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The Flat Cap on ... Urinals

Yesterday The Flat Cap started his Christmas shopping. Due to the crowds of people with the same idea he gave up after half an hour and retired to a city centre public house for some liquid refreshments and a spot of lunch. After three or four drinks it was time to visit the toilets. The Flat Cap believes you can always judge a pub or restaurant’s hygiene standards by the state of their toilets and he was pleased to notice they were both clean and fragrant. They also had nice liquid soap in fancy bottles, and the urinals were obviously checked regularly. This got him thinking more about public conveniences, and after another couple of beers, and another visit to the urinals he decided to find out more about their history and the variety of designs.

The first thing to remember about urinals is that the term can be both used to describe either the fixtures or the building used to house them. The Flat Cap approves of urinals because for ‘a number one’ it’s quicker than a conventional toilet. And there’s no door to lock, or seat to lift up. Also if you’re not very tall (like say a dwarf, or a young boy) you can usually find one that is sited at a lower height. Sometimes there are even partitions to stop fellow users comparing sizes. Individual units do however take up space and if you’re in a place where there are lots of users, for example during half time at a busy football match, the trough urinal is the obvious choice. Schools, colleges and theatres are other good places to install trough urinals as people all want, or need, to go at the same time - either because of the lessons timetable, or during the intermission.

To prevent foul odours a lot of urinals have a flush system. The Flat Cap discovered that there are several types. In the USA urinals often have manual handles that users operate after their wee; providing that they remember. In parts of Europe and Scandinavia it’s more common to find timed flush systems. These can be designed to work only when the building is illuminated. So if it’s night time and there are no lights on the timed flush doesn’t operate, thereby saving water. Other systems only flush if the door to the toilets is opened. Best of all some urinals are fitted with infra red sensors that detect a person’s presence after a few seconds. The time delay ensures the flush isn’t just activated by people walking past, or a big fly buzzing around, or possibly a bird that’s lost its way. Although if the toilets are kept clean there shouldn’t really be any flies anyway, and the chance of a bird getting lost inside a public toilet building is incredibly remote. In addition to flush urinals there are now waterless ones.

As well as indoor urinals there are plenty of them sited outdoors. In the Netherlands and UK there are retractable urinals on some streets. They pop up when demand is at its peak. So, if you’re on a works night out and leave a bar worse for drink there’s suddenly a place to relieve yourself. In Paris and other French cities the urinals are called “vespasiennes”. They got their name from Vespasian the Roman Emperor, who, according to history, imposed a tax on urine. The urine was collected and used in the tanning industry. This is largely the reason why The Flat Cap doesn't wear leather trousers. Nowadays you’re more likely to see a super loo than a vespasienne. An easier to remember term is “pissoir”; which is the same thing.

The Flat Cap usually supplements his own research by chatting to people who routinely claim to profess an in depth knowledge of the subject. As a number of these contributors have proved to be completely bonkers, and given that hanging about outside gentlemen’s toilets could have proved ‘problematical’ The Flat Cap decided to go to his local library to learn a little bit more about urinals. It was there that he came up with the following pee themed facts:

  • A typical waterless urinal saves over 200,000 litres of water per year

  • Japanese toy company Sega developed an interactive urinal system that allowed users to play games using their wee. Four games were available and controlled by the volume, spray and strength of the operator’s streams. Game scores could even be saved on a USB memory stick. Not to be outdone British company Captive Media invented its own interactive urinal bowl games, “On the Piste” and “Clever Dick”. The first was a skiing game which required players to knock over penguins, and the second a True/False pub quiz. Again they were pee operated

  • Canadian film director John Greyson released a film called “Pissoir”. The film is set in a public toilet

  • The average male will use a public urinal at least 15,000 times during his lifetime, more on cold days or as he gets older

  • American novelist Ernest Hemingway used to drink in a Florida bar called “Sloppy Joe’s”. When the owners weren’t looking he took home one of the bar’s urinals and made it into a water fountain for his cats

  • French born painter and sculptor Henri-Robert-Marcel Duchamp’s artwork “Fountain” was actually a urinal that he signed R.Mutt. Duchamp was also a decent chess player

  • In the summer of 2010 Milton Keynes introduced the “Pee Pod” (a small set of four open-air plastic urinals) to its streets, but only at weekends

  • Fed up with drunken revellers taking a pee against its historic city walls council workers in Chester coated the ancient brickwork with hydrophobic paint, called “Ultra-Ever-Dry”. The paint causes splash-back and leaves the guilty person with an unexpected soaking

  • Police in Nassau County, New York used a talking urinal display screen, to urge patrons not to drink and drive. The Flat Cap thinks this message could have been better delivered before customers had had a drink rather than waiting for them to use the urinals

  • Continuing with the French obsession for urinals in 1934 author Gabriel Chevalier wrote the satirical novel Clochmerle, which deals with the ramifications of plans to install a new urinal in a French village. In 1972 the BBC produced a television series based on the book. The novel’s text was adapted by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, but it was never as funny as when they wrote Steptoe and Son

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