When did we stop wearing toilets on our heads?

Simeon Solomon / The Toilet Of A Roman Lady. 1869
Public Domain The Toilet Of A Roman Lady/ Simeon Solomon 1869

How did a piece of fabric become a porcelain bowl?

TreeHugger Katherine recently asked, Could you live with fewer toiletries? She goes on to list them as “soaps, creams, and makeup” but I wondered about the word “toiletries”, which sounded archaic to me. Most of us now think of a toilet as a porcelain object, so where did toiletries come from -- or, for that matter, when did the toilet become a toilet? It’s something we didn’t cover in our history of the bathroom series.

It all evolved from the French word for cloth, toile; a small piece of cloth is a toilette. According to Merriam Webster, the 16th century English speakers spelled it toilet and meant a piece of cloth that you put over your shoulders while doing your hair or shaving, to protect your clothing.

Berthe Morisot, Woman at Her Toilette, 1875/80, Art Institute of ChicagoBerthe Morisot, Woman at Her Toilette, 1875/80, Art Institute of Chicago/Public Domain

Next, a more abstract meaning developed, as the word was applied to the whole process of washing, grooming, and dressing, especially at the beginning of the day or for a special occasion. This use of the word is often found in the constructions "at one's toilet" or "to make one's toilet."

According to the Oxford dictionaries, from whom I kind of stole the title of this post (they title theirs When did we stop wearing toilets and start using them?), it could be found protecting peoples heads as well; they quote a 1714 travel writer describing Italian women:

The ordinary citizens Wives and Daughters wear a kind of Toilet on their Heads, with a long Fringe which covers their Faces, and drives away the Flies like Horse-trappings.

Oxford goes on to explain that, in the nineteenth century, new buildings had what were called toilet rooms.

These were overtly places where you washed, but of course, though no one (except people like architects, builders, and janitors) went into the details, they included facilities for emptying the bladder and bowels. There’s no doubt of this when we read (Laws of Wisconsin, 1895): “To have at least four seat closets placed in the toilet room adjoining the assembly and at least two in the toilet room adjoining the senate.”

So they had commodes in the toilet room for the use of Wisconsin senators. But in none of the articles that I have read can I find when and why the word for the room became attached to the fixture. The Oxford people even note that they have been struggling with this for years. "The process of researching the subject has revealed a remarkable degree of reticence on the part of previous OED editors to go into detail about what exactly the room and the appliance within it are used for.“

When I was a child I giggled at my grandmother’s “toilet water” and in fact that term is still used in Britain. But generally, since the Second World War, people have associated the word toilet with the fixture to such a degree that you rarely hear the other ways it was used. It’s no longer a piece of cloth, or a thing that you do, but a porcelain thing.

Perhaps that’s why “toiletries” sounded so odd to my ears; they are things that people used when doing their toilet, and they don’t do that anymore.

Tags: Bathrooms | Toilets | Wayback Machine

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