A history of women and public toilets+baths in Spain

Unlike the United States and the United Kingdom, the history of women’s toilets and public bathrooms in Spain is not very well documented.  That is a rather depressing given the debate, or lack of debate even, around converting single-sex toilets in Spain to dual-sexed toilets.  This post is a first take on my part with trying to write about this history of women’s public toilets in Spain.  It is relevant in lesbian historical context in that single-sex spaces, including changing rooms and baths, have been historically very important as places lesbians could be out of the closet and free of male sexual violence.  This was written in an afternoon so it is not hugely comprehensive.  I am not sure it will make its way into my history of lesbians by comunidad yet, but is a theme I will keep more in mind as I write about Spanish lesbian history.

Toilets

Like public baths, public and private latrines began disappearing in the 15th and 16th centuries.  They were replaced with the habit of peeing and pooping into pots, and then emptying these pots into rivers, streams and, in bigger cities, public roads.[1] [2]  Until 1483 in Madrid, feces was eaten by pigs that roamed the city.  That year, the law was changed to allow people to kill pigs wandering the streets of Madrid.  Beyond pigs, some fecal matter was taken out of the city and used as a natural fertilizer.[3]

During the Renaissance period, the concept of shame began to develop around using the bathroom, especially because it made it difficult to maintain your decorum in public spaces.  As a result, the concept of privacy while urinating and defecating began. [4]

One of the earliest known occurrences of sex separated public toilets was in Paris in 1739, which had a toilet for men and a toilet for women.  The toilet set up was created for a party held in the building.[5]

Figure 1. La Revista Española, 22 February 1836, no. 359, page 3

The first public bathrooms in Madrid were opened in 1836 at Puerta del Sol, across from what is now La Mallorquina. One of the primary purposes in opening the toilets was to improve the health for people in the city, reduce the volume of human excrement on the streets and improve the smell in the area. Built on top of an existing sewer, there were six stalls for men and two or three stalls for women. The toilets were modeled after the ones already in use in Paris and also included a reading room with a selection of newspapers including El Diario, Gaceta, Eco de Domercio, Revista Mansagero, El Español and Abefa. It cost four cuartos to use. While there were only two or three women’s toilets, they were wider and more polished than the men’s toilets. The opening of the public toilet, attached to the Casino, was mentioned in La Revista Española on 22 February 1836. See Figure 1.  The opening was also mentioned in Diario de Avisos de Madrid, El Eco de Comercio, Diario de Madrid and El Español. [6] After reforms to Puerta del Sol in 1855, the public toilets were demolished but others were already in existence between calles Preciados and Calle Carmen, and on the corner of calle Carretas.[7]  The public toilets that replaced the demolished Puerta del Sol one were men’s only urinals; there were no places for women to urinate.[8]

Public urinals for men to pee while standing began to appear in the mid-1800s in cities like Madrid, Bilbao, Toledo and Barcelona. [9]

M. Josef Cardailhac put forth a proposal in 1844 to install a new mechanical public urinal in Barcelona, with the idea of modeling other cities like London and Paris where such facilities could make the streets cleaner, defray the costs of cleaning the streets and the public toilets by charging a small fee, allow people to take care of important bodily needs and improve public health.  The Comisión Permanente de Salubridad Pública said on 25 February 1850 that “the usefulness and almost imperative need to establish public piss-pools in this Capital, whether viewed under the idea of ​​public comfort, or under that of the morality and decorum that the state of culture of a population demands” their creation. The final design for one of the early public toilets that was located at Pla de Palau in 1857 was a standing urinal that was only for men.[10]

By the 1860s, toilets with sewage drainage began appearing in private residences in Spain and installation of these toilets appeared in newspapers of the day. [11]

Figure 2. Access entrance to the women’s toilets on Calle de la Rúa in Salamanca in 1924. Image by Antonio Passaporte para Loty.

Figure 2. Access entrance to the women’s toilets on Calle de la Rúa in Salamanca in 1924. Image by Antonio Passaporte para Loty.

The first public urinals were installed in Salamanca in 1871.  The designers did not consider that women may need to use the toilet while out and about.  The urinals were four hexagonal brick columns, with one located at each corner of Plaza Mayor.  The first public toilets in Salamanca designed for use for women were inaugurated on 23 May 1924 and were located on Calle de la Rúa near what is now the monument to Maestro Salinas.  There were also men’s public toilets in the area.  Other public toilets that had specific facilities for men and women opened in 1931 at Puerta de Zamora.[12]

Underground public bathrooms for men and women opened in Barcelona at Plaza Urquinaona in 1920.  The bathroom facilities were free to homeless people, and included a hairdresser and telephone switchboard and telephone booths.  By the late 1940s, the clientele for the bathrooms had changed, with more and more gay men using them.[13]  They were finally demolished in March 2012.[14]

Public bathrooms were installed in Plaza de España in Cartagena after residents in the barrio de Dolores asked the city council in August 1925 to make improvements to the areas. Municipal architect Lorenzo Ros Costa drafted a project for a public bethoom with the front door facing Casa de Niño, with the goal of making the toilets isolated and surrounded by gardens so that the gaze of those from the outside could not extend inwards.  It included a women’s toilet and a men’s toilet, and they soon became known as Villa Pipí.  The toilets were one of several that the city council and Mayor Alfonso Torres support the creation of during the 1920s.[15]

The first colored sanitary porcelain toilet bowl arrived in Spain between 1930 and 1940.  Newer and more sanitary taps for water delivery also arrived at this time.  Generally though, toilets in this period and for a long period after this were white and septic, intended only for their stated clinical purpose of using the toilet and washing. [16]

Public toilets in Spain in the late 1900s and early 2000s often used a mix of sometimes difficult symbols to designate men’s toilets and women’s toilets.  Examples include the symbol of Venus for women and Mars for men, a grape leaf for women and a laurel for men, an apple for men and a pear for women. This was in addition to the more traditional symbol of a figure wearing a skirt for women and pants for men.[17]

The city government in Madrid began removing public toilets and not replacing them around 1988.[18]

Women asked the San Sebastián city council in 2008 to install public toilets along the bridge between Sebastián and Llaranes as the walk is three kilometers and they do not feel at ease urinating in public like men frequently do.[19]

There were only around 40 remaining public toilets on the streets of Madrid in 2010.[20]

By 2013, there were almost no public toilets in Retiro, and visitors to the city of Madrid complained about the lack of places to use the bathroom. For many men, there was an easy solution to the lack of public urinals and that was peeing on the street. These men were assisted by the fact that there were few consequences like fines for doing so.[21]

The city government of Madrid trialed several public urinals in the city center in 2017, citing a citizen mandate for more public bathrooms and water fountains as part of their participatory government efforts. Some of the locations where the trials were conducted included around the Museo Reina Sofia, around Conde Duque and in the area of parque de La Cornisa. The trial was immediately criticized, with people saying these public urinals excluded women from using them, along with excluding children and those with disabilities.  The city government responded by saying that while most of the urinary stations were standing urinals for men, there was a second model that women could try.  They were also criticized for not being self-cleaning and being dirty.[22]

The fact that there were more museums than public toilets in Málaga in 2018 created problems for a number of groups, and their ability to leave their homes.  This included pregnant women, people with disabilities and older people.[23]

By 2019 in Salamanca there were only five self-cleaning automatic and disability accessible public toilets.  They were privately managed and cost €0,20 to use with a maximum use time of 10 minutes. [24]

Violence against women

A concert took place Plaza de la Estació in Ascó in Catalonia in 2013.  Concert organizers had installed six temporary gender-neutral chemical toilets, eight urinal stalls and one disability toilet on a slope in the plaza.  They became very dirty very quickly and people refused to use them.  As a result, many people went under a fence and walked to the nearby train tracks, which then they used like a huge open public toilet. A group of girls went together to a second track where they thought they would have more privacy to pee, but one 16-year-old girl was attacked by a group of men and died instantly.  Her two friends managed to escape.[25]

A 35-year-old woman claimed she was raped by two men in the women’s toilets at the bus station in Jaén in February 2014.[26]

An 18-year-old woman was gang raped in a men’s bathroom at the Indiana de València nightclub in Valencia in 2019, after first being harassed in front of the men’s room on her way to the women’s toilets.  Despite the woman screaming for help while being raped by four men including a 22-year-old and 25-year-old man, none of the other patrons or staff at the club intervened with staff claiming they did not see or hear anything.[27]

A woman was raped in a bathroom at a nightclub in Granada in 2018.  They only stopped raping the woman when her friend entered the bathroom and discovered the 24 and 26 year old men penetrating the woman.  The men were charge but only accused of abuse against the woman because of the lack of violence.[28]

A man was arrested in Mairena del Aljarafe, Sevilla in May 2022 by the Guardia Civil for recording women in the bathroom of a medical clinic in the building where he worked.  The man snuck into the women’s bathrooms, and then recorded women in one stall while he was hidden in the next.[29]

A 17-year-old girl in 2021 alleged she was raped a nightclub located on Calle de Arlabán, 7 in Madrid by two men who followed her into the public bathrooms. After returning to the hotel where she was saying, she contacted Summa 112 who then took her to Hospital Ramón y Cajal for examination and to get support.  She subsequently gave a statement to the police.  The management of the nightclub said they doubt the event occurred and that it was probably not real.[30]

Bathroom inclusion

The public toilets at Parque de Las Palomas in Huelva were changed to be inclusive of all sexed in 2016.[31]

The mayor of Zaragoza, Pedro Santisteve, said in 2017 that they needed to consider initiatives like changing bathroom signs with the aim of “breaking the sexual binarism” of public toilets in municipal buildings.  The Zaragoza Councilor for Equality, Arantza Gracia said it was sexist to assume a gender binary for toilet usage, because not everyone identifies as one or the other.[32]

The Madrid city government in Madrid installed unisex and disability toilets in 2018 to be accommodating to people with physical disabilities. [33]

The local government in Castellón in 2021 expanded their network of public toilets to include more mixed sex toilets and toilets adapted for people with physical disabilities. [34]

In April 2022, the municipal government of Girona announced that bathrooms in municipal buildings would not be sex segregated in an attempt to be more inclusive of the LGTBI community.  The pictograms in some public toilets were soon changed.  One of the first places to get the new all sex toilet signs was La Piscina Municipal de Santa Eugenia – Can Gibert del Pla, a public swimming pool.  The efforts of making all bathrooms to be inclusive of both sexes was part of an effort by the town hall to eliminate all sex-segregated spaces in the city so they could be fully inclusive to the LGTBI community. [35]

GBT and public bathrooms

There was a gay neighborhood in Barcelona during the Franco period that not only attracted gay men but also transsexuals.  One of their favorite places to have sex as a public bathroom.  A bomb was placed in the bathroom. Las Carolinas, a group founded in Barcelona to fight homophobia in 1933 and continued covertly during the Franco period, refused to remain silent in wake of the bombing. The following morning, male transvestite including Wu Li Chang walked to the port at 8am starting at Paralelo, turned onto Calle San Pablo and went down La Rambla in protest of the violence and the lack of public spaces for homosexuals. When they got to the local of the bombing if the public toilets, the men in their best dresses placed flowers under the eyes of the police.[36]

Bathing

During the Roman period in Spain, public baths often had three types of baths, a cold bath, a warm bath and a hot or steam bath, like the one located in Alcala de Hernanes.[37] 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is figure-3.png

Figure 3. The detail of the letter B with which the manuscript  “Omne Bonum”, c. 1360-1375 showing a woman bathing a man.

In the Moorish period, there were around 700 public baths scattered around the province of Córdoba. Arab baths were also located in the provinces of Jaén and Málaga, and the regions of Valencia, Catalonia, Madrid and the Balearic Islands. [38] These baths were used by both men and women, but were sex segregated with men and women having different hours where they could use them.  The general setup inside was similar to that of Roman baths with a cold bath, warm bath and hot bath. [39]

During the Middle Ages, men and women would frequently bath together in public baths.  According to the 16th century friar Luis de Escobar in Las respuestas quinquagenas, mortal sin took place in these places.[40]

With Rey Alfonso VI prohibiting the creation of new public baths in the area of Madrid in the 11th century, people turned to the Río Manzanares as a place to bath.  Consequently, some of these bathing places along the river were host to racy parties.  The best places to bath along the Manzanares were reserved by the royal family and the aristocracy.[41]

Christian baths opened in Madrid starting in the 1620s, with one of the first appearing in 1628 on Calle Jardines, allowed to be constructed by the king because water was viewed as being necessary for health all year long.  People who used it had to have a medical prescription to do so, and men and women were strictly segregated at the baths. [42]

Public baths began a process of closing in the 15th century, with almost all being closed by the 17th century and only a handful remaining by the start of the 20th century.  The exact reasons are unknown but modern scholars have a few theories.  One was that during the 15th century, where was moral alarm arising from the sexual promiscuity, including prostitution, taking place in public baths.  One method the authorities appeared to use to try to combat that in some cities was to separate men from women, or to have certain days for men, women and maybe a separate day for prostitutes. [43]  The remaining public baths mostly being in monasteries, palaces and in less desirable neighborhoods that lacked social cohesion and social standing. [44]

Daily bathing did not begin in Spain until the early 20th century, and the frequency of it depended on the region, if a person lived in a rural or urban area, their age, their sex and their general overall health. [45]

Baños Orientales, originally located on the beach along Passeig Marítim de la Barceloneta, were an important part of lesbian social life in the city during the Franco period. The neo-Arab style baths first opened in 1872 and were almost exclusively women only from their inception. The all-women space, free to women of all classes of Barcelona society, allowed women to experiment and be free in ways they could not be elsewhere in society. In the 1950s, women started wearing bikinis at the baths, one of the first places in the country where they were worn; the relaxed norms for women allowed it. They also allowed women to swim naked if they desired, and women were actively doing so during the 1970s. The baths closed in 1988 and were demolished two years later.

Baños de Apolo, Diana and la Estrella were some of a few public baths that existed along Málaga’s beach front in the 1910s.  These were strictly sex segregated and took place in doors with large divided to prevent “lewd eyes”.  The Baños del Carmen opened in 1918, and were revolutionary for their time because while they were still strictly sex segregated, there was a family area where wives could be accompanied by their husbands and family.  This provided hugely popular with the locals, especially with other facilities like a restaurant attached to the baths.  They began expanding within a year, and in 1933 the women’s shower area was greatly expanded.  On 15 July 1957, the Civil Governor banned women from wearing a two-piece bathing suit, the newly popularized bikini.  The Civil Governor required women bath, and use the beach and spa wearing a garment that hid their back and chest and had a skirt.[46]

Sauna by María Jaén in 1988 was an important piece of lesbian literary fiction, depicting a public bathhouse as a place where women could find physical and emotional encounters during the previous historical period. It was originally published by Seix Barral in Barcelona.

By 2018, only two public bathhouses remained in Madrid.  One was located on Calle Bravo Murillo, and had 20 shower cabins for men and 13 for women.  The other was Casa de Baños de Embajadores, with 32 shower cabins for men and 10 for women.  They cost around €0,50 for a shower of 20 minutes with users prohibited from taking two showers in a row, from washing their clothes while showering and that only one person could be in a cabin at a time.  Children needed to be accompanied by an adult. [47]

References

Amores Perez, R. (2017, August 20). Año 1836, Durante la regencia de la Reina. Retrieved from Duques de Riánsares: https://duquederiansares-blogspot-com.translate.goog/2017/08/1836-durante-la-regencia-de-la-reina.html

Aquae ODS. (2021, March 2). Conoce seis baños árabes públicos de España. Retrieved from Aquae ODS: https://www.fundacionaquae.org/wiki/conoce-seis-banos-arabes-publicos-de-espana/

Arteguias. (2020, January). Baños de Al-Andalus. Retrieved from Arteguias: https://www.arteguias.com/banosalandalus.htm

Baños Árabes Córdoba. (2021, March 16). La historia de los baños árabes de Córdoba. Retrieved from Baños Árabes Córdoba: https://bañoesarabesdecordoba.com/la-historia-de-los-banos-arabes-de-cordoba/

Bofill, M. (2022, April 26). El origen de la separación de los aseos por sexo. Retrieved from Cinconoticias: https://www.cinconoticias.com/origen-separacion-aseos-por-sexo/

Cols, C. (2012, April 10). El último riñón. Retrieved from El Periodico: https://www.elperiodico.com/es/barcelona/20120410/ultimo-rinon-1641661

Consuelo. (2016, March 3). Indumentaria y costumbres en la España. Retrieved from Indumentaria y vida cotidiana en España – Opus Incertum: http://opusincertumhispanicus.blogspot.com/2016/03/la-higiene-desde-la-edad-media-hasta-el.html

de la Cruz, L. (2017, September 3). Arqueología del urinario público: aquellos WC subterráneos de película en Carlos Cambronero. Retrieved from elDiario.es: https://www.eldiario.es/madrid/somos/malasana/arqueologia-del-urinario-publico-aquellos-wc-subterraneos-de-pelicula-en-carlos-cambronero_1_6433785.html

Diario Jaén. (2014, March 8). Una mujer denuncia una violación en el aseo de la Estación de Autobuses. Retrieved from Diario Jaén: https://www.diariojaen.es/historico/una-mujer-denuncia-una-violacion-en-el-aseo-de-la-estacion-de-autobuses-LWDJ64850

EFE. (2022, May 22). Arrestan a un hombre por grabar a mujeres en los aseos públicos de una clínica médica en Sevilla. Retrieved from El Periódico de España: https://www.epe.es/es/sucesos/20220522/detienen-hombre-grabar-mujeres-aseos-13691608

finanzas.com. (2017, October 24). Zaragoza, contra el «sistema binario de género» en los aseos públicos . Retrieved from finanzas.com: https://www.finanzas.com/hemeroteca/zaragoza-contra-el-sistema-binario-de-genero-en-los-aseos-publicos_13709805_102.html

García de Durango, Á. (2018, September 20). Historias de Madrid (VIII): Las casas de baños. Retrieved from iAgua: https://www.iagua.es/blogs/agueda-garcia-durango/historias-madrid-viii-casas-banos

Gómez Melenchón, I. (2020, August 8). Edad Media: una época solo medianamente apestosa. Retrieved from La Vanguardia: https://www.lavanguardia.com/historiayvida/edad-media/20200808/27110/xxxxx.html#foto-3

H., M. (2022, April 6). Girona empieza a extender aseos públicos conjuntos e inclusivos sin diferencias por sexo. Retrieved from Diario de Sevilla: https://www.diariodesevilla.es/sociedad/girona-une-aseos-hombres-mujeres-inclusivos_0_1672034652.html

Hernández Pérez, J. M. (2013, March 1). Los Urinarios Públicos de Salamanca. Retrieved from Salamanca en el ayer: https://www.salamancaenelayer.com/2019/04/los-urinarios-publicos-de-salamanca.html

López Trujillo, N. (2022, April 29). Colas más largas y poco inclusivos: así afecta la segregación por género a la calidad de los baños públicos. Retrieved from Newtral: https://www.newtral.es/banos-sin-genero-aseos-publicos-unisex-inclusivos/20220429/

Mazeau, G. (2016, December 23). el baño diario, una conquista de la ilustración. Retrieved from National Geographic: https://historia.nationalgeographic.com.es/a/bano-diario-conquista-ilustracion_9522

Pérez-Bryan, A. (2018, May 30). Cuando la revolución llegó a las playas de Málaga. Retrieved from Diario Sur: https://www.diariosur.es/malaga-capital/revolucion-llego-playas-20180529203208-nt.html?ref=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.diariosur.es%2Fmalaga-capital%2Frevolucion-llego-playas-20180529203208-nt.html

Recio, Á. (2018, January 14). Más museos que ASEOS. Retrieved from Málaga Hoy: https://www.malagahoy.es/malaga/museos-span-styletext-transformuppercaseASEOSspan_0_1209179407.html

Soriano Rull, A., & Barca Salom, F. X. (2018). Historia reciente del cuarto de baño. Barcelona: Marcombo Ediciones Técnicas.

Taboada, L. (2013, April 15). El drama de los baños públicos. Retrieved from GQ: https://www.revistagq.com/noticias/articulos/el-drama-de-los-banos-publicos/18026

Xavier Theros. (2010, August 30). Mingitorios bajo tierra. Retrieved from El País: https://elpais.com/diario/2010/08/30/catalunya/1283130446_850215.html


[1] (Soriano Rull & Barca Salom, 2018)

[2] If you’re in Madrid, a visit to the Museo de Los Caños del Peral at Metro Opera is worth a visit.  The guided tour discusses plumbing and this habit of throwing toilet refuse into the street.

[3] (Amores Perez, 2017)

[4] (Amores Perez, 2017)

[5] (Bofill, 2022)

[6] (de la Cruz, 2017; Amores Perez, 2017)

[7] (de la Cruz, 2017; Amores Perez, 2017)

[8] (Amores Perez, 2017)

[9] (Amores Perez, 2017)

[10] (Guàrdia, 2011)

[11] (Amores Perez, 2017)

[12] (Hernández Pérez, 2013)

[13] (Xavier Theros, 2010)ÇÇ

[14] (Cols, 2012)

[15] (Ferrandez Garcia, 2021)

[16] (Soriano Rull & Barca Salom, 2018)

[17] (Taboada, 2013)

[18] (Osorio García, 2013)

[19] (La Nueva España, 2008)

[20] (GME, 2012)

[21] (Osorio García, 2013)

[22] (Cabañero Aina, 2017; Pérez & Blanco, 2017)

[23] (Recio, 2018)

[24] (Hernández Pérez, 2013)

[25] (Berbís Asco, 2013)

[26] (Diario Jaén, 2014)

[27] (Domínguez & Cabanes, 2019)

[28] (Gil, 2018)

[29] (EFE, 2022)

[30] (Europa Press, 2021)

[31] (López Trujillo, 2022)

[32] (finanzas.com, 2017)

[33] (López Trujillo, 2022)

[34] (López Trujillo, 2022)

[35] (López Trujillo, 2022; H., 2022)

[36] (Garrido, 2018)

[37] (Soriano Rull & Barca Salom, 2018; Mazeau, 2016)

[38] (Baños Árabes Córdoba, 2021; Aquae ODS, 2021; García de Durango, 2018)

[39] (Baños Árabes Córdoba, 2021; Arteguias, 2020)

[40] (Gómez Melenchón, 2020)

[41] (García de Durango, 2018)

[42] (García de Durango, 2018)

[43] (Consuelo, 2016)

[44] (Soriano Rull & Barca Salom, 2018)

[45] (Consuelo, 2016)

[46] (Pérez-Bryan, 2018)

[47] (García de Durango, 2018)

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