Finding a photo of a toilet on an 1880 was daunting. It must have been too delicate a subject during those Victorian times so we’ll have to settle for public outdoor toilets of that period.
I had a question the other day from a True West reader asking about toilets on trains during the 1880s. I grew up in a small railroad town in northern Arizona on the Santa Fe Mainline. Traveling by rail was still a major means of transportation in post-war America. The Blue Book value of our 1936 Ford went up and down depending on how much gas was in the tank so we always traveled by rail.
Traveling long distances by rail in the 1880s was still pretty new and amenities were few and far between. Toilets consisted of a small room with a single commode and an undersized sink. I can remember riding passenger trains in the 1940s and the rest rooms were still diminutive. Toilets are still Spartan-like in some Third World countries today. I’ve seen them with only a hole in the floor.
Many Passenger trains had “first class” and “second class” cars on the same train. By the 1880s the first class cars had ladies lavatories, two wash bowls and the rooms were much larger. There was also the gentlemen’s lavatory and the Immigrants lavatory. The immigrants only had swinging doors.
On the first class cars toilets were for washing and closets were for what we call toilets. To enter the lavatory you had to enter the toilet in order to get to the closet. There was no lock on the closet.
Toilet paper was sold in plain brown wrappers because the subject of wiping ones bottom was too delicate for public consumption. It wasn’t until the early 1900s before Scott could advertise what their product was to be used for.
Victorians were obsessed with protecting white women. Writers were squeamish about what we consider routine yet quite discriminating about class and race.
Early railroads didn’t travel many miles so they didn’t have lavatories. The ones that did would have used drop chutes which basically was a hole in the floor. The flushing toilet didn’t come into use until 1889. Some sources say even later. Believe it or not the drop chute is still used in some parts of the world today.
Queen Victoria was the first English Monarch to ride a passenger train and her lavatory was, of course quite lavish. Lavatories on trains depended on which train car you were riding in. It was like traveling by ocean liner. It went from steerage at the bottom of the liner to first class at the highest level. Today’s airlines first class and coach fly in the same plane but separated.
By the mid-1880s dining cars had become a normal part of long distance trains. The Pullman car made its debut in 1865.
There were different classes of trains. For example, during the 1940s on the Santa Fe, the flagship was the Super Chief, the top of the line first class passenger train. Lower income families or those traveling with passes always rode the on the second tier level trains such as the California Limited. This was somewhat comparable to steerage on a ship.
The California Limited was the primary “workhorse” passenger train for Santa Fe when it was introduced in 1892, and was the first Santa Fe train to offer full meal service. It was reduced to second-tier status when the Chief came along in 1928, followed eight years later by the Super Chief, “Train of the Stars” for all the celebrities who traveled on it.
Marshall Trimble is Arizona’s official historian and the Wild West History Association’s vice president. His latest book is 2018’s Arizona Oddities: A Land of Anomalies and Tamales. Send your question, with your city/state of residence, to marshall.trimble@