Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about urinals

Why do men stand so far back?


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A few days ago, I asked my male friends – via Facebook, of course – some simple questions about a device we all use most of the time, but never discuss. I had several very important questions:

1. Why are they so low that as a result men piss on the floor?
2. Why do men stand so far back, so that they piss on the floor? (this query should really be re-classified under men, not urinals)
3. Why do some have black flies transferred onto their surface?
4. What happened to the fashion of putting ice in urinals in expensive hotels, and where did the idea come from?

I was surprised by the answers. And not only from men.

1. Why are they so low that as a result men piss on the floor?

No-one had a convincing reply to “too low” problem. Here’s one suggestion: “They're so low to accommodate well-endowed men.” This seems hardly plausible. Sixty odd years of observing men having a piss next to me has led me to believe that no-one finds this a problem.

I can only say that the height is (naturally!) laid down by regulation. Cornwall Council’s helpful chart indicates that for adults they should be 660 cms “from floor to lip”, 560 for secondary school students and 430 for infants. How they came up with these heights is not revealed.

2. Why do men stand too far back?

Again, no clear answer, but as one friend put it: “just silly behaviour.” And as anyone visiting a male loo will testify, it is.

3. Why do some urinals have black flies?

Here, I can report far more progress. A professor who lectures on design (a woman) helpfully informed me that this is a problem of identity. “The black fly is meant to be a bee. Latin for bee: apis. Meant to be a target for optimum use. Often cited as an example in lectures on user-centred design.” By hitting the bee, there is meant to be the least splash.

The inventor of the etched target has even been traced: it apparently came from Jos van Bedaf, manager of the cleaning department at Schiphol airport in the Netherlands. But he says it’s a fly, not a bee… so further confusion.

4. Why ice?

The pleasure of watching ice dissolving under the steady flow of urine now seems to be all but extinct. Not so, says a Kenyan friend. “If you like ice, come to hotels in Nairobi (and see us) where it is known for the ice to overflow.”

This question is taken up by a Capetonian (remember the Cape Town drought?) who observes that: “in the Local Government Association headquarters in Pretoria there is a sign over the urinals to remind users to flush. At my Virgin Active gym in Cape Town there is a sign encouraging patrons not to flush. Maybe the Pretoria sign is aimed at visitors from Cape Town?”

More questions

A female friend asked: “What DO you talk about in there, when we aren't listening?” A pertinent question, but baffling to men. The idea that we would talk while we pee? Unthinkable! This is a ritual conducted in strict silence.

Three final facts.

First, the most famous urinal is, of course, Marcel Duchamp’s. The Fountain, signed by Duchamp as ‘R. Mutt’ celebrated its centenary last year. In 2004, the BBC surveyed 500 experts in various fields of art, who said they regarded it as the “most influential" piece of art of all time.

Second, the urinal was first patented in the United States immediately following the Civil War, when Andrew Rankin introduced an upright flushing apparatus in 1866.

Third, female urinals do exist, although they are not common. But I will leave those for others to discuss...

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. His most recent book is a biography of Robert Mugabe with Sue Onslow.