Pissoirs: The vintage public urinals of Paris, 1865-1875

Paris in the 19th century was as infamous for its pungent odor as it was for revolutionary riots. The streets were full of rubbish and horse dung, and anyone who was caught short in the open simply relieved themselves of where they stood.

To remedy this, the city's prefect Rambuteau ordered the construction of public urinals – phallic-looking structures with inbuilt plumbing that allow Paris' male population to urinate with relative dignity.

A simple cylindrical shape, made of masonry, open to the side of the road, and with an elaborately decorated cap on the other side, they were popularly known as 'colones rambuteau' ('Rambuteau column').

To protect his name from being associated with urinals, Rambuteau suggested the name 'Vespasianus', a reference to the first-century Roman emperor Titus Flavius ​​Vespasianus, who taxed urine collected from public toilets for use in tanning. It is the term by which street urinals were known in the French-speaking world, not 'pisoire', a French-sounding term used in other countries.

As you can see from some of the photos, this solution didn't provide an enormous amount of privacy, but since the male's torso area was covered, it protected other Parisians from accidentally seeing someone's private parts. Plus, once the urine started to hold it helped clear the streets of dirt caused by stale urine.

Later, cast iron urinals were introduced as part of Baron Haussmann's remodeling of the city. A large variety of designs were produced in the following decades, ranging from two to 8 stalls, typically only screening the central part of the user from public view, with the head and feet still visible. Screens were also added to the Rambuteau column.

Unfortunately, there were no public urination structures for the rest of the population: although the notion of building facilities for women was briefly considered, it was decided that they would take up too much space on public roads.

At the peak of their prevalence in the 1930s, there were 1,230 pisoires in Paris, but by 1966 their numbers had dwindled to 329. During World War II, members of the French Resistance used pisoirs to meet or leave for private conversation. Message to anyone without the Nazis being traced.

From 1980 they were systematically replaced by new technology, a unisex, enclosed, automatically self-cleaning unit called a sanitiser. As of 2006, only one historic pisoire remained on Boulevard Arago.

The photographs collected in this article were taken by Charles Marville, one of the most remarkable and talented photographers of the nineteenth century. He was chosen by the City of Paris to document the changing city, particularly the landmarks created by Baron Georges-Eugne Haussmann.

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