Historical essay
Who Gets a Bathroom Pass? The History of School Bathrooms

Who Gets a Bathroom Pass? The History of School Bathrooms

Gavin Grimm is a 17-year-old boy, who like millions of other school children, simply wants to be able to attend to basic bodily functions while at school. Last year, Gavin stood in front of his school district’s board of education and said, “I am just a human. I am just a boy. Please consider my rights when you make your decision.”1 In response, they created policy that required Gavin to use the bathroom that aligns with his “biological gender.” The Supreme Court was scheduled to rule on Gavin’s case and either decide that Gavin has the right to use the bathroom he is comfortable with or establish legal precedence that sex and gender are one and the same. Though the Supreme Court sent the case back to the appeals court, the issue is not going away anytime soon.

Students — at public, private, or religious schools — typically spend their day surrounded by gendered language that ranges from greetings like “good morning, boys and girls” (or “ladies and gentlemen,” for the older students) to team mascots modified with Lady or –ettes in order to indicate the body in the uniform belongs to a girl. It’s in bathrooms, though, where gender isn’t just part of the background roar; instead it’s highlighted with signs and symbols, coded color schemes, and even the type of toilets available to users. Few rooms hold as much complicated tension and stress, for some children and adults, as the school bathroom. Looking at the history of the school bathroom can help us better understand why the idea of separate bathrooms for girls and boys feels so sacrosanct to many.

When the Schoolhouse was Just the House (1700s to 1820s)

Most education in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries happened in someone’s house. Chamber pots and outhouses (also known as privies) were the norm; it wasn’t until formal schooling moved out of the home that there was consideration for where young people would relieve themselves when together in groups. Even then, children’s bodies were secondary to their brains. An 1844 survey of New York State schools noted that out of 9,300 schoolhouses, 6,400 of them had no sanitary facilities at all.2

A poor toilet, of the old style at Buzzard School in Pocahontas County, West Virginia. (Hines/Library of Congress | Public Domain)

As uncomfortable as that sounds, school in that era wasn’t an uninterrupted full day. Students would typically go home for lunch, or in towns with more children than could fit in the schoolhouse, attend for only half a day. In many communities, parents pooled funds to build a school, and as a result school buildings were often shoddily designed and constructed. The author of the New York report described the schoolhouses he visited as “miserable abodes of accumulated dirt and filth” where the children were “debarred the possibility of yielding to the ordinary calls of nature without violent inroads upon modesty and shame.”3

A Mann and His Mission

The author of the New York State report used dramatic language describing the terrible conditions in order to persuade the public that their tax dollars would be well spent in repairing dilapidated buildings or building modern schoolhouses. Meanwhile, his colleague in Massachusetts, Horace Mann, was determined to fulfill the dream of early public education advocates like Thomas Jefferson and advocated for the creation of a system of schools with shared features such as desks, bells, and organizational structures. Mann’s contemporary, Henry Barnard, went a step further in his 1849 book, School Architecture, and proposed that the objects in schools, such as desk, chairs, and holes in the privy seats, should be purposefully child-sized.4 It was a brazen idea, and it marked the start of an era in which schools were designed with smaller humans in mind.

It’s worth noting that the modern public bathroom with flushing toilets and running water for users to wash their hands didn’t appear until 1851, meaning that in the 1840s, when America was in the midst of the common school movement, the modern lavatory didn’t yet exist. It would take another twenty years for school architects to recommend such spaces within the school building itself, instead of relegated to out-buildings.5 However, architects and education leaders would debate the pros and cons of facilities inside or outside school building for decades.

School house interior, Bradenton FL (Matthew Paulson/Flickr Commons|CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Boys Over Here and Girls Over Here

Over the next seventy years, taxpayers’ commitment to education made its way into the design and appearance of schoolhouses. Schools evolved from also-ran spaces, stuck inside already existing buildings or out in the middle in a field, to edifices that served as a visual representation of a town’s responsibility to educate the children within its boundaries.6 School architectural guides from this period of expansion often referenced a general rule of gender separation. They suggested separate entrances, cloak rooms, playgrounds, staircases, and water or dirt closets.7

In their words, we can see that the differences between the genders wasn’t just a given, it was treated like a known fact akin to gravity and the rotation of the planet. Schools needed a boiler, desks, and separate entrances for boys and girls. Although it would be several years before Massachusetts passed the first laws requiring separate bathrooms for adult men and women, the mindset of “separate spheres” had long informed how children were treated in schools.

At the same time communities sought to build schools that would bear testimony to their love for education, school administrators at the turn of the twentieth century were caught up in the “efficiency” craze. Originally adopted by factory managers, adherents to the efficiency philosophy sought to wring every cent out of taxpayer dollars.8

For school bathrooms, this meant calculating exactly how many urinals needed to be built given a school’s population (“one urinal for every 15 boys”), the exact height of the door on an individual bathroom stall (“The doors should be at least 3 in. short at the bottom and at least 6 in. short at the top”), and the number of sinks (“five for a hundred boys, while … say one to every 15 girls”).9

Urinals in a school bathroom. (Dwayne/Flickr Commons | CC BY-NC 2.0)

Some of the guides even provided details on how to set up showers for hundreds of children at a time and orchestrated movement on staircases down to the minute. Once the look of the American school was established, the template and related building codes spread across the country, enshrining separate bathrooms into our collective thinking about what school is “supposed” to look like.

Separate and Unequal Bathroom Facilities

Not all of America’s children, though, were welcomed into these beautiful, carefully constructed monuments to formal learning. While White students in towns and smaller cities walked through massive Colonial Revival entrances and well-lit hallways, climbed grand staircases to upper floors, and had access to bathrooms on the school proper with running water, schools for Black children often had unlit outhouses and no running water.10 Native American children sent to boarding schools were expected to abandon their identity and adapt to Western cultural norms. Those norms, though, didn’t extend to privacy while attending to their needs. Students were often accompanied to ensure they didn’t run away when they used the privy.11

Immigrant children in larger cities had classes in cramped rooms with no consideration for their bodily functions. In some schools based in factories, they were expected to use the water closets designed for adults. Although Brown v. Board of Education put a stop to the idea of “separate but equal,” comparing bathrooms in some of today’s Detroit public schools to those in nearby Grosse Pointe speak to the enduring opportunity gaps that America’s students of color and those living in poverty face.

As our understanding of the human condition has deepened, so has our thinking about the space we inhabit, even school bathrooms. Horace Mann likely could not conceive of a white-tiled school bathroom with stalls large enough for a person using a wheelchair to maneuver. The NYS Commissioner who wrote about “miserable abodes” in 1844 would be baffled by his modern day successor’s policy on menstrual pads and tampon dispensers in schools. And while both men would be startled by all-gender restrooms, they’d probably be more confused by the sight of pregnant, married women wearing pants standing in front of a class of high school students. Many of our nation’s schools are preparing to celebrate their centennial and are, or soon will be, undertaking renovation and redesign projects. Here’s hoping today’s architects and school boards, regardless of how the Supreme Court rules, design for today’s students, and tomorrow’s, rather than replicating the architectural decisions of the past.


  1. Moriah Balingit, “Gavin Grimm Just Wanted to Use the Bathroom. He Didn’t Think the Nation Would Debate It,” Washington Post, August 30, 2016. Return to text.
  2. Elisabeth Donaghy Garrett, At Home: The American Family, 1750-1870 (HN Abrams, 1990). Return to text.
  3. Henry Barnard, School Architecture: Or, Contributions to the Improvement of School-houses in the United States. (HW Derby, 1854). Return to text.
  4. Ibid. Return to text.
  5. Samuel F. Eveleth, School-house Architecture (New York: G. E. Woodward and Co., 1870). Return to text.
  6. N. L. Engelhardt, “Trends in School Architecture and Design,” Review of Educational Research 12.2 (1942): 171-77. Return to text.
  7. Felix Clay, Modern School Building Elementary and Secondary: A Treatise on the Planning, Arrangement, and Fitting of Day and Boarding Schools (Batsford, 1902). Return to text.
  8. Raymond E. Callahan, Education and the Cult of Efficiency (University of Chicago Press, 1964). Return to text.
  9. Felix Clay, Modern School Buildings, Elementary and Secondary (Batsford, 1906). Return to text.
  10. Darlene Clark Hine, “The Briggs v. Elliott Legacy: Black Culture, Consciousness, and Community Before Brown, 1930-1954,” U. Ill. L. Rev. (2004): 1059. Return to text.
  11. Peter Iverson, “From Trout Creek to Gravy High: Boarding School Experience at Wind River,” Jackson Hole Historical Society & Museum. Return to text.

Jennifer is president and founder of Schoolmarm Advisors and provides editorial and developmental feedback to educational authors and publishers as well as support with understanding the historical context around modern education topics and issues.

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