Germs, toilets, and privacy: Evolution of public washrooms – Part 2

Evolution has been the one constant in human life, and we have seen widespread changes to systems, ways of living, daily habits, working, management of public and private life, change in working conditions, etc. Through this journey, every effort has been made to improve living conditions, to make life more comfortable than it was before and organize daily chores. One industry that has seen a considerable change is the facilities management industry. The question arises as to what precisely this industry caters to and how did it get to its current form. As part of a 3-part blog series, the team at Zan decided to delve into the history of public washrooms, the growth of this industry and where it stands today. In the previous article, we studied how and when did the systems of public restrooms evolve. With the study came the question of its management. Most ancient societies were ahead of their times in terms of sanitation and hygiene. The Harappan civilization had well-equipped sanitation systems. The Greek and Roman cultures came to be known for the public baths/washrooms and how these places became centers of open discussions and debate. Did the public manage these newly built washrooms/baths or was someone employed to do the job? When did this industry evolve into an organized sector?

Going back to the Roman Civilization there is evidence of public washrooms and public bath that became an integral part of life. The Romans were known for engineering feats and invented the aqueduct that was used to supply water for miles both to public baths and the washrooms.  The public restrooms served almost 60 people at a time with no privacy, and the only tool used for cleaning was the sponge stick, but the continuous water flow beneath the toilets kept them clean. These places also used buckets called the ‘Dolia Cartans .’ These buckets were used to collect waste from the public washrooms and sold to fullers for a fee. Fullers during the Roman era were like the modern-day dry cleaners who washed, dyed and dried the garments. Shops employed many people, kept machines to do the job and needed a large space. The Fullers were also known to support politicians and fulfill civic duties. While the Roman Emperors and the wealthy elite enjoyed most luxuries, the public was charged a fee for using these spaces. Men paid a quarter, and women a whole and children used it for free. As a society, they were ahead of times in terms of sanitation, water supply and introducing the pay to use- system.

The evidence of using human waste to perform other tasks was not only found in the Roman civilization but in Asian communities and Greek culture as well. It developed as a need to do away with odors and foul smell from homes and with time communities realized the value of using waste from houses and public bathrooms. The need to prevent this waste from mixing with the water line also prompted them to utilize it elsewhere. In the late Japanese and Chinese dynasties, the system of employing servants to cater to the cleanliness requirements was widely rampant. The rich employed several people to clean, remove all toxic waste, and provide fresh water. They also collected the waste and sold it as a fertilizer to the farming communities. The Chinese dynasties during the 12th and 13th century followed similar practices.  Excrement factories collected waste from these facilities and sold it to farming communities.  For centuries, England used human waste as a fertilizer. It was emptied into cesspits and collected by soil men who sold it or dumped it into the rivers. It wasn’t until the epidemic of Cholera that they seriously considered changing ways and methods to manage public washrooms. A heated debate ensued in ways to deal with waste. While one side argued on the importance of sewage farming while the others argued about running water cleaning everything, but it never came to the discussion table as people wanted to install the flush toilets and do away with the centuries-old system.

Based on the above evidence, pre 19th century, facilities management was seen mainly as a discrete set of chores and lacked any organized efforts. Managing human waste was the only areas that seem to have a formal structure with a clear monetization possibility to be a viable business. In the post 18th century world, an outbreak of diseases, the advent of the industrial revolution, and women joining the workforce in large numbers prompted the widespread development of public washrooms specifically at workplaces and gradually at shopping centers, train stations, and airports. The increase in these facilities gave rise to the need to have a workforce dedicated to their upkeep and maintenance.

With the Industrial Revolution, there was a rise of different modes of transportation including the railroads. Researchers in the field believe that the first traces of facilities management were seen in America when the railroad companies had to hire ticket collectors, engineers, and accountants among many others, and it was during this time that the emergence of a manager came about. With the development of workplaces arose the need to look after the workers, their safety, and maintenance of these offices.  Though the industry came onto the scene in the early 19th century and continued at a certain pace till the end of it, it began to diversify its services towards the end of the 20th century. During the 1970s there was a rapid growth of floor space in commercial buildings, offices and this fast-changing structure demanded a dedicated facilities management industry to look after these spaces. The industry gained a formal structure only in the 1980s with the formation of the International Facilities Management Association in the United States. It is a very people-centric and complex industry that has to cater to specific needs to its end clients. While there are several processes in place to manage various aspects of the industry, in our final article, we will look at the role of technology and how it has helped the industry with critical areas like managing the workforce, efficiency, sustainability and quality of service.

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