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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