What to call a toilet?

170px-Old_toilet_with_elevated_cistern_and_chainOne of the challenges in writing about the 1920s in first person is finding the correct vocabulary–no modern words that weren’t used at that time are allowed! For example, I can’t use the word “teenager” because it wasn’t in use until the 1940s, or the word “date” (as in “I went on a date”) because that word hadn’t come into use yet, or the word “Model T” to describe that popular car (I call it a Ford or a flivver, or if I’m being less brand-specific, a motorcar).

2938308_f520A problem I faced early on was what to call a bathroom, especially when the three-part bathroom (sink, toilet, and tub) was not in wide use during the Twenties. The three-part bathroom was rapidly becoming the norm, but it wasn’t yet. Showers were something only the wealthy had. And multiple bathrooms in a single house was highly unusual. In Jessie’s house–an old farmhouse in Hollywood converted to a rental for five young women–a toilet was added under the staircase and a bathing room with a tub was added at the end of the upstairs hall. In SILENT MURDERS, coming out in September, I describe a boarding house where the toilet is on one end of the hall and the tub on the other end. So what word to use? Was “toilet” commonly used then? No. 

According to Merritt Ierley in an article on the history of bathrooms in American Heritage magazine (May-June 1999), only about half of the homes in America had what we consider a normal bathroom, that is, a room with the sink, toilet, and tub & shower. Evidently the word “water closet” was widely used when referencing the toilet. So I’ve made sure to use that term in my series whenever it comes up, which isn’t often, but to me, it’s a critical detail that I want to get right. The other word I can use is “lavatory,” which could mean a room with washing facilities only (tub and sink) or a three-part bathroom. 

Published in: on March 15, 2014 at 8:16 am  Comments (8)  
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  1. I love (and often half-miss) getting 1920s language right (and the authenticity on your book). Gangster slang is especially tough – it’s so tempting to slip into 1940s noir.

    Etymology online puts “date” at 1925, but I sort of look on that as a watershed word for the changing courtship patterns of the decade, so I think it’s fair to sneak it in a little earlier 🙂

    One of my favorite 1920s words is “absolutely” – when I read books from that era (like Fitzgerald) it’s often emphasized, as if it was an awfully slangy thing to say. Nowadays it’s completely invisible.

    Thanks for another interesting post!

    • I will absolutely work in “absolutely” as I write! Thanks.

      • Interestingly, I was reading “A damsel in distress” (1919, PG Wodehouse) last night and he mentions that a newly built cottage on a country estate is notable for including a bathroom. He neglects, however, to mention what pieces the bathroom includes 🙂

  2. Intersting article. Isn’t era language such a tricky thing?

    I was taken aback by your remark that Model-T isn’t the way to call it. One of my characters do own a Model-T and I usually call it that or Tin-Lizzie. Well, I should say the narrator calls it that (it’s a third limited narration). I’ll check it out more closely, but do you have any suggestion?

    I was also told ‘bouncer’ is to avoid in favoure of ‘doorman’ (which is what I do) although the word ‘bouncer’ was already in use.

    • Someone in the Model T society told me about using the term “Model T”–evidently it didn’t come into use until the mid/late Twenties, so I avoid it, with difficulty! Same with the word “car” which I use sparingly as it wasn’t as common as automobile or motorcar (although it was used; I’ve seen it in novels of the period). When I read novels or advertisements of the early/mid Twenties, they usually use the word Ford along with what kind of Ford, like Ford Runabout or Ford Roadster. Cassells Dictionary of Slang dates bouncer to the mid-19th century. Brohaugh’s English Through the Ages and Webster’s 11th edition both date bouncer to 1865. I’d use it if you like.

  3. Thanks very much. This helps a lot 🙂

  4. My parents used the word “lavatory”. Father was was born in 1930 and mother in 1929. You never hear that anymore. I half remember reading that Raymond Chandler created his noir gangster slang, and those were powerful books/films–at least for me. Like “crack wise” maybe?
    I’ll have to see when “tin Lizzie” came about.

  5. I am not sure your information is correct. Namely, there are quite a few examples of 1920s toilet tissues, so the word toilet must have existed during that time, even if people didn’t use it to describe water closets.

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