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A history of public toilets in Toronto

Posted by Staff / December 16, 2011

Public Toilet TorontoEveryone knows what it's like for nature to call when you're miles from a clean and comfortable bathroom. Often sneaking unnoticed into a busy fast food joint is the only viable option in a crisis, and even then you have to cross your fingers you don't get someone else's urine on your shoes. If you think about it, shouldn't there be more public facilities to cater to such an everyday necessity?

Toronto's first public bathroom was installed in the heart of the city's financial district at the intersection of Adelaide and Toronto Streets in 1897 (see photos above and below). Located below street level, needy patrons descended a few steps into a tiled room containing three stalls and a few sturdy ceramic urinals. An attendant polished up dirty boots and supplied towels and soap for 5 cents.

Public Toilets TorontoThe project was successful enough for five more underground lavatories to be built around the city. The most popular was located in the middle of Spadina Avenue just south of Queen, roughly where the streetcar tracks run now. Some estimates suggest the bathroom in its heyday — and I can't help wondering who counted — processed at least 50,000 "transactions" a month. That stat becomes a little less surprising when you see some of the bleak johns people had at home in the early part of the last century.

As Simon Wallace has written about for the Toronto Standard, these facilities also as served as rendezvous points for working-class gay men, who rarely possessed their own private space in a city dominated by single-family homes. "Found in every poor neighbourhood and every public space, [public lavatories] provided privacy and became the preferred places for gay men to meet," Wallace explains. "Holes, glory holes, were cut between stalls to allow for sexual contact, doors could be locked and men could enter the building together without necessarily arousing suspicion."

Public Toilets TorontoAs the years went by and demand continued to increase, more public bathrooms were built around the city. Above ground structures with separate toilets for women (there weren't any female toilets in the first buildings) were constructed at popular gathering places and major transit transfer locations. One of these new buildings was built in 1920 at Broadview and Danforth near the newly completed Prince Edward Viaduct.

Designed to match the surrounding neighbourhood, the red-brick, wood and stucco building was fitted with wooden stalls and shining brass fixtures. Dormer windows bathed the space in natural light.

Public Toilets TorontoAs time went by, this bathroom and many others like it around the city saw a gradual decline in use as cafes, restaurants and stores began offering their own.

The city ran the Danforth facility until a 1987 study put the maintenance on the building, which included two full-time attendants, at $500 a day - the equivalent $17 a flush for each of the approximately 30 daily users. The bathroom closed the next year and the fixtures were torn out. Thankfully, the sinks were salvaged and are now in installed at the Blue Barracks at Fort York. After several years spent vacant the building is home to a kindergarten.

20111216-Int-Queen-Spadina-1890s.jpgLuckily for us losing the old-style conveniences hasn't meant the end of Toronto's public bathrooms. Last year the first in a new fleet of automatic privies was installed at Queen's Quay and Rees Street. Today, a quarter buys 20 minutes of chemically sanitized privacy - more than enough time to take in the spacious interior and enjoy the pleasure of relieving yourself to light musical accompaniment. When time runs out, the unit seals up (or calls for help if you're in trouble) and hoses itself down. Welcome to the future.

19 more of the potties are scheduled to appear at various downtown locations over the next few years. The heated and air conditioned structures might cost $400,000 and look from the outside like advertising boards with septic tanks screwed to the back but it beats flushing with your foot in a sketchy greasy spoon.

Public Toilets TorontoWriting by Chris Bateman.

Photos from the Toronto Archives.

Check out our History of Toronto in photos form more nostalgia tripping.



tubas / December 16, 2011 at 03:42 pm
This article beats the piss outta some band review hands down.
dingdong / December 16, 2011 at 04:02 pm
yo tubas, get off yer THRONE and quit DUMPing on others if you won't SIGN YOUR NAME. ha ha ha ha!!! uh...
Christopher / December 16, 2011 at 04:12 pm
Man, that last photo is beautiful.
TheRealJohnson / December 16, 2011 at 04:29 pm
Interesting to know that back in the day the bathroom attendant used to shine your shoes. These days all you get is an offer of bad cologne and a guilt trip when you don't pay him a dollar just for handing you some paper towel.
belvedere / December 16, 2011 at 05:30 pm
great article! those were the days. but washroom attendants r just plain creepy no matter how classy the premises. but i guess they keep cornholing to a minimum.
W. K. Lis / December 16, 2011 at 07:17 pm
I remember the washrooms at the Sunnyside Station and the Keele & Dundas facilities. Some of the cubicles were pay toilets requiring 10¢ to use them, though there were a couple of free ones.
Skellie / December 16, 2011 at 07:21 pm
I'd love to know what happened to these loos - are they still there? Did they get filled in? That one on Toronto Street looks to be almost in the middle of the road .. I wonder if that one is still there! Looks gorgeous.
ife / December 16, 2011 at 07:44 pm
It all makes sense now! The public toilets were converted into the TTC! Duh! Just kidding :-)
Rob Ford / December 17, 2011 at 04:18 am
"i order that these washrooms be torn down and turned into a highway for more cars!"

i'm a fat loser!
quelle replying to a comment from Skellie / December 17, 2011 at 07:58 am
dude, they look just like any older toronto house. can you imagine finding out that your house used to be a shitter?
Umm replying to a comment from quelle / December 17, 2011 at 09:33 am
Why don't you try reading what they posted first?
They are talking about the UNDERGROUND toilets... smh
Emma / December 17, 2011 at 10:32 am
It's now a french school, I believe this is the same building (the danforth lavatory) for women
I love learning about the history of my city!
wyxie replying to a comment from Christopher / December 17, 2011 at 11:34 am
I agree. Hauntingly beautiful.
Adam Sobolak / December 17, 2011 at 07:30 pm
The one on Keele north of Dundas was extant and operating (in a 50s/60s-modern facility) as late as the 1980s--it and Danforth were the last survivors of their ilk...
thomaus / December 18, 2011 at 05:00 pm
The Danforth Lavatory made the news over the summer.
Last I checked, the flags still looked like hell.
This building was going to be some sort of Greek museum a few years back. But the French school showed up instead.
Drew / December 19, 2011 at 12:49 pm
They still have many public washrooms in the UK. It is certainly handy if you are walking around and need to find a washroom, without having to hunt for a cafe or fast food place and hope the washroom is free and doesn't require a key and purchase etc.
Goods / December 19, 2011 at 12:56 pm
Welcome to the future? European countries where it's still difficult to find a shower at times (England, France, etc) have had the self-sanitizing automatic privies for years.
Gary / December 22, 2011 at 05:42 pm
the Danforth public toilet is now a building named after Napoleon !! (ecole Napoleon) I'm sure the Victorian era Anglophiles would get a great laugh out of that.
me / March 2, 2012 at 01:01 pm
ya uh
Martin Reis / October 3, 2012 at 11:13 pm
And there was Les ports de Potty during Nuit Blanche in 2011 ...
Jason / October 3, 2012 at 11:22 pm
Using Google Maps, I found precisely where this was...
Vicky / October 4, 2012 at 12:09 am
This reminds me of my Public Space course in geography. The prof made the whole class go into a public bathroom at school.
Cbab / September 10, 2013 at 03:51 pm
How would one go about finding out if the underground facilities have been filled in? I live right near Queen/Spadina, so I was just wondering. I walk over the "entrance" every time time I hop on the TTC.
Robin Aldrich / September 11, 2013 at 10:51 am
Still miles ahead of UK where there are very few public washrooms. On my trip back to my homeland this year; the majority of the few public washrooms to be found, charged 40 pence ( exact change at turnstyles ) for entry. Even some of those were out of order!!!

The best places to find working ( and free ) washrooms are in supermarkets and department stores.
Rob / February 12, 2014 at 10:13 am
There are self cleaning public bathrooms in Calgary now. They also put not so private urinals on the streets in Victoria BC a couple years ago.
Henry / September 19, 2014 at 10:09 am
A major scandal in Toronto is that certain busy TTC intersections,like Islington, don't have ANY washrooms! This is an outrage, particularly for elderly passengers, many of whom have to "go" more frequently. I wrote a letter to the Chairman of the TTC about this matter and he has no intention of fixing the problem. Please contact him if also concerned.
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