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History of French Pissoirs

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The French have invented many things: taxis, the hot air balloon, internal combustion engine, inflatable tyres, sewing machine, bikini (arguable), cafetière, Braille, camera phone, hairdryer, parachute and that great public utility – the urinoir, or, to give it its more familiar and descriptive name, the pissoir. Although, to be fair, the French simply embraced Roman enterprise.

Standing Room Only

Throughout their long history, French of all ranks and station, have urinated in the streets, a predisposition untrammelled by feelings of embarrassment not even when the target of their emissions was a palace wall or the statue of a king.

Unlikely as it may seem, in 1809 Napoleon was heading for Spain with his wife Josephine, when she experienced ‘un besoin très pressant’ (a pressing need), just as they were passing a vineyard called Congaillard.

Ever since, a Gironde wine bears the name La Pissotière de l’Impératrice (The urinal of the Empress) , produced by Les Vignobles Soum in Marsas. I can’t say I’ve ever seen it on the wine list of any restaurants I’ve visited, but, if it was there, you’d order it, just for the hell of it, surely?

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Meanwhile, back in Paris, and tired of the sight–and by-product– of so much furtive, and potentially disrespectful, public urination, voluntary or otherwise, the government of the city decided in the early summer of 1830 to install public urinals on the principal boulevards. Just in time, as it happens, for them to be converted to use as street barricades during the Revolution of that year. But the urinals survived to fight another day, and it was only a matter of time before the spin doctors of Louis Philippe, the ‘July monarch’, saw pissoirs as just so much free advertising space.

To be honest, that last bit isn’t completely true, I lied.

But the monarchy of Louis Philippe began with revolution, ended with revolution and feared revolution every day of its existence. So the role of the humble pissoir took on an exaggerated magnitude, and only later came to be used to advertise quick cures for rampant syphilis, and extol the virtues of Galeries Lafayette.

vespasiennes

Visually something of an improvement, the new vespasiennes nevertheless continued to ‘…place the bodily function they serviced in plain conceptual view, the narrow bands of metal… barely obscuring the physical act itself.’ Nor was it long before a campaign was launched to provide urinals for women, although there is no extant indication of how these might function. At their urological peak, there were as many as 1,230 pissoirs in Paris, but by 2006, only one remained, on Boulevard Arago, a monument to a Paris d’autrefois and a something of cause célèbre. You will still find pissoirs in more remote towns and villages, vital destinations for those of advancing years who, needs must, never knowingly pass one.

C’est la vie…

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Dr Terry Marsh has written extensively for magazines and produced guidebooks for walkers to the French Pyrenees and the French Alps. He blogs at Love French Food