition of the facility at the central cemetery in 1997 (you wouldn’t believe it, anyway) but it did improve vastly by the time I visited Kiev again ten years later. Someone commented that it was not yet London but already not USSR.
The bathroom issue made dating tricky. A girl proved her respectability and modesty by, among the obvious like clothes and manners, not admitting the need to pee, no matter how long the date. Sometimes she had to sprint home before she wanted to part with her admirer – I don’t wish these moments on anyone!
Men did the same but they might have done the deed in a phone booth, or against a tree or a building while they left the girl alone for a minute for some innocuous reason. But nothing demonstrated a man’s quickness of mind like a pregnant wife – my husband impressed me with his encyclopedic knowledge of appropriate out-of-sight places.
A few words about toilet lids. When they became the norm, communal neighbors brought their own to the bathroom. In the lucky harmonious apartments, the lids hung on individual nails inside the bathroom.
Spoiled by lids-galore in America, I was stunned in 1997 that the facility in the Ukrainian Academic library, one of the best in Europe, had none. My friend who worked there and her colleagues thought me odd for noticing it.
In conclusion, toilet paper. An unknown entity until the end of 1969. Newspaper squares prepared, in a communal apartment, by a neighbor on duty waited for you on a bathroom nail. A saying describing a useless document as “only good to hang on the nail” is alive and well for people like me. Even the hotels for foreigners sported cut-up newspaper in the bathrooms.
Zero demand at first—people didn’t understand the purpose for those rolls—it suddenly skyrocketed and, predictably, shortages ensued. No degree of harmony would make a communal neighbor leave a roll out for common use. On the way to his first job interview in Chicago, my husband bought a newspaper, just in case – we still could not wrap our minds around the reality of toilet paper availability. Read my site and some posts for more nostalgic stories.
The Kiev Toilet History Museum is located in the vicinity of popular sightseeing. Ask your guide to take you there. The site content is in Russian and Ukrainian. I’ll be happy to translate if you’re interested.