Public lavatories on board

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Richard Coplen

Former Member
Hey all,
i know this is an unusual thread to start, but i've always wondered what the public lavatories on board were like. Most of the passengers and crew aboard would have had to use them - with the select few having private lavatories. What was the decor and layouts like? Who maintained them? Here's an odd question - in what form was toilet tissue available then? When watching "The 1900 House" i learned that many Edwardians - including the middle-classes recycled newspapers as toilet paper - surely this was'nt the case aboard Titanic? Nowadays toilet tissue is quite the luxury available in double-quilted, feather-soft, fragranced forms. With the White Star Line so concerned about Titanic's "...higher standard of toilet comfort and luxury at sea...", i would have expected toilet tissue to be top of their agenda. Were the public lavs aboard similar to modern ones? I can't believe i'm bringing this subject up, but it's a puzzler!
Richard, in 1912 'toilet' meant the whole business of washing, putting on makeup and so forth. That's why White Star talks of 'toilet comfort'. You probably know the advertisement for Vinolia toilet soap.

The thing Americans euphemistically call a toilet, the British called a lavatory or a water closet, which terms were also euphemisms. You'll see rooms marked WC on Titanic's plans. We won't go into other names that were applied.

I've not seen a photo of a Titanic lavatory, but judging by pictures of a first class bathroom that can be seen on page 142 of The Birth of the Titanic, they can't have been very flash. Pipes were exposed and the room wouldn't be accepted in the average modern house. Maintenance probably fell to whoever was low man on the engineering totem pole, or maybe to the carpenter, who was a jack of all trades. There was nobody listed as a plumber in the crew. Maybe White Star would have hired a plumber if the apprentice plumber, Frank Parker, from Harland and Wolff had not been on board. I notice that Carpathia had no plumber, either.

Somewhere in the wilds of the Internet is a site devoted to the history of toilet paper. A little Googling should find it.

I was actually glad to see this thread started. I was just thinking about the Titanic's public lavatories the other day!


I think I saw a photograph of a first class bathroom once, but all it showed was the sink, which was marble. There were a lot of pipes exposed just as you said and what part of the room that could be seen looked very plain.
Plumbing was still somewhat "high tech" in 1911 when Titanic was abuilding. Pipes were left exposed even in the homes of the wealthy at that time in the USA. Naked pipes appear incongruous to us today, but at the time were one more way for owners to point out their wealth. The pipes were a visible demonstration the home's owner could afford hot and cold running water--and an inside toilet (WC).

Shipbuilders undoubtedly enjoyed the public acceptance of visible pipes. Hiding the plumbing, wiring, and other utilities is one of the hardest jobs in constructing a vessel. Bulkheads are seldom studded walls with hollow cores as they are in houses ashore today. So, hiding pipes on a ship requires additional wall thickness which robs the limited amount of space inside the vessel.

Adding a 6-inch thick wall in place of a single layer bulkhead robs a foot for every two bulkheads. That wasted space adds up to the elimination of revenue-producing passenger cabins.

Flush toilets have always been problems at sea. They work well ashore where the "fall" of the soil pipe is fixed. However, at sea the soil pipe is moving with the ship. Which brings up the problem of preventing a bowl full of water from sloshing onto the deck. Some modern marine "heads" (the nautical euphemism) employ vacuum to assist the flushing.

Marine toilets are probably the single biggest problem for the ship's engineering department. Cigarette butts and match sticks can "plug" them, not to mention other items normally flushed away ashore. It is common for one or two engineers to be detailed to unclogging passenger toilets 24 hours a day.

On vessels that I have operated, the process involved wearing rubber gloves and reaching... Well, you get the idea.

Anyway, back to exposed pipes. While visible plumbing may have been OK in 1911, the sinks and shower bath surrounds were often quite ornate. Marble, usually pink, was common in upper class homes, hotels, and ships. For those close to Toledo, Ohio, I suggest a visit to the owner's cabin on the S.S. Willis B. Boyer. This cabin with adjoining bathroom is intact and authentic 1911 vintage. While the effect of the combination of pink marble, open pipes, and china commode is decidedly "old fashioned," it is hardly "plain."

--David G. Brown
For a quite detailed history of toilet paper, go to www toiletpaperworld com/tpw/encyclopedia/encyclopedia.htm

Some of the predecessors of toilet paper sound a bit rough. Mussel shells or corn cobs, anyone?

As David Brown notes, marine toilets are often a source of grief, which is why some yachties prefer the system known as bucket and chuck it. They give a new meaning to 'getting your own back'.

Tracy Smith

I'm guessing, though, that chamber pots were still pretty much in use, considering the inadequate numbers of toilets aboard. (by today's standards)

That brings me to another question; how were they stored, considering the rolling of the ship?
Very carefully I would hope!
We have been town his drain several times- have a look under Gilded Age topic, Domestic Life 1912 and Call of Nature-anything you ever wanted to know-and more. Chamber pots were usually stored in the left-hand side, top shelf of a commode or stand with doors in the front, usually a towel bar in back attached. The top held washbowl, pitcher, soap dish, etc. On a ship these stands had a gallery type bar or railing in front to keep them from sliding around forward too much. Commode comes from French for "handy" or convenient.
How strange- I just mentioned chamber pots over at "women smoking" thread...can't get away!

There were bathroom stewards listed on Titanic, so I imagine that dirty job was taken care of by them.

Judging from old photos, yes, exposed plumbing was quite the norm. Recall that most bathrooms were added on in an already existing dwelling; an addition, if you will. I have been in old homes where a bathroom was right next to the kitchen, where the original pantry would have been. Of course, during modernization, electric appliances were more common (i.e.: a refrigerator), so the use of a pantry became more obselete. 1910-ish was a transitional period between what we today call modern, and what that generation called modern.

Gotta' go!

Jeffrey Word

Former Member
On the chamber pot, what did they do with...whatever was in it?? Throw it out the porthole? lol Okay, maybe I shouldn't laugh since that may be the case. Surely not on Titanic though. Did they have a place the could take the..."contents" to, and dump them? Please tell me they didn't keep it in a closet! LOL. Really these bathroom threads are quite fascinating. And as a plus, they allow for a bit of humor!
Jeffrey-There is a closed compartment for the chamberpot, where it can be stored for the night. In a house of the period, a maid would empty the chamberpots into a slop jar which is a good deal taller than a chamberpot, and two-handled with a lid and handle on top. This would then be emptied in the cellar earth closet, inside toilet if you were lucky enough to have one, the barn privy or the outhouse. Aboard ship, I would well imagine steerage would empty their own in the communal toilets in the morning. I have rather a theory where Lizzie Borden hid HER hatchet! Yes, nothing like a little bathroom humor. Chamber pots frequently but not always had lids too
Here is an example of an Edwardian oak commode, the doors would have opened to reveal a perfectly -sized shelf on the right side to hold the pot. These commodes could be very ornate with marble tops, hand painting, all manner of decoration and fine wood.There was a huge craze for blonde oak in the first two decades of the 20th century, and many middle class families had a lot of it all over the house, much of it came from Michigan. The Victorians pretty well wiped out the black walnut forests. I would bet on a ship that there was a strong lock to keep the door firmly shut in case the ship rolled. One shudders to think of the consequences elsewise!

Jeffrey Word

Former Member
Shelly thank you very much for the information. I had no idea that chamberpots looked like that. Really the only chamberpot image I was familiar with was the White Star Line chamber pot. Don't know why it's so neat to learn this stuff, but it is. I guess because it was "every day life" on the Titanic. I like your toilet humor by the way. ;-)
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