Wherever you go, there they are: A short history of portable toilets
January 4, 2019 9:02 PM   Subscribe

Quick, what's boxy, blue, and smells like...poo? Let's go spelunking into the history and development of a rugged and aesthetically pleasing cabana construction, the humble portable toilet, aka honey bucket, porta-loo, Johnny-on-the-spot, Spiffy Biff, spivey, or Porta-Potty.

Many companies specializing in portable sanitation devices relate the history of the honey bucket along these lines: "Our story of portable restrooms starts during World War II. This was a time of amazing innovations in the United States including: computers, jet engines, nuclear power and, yes, portable restrooms. These first portable restrooms were invented to take care of ship crews that spent a long time without coming back to shore. They were constructed of wood and metal and were purely utilitarian."

But see that bluish-greenish box up in the upper left-hand corner at the top? The one that says "Another ANDY GUMP"? No, not THAT Andy Gump; this Andy Gump (scroll down to the second photo), who spent $300 in the 1940s to buy a septic business in California's San Fernando Valley. "As the valley’s orchards gave way to subdivisions during the boom years after World War II, Andy branched out," according to company lore. "A new ordinance required portable restrooms on construction sites. With the help of sons Barry and Bill, Andy fashioned scrap plywood into portable restrooms in the garage of their Mission Hills home. Wife Irma and daughter Cherilyn took orders and typed invoices."

The wood and metal constructions were convenient for users. Not so much for those who has to transport the structures, which were heavy and cumbersome. Enter: lightweight plastic cabanas! Again, a boon to those in need, but subject to shear forces ("a tendency to flex in windy conditions") and moving damage from forklift and chain. No, a new solution was needed*, and in the 1960s, George W. Harding, co-founder of Poly-John Enterprises Corp., was granted a patent (.pdf) for his coextruded polyethylene portable cabana. (* A competitor was Harvey Heather's Strongbox, which lost out to Harding's design; however, it is still remembered for its ruggedness and resistance to baseball bats.)

Honey bucket trivia:

* "President Obama’s inauguration had people worldwide come see the monumental event. So, there was an order of 7,000-porta potty’s ordered. This was the largest order placed for an event in our US history." (And yes, there was an app for that.) Brought to you by Don's Johns, used and name-banned at the 2017 presidential inauguration.

* Speaking of the presidential... luxury and portability!

* "The first toilet in a row is often the least used and, therefore, the cleanest."

* Why and how you should prevent vandalism to your portable toilets (graffiti as job site harassment).

* “Are these good enough for my mother to sit on the seat?" An owner-operator of a portable restroom company reflects on keeping summer music festivals clean.

* Finally, the business of portable potty humor, because "two-thirds of a pun is PU."
posted by MonkeyToes (38 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
There is also a movie! Kenny! - About a man named Kenny who has a business deploying and removing portable toilets - "Splashdown - Corporate Bathroom Rentals".
posted by awfurby at 9:31 PM on January 4 [7 favorites]




needs the "shitpost" tag
posted by Jon_Evil at 9:33 PM on January 4 [10 favorites]


I had to crowdfund some portolets for an event this summer, and boy was it fun having full license to do shitty toilet humor in a semi official cause.
posted by twoplussix at 9:57 PM on January 4 [4 favorites]


Wherever you go, there they are

I see what you did there
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:00 PM on January 4 [9 favorites]


A jobsite portapotty in full sun on a 105 degree day is a memorable experience.
posted by Dip Flash at 10:11 PM on January 4 [9 favorites]


The Meredith/Golden Plains music festivals (held at the same location, once a year each) use rows of composting toilets and they are far far superior to portaloos.
posted by awfurby at 11:06 PM on January 4 [3 favorites]


My favorite folk festival in Pennsylvania had 2 great portapotty innovations this year:
1. any attendee could pay an extra $55 along with their ticket price to sponsor a portopotty, which got a big cardboard sign on the door with the name, advertisement, or message of their choosing
2. big-ass scented candles in each portapotty, which both helped cover the smell and provided much needed light at night
posted by Jon_Evil at 11:18 PM on January 4 [5 favorites]


I guess there are portable toilets, and there are also temporary toilets: rectangular holes in the ground (maybe 6' x 18'') covered like a manhole, spaced maybe 2' apart. During events, you just erect barriers and take off the covers, and presumably, turn on the flushing mechanism down beneath. I remember seeing these in Beijing around the turn of the millennium; this requires that your population hasn't forgotten how to squat.

More locally, I admit to popping into people's porta potties that are on the sidewalk in front of their houses when they're doing construction! (yes this requires a lot of privilege)

Finally, did someone say shitposting time?
posted by batter_my_heart at 11:34 PM on January 4 [4 favorites]


A jobsite portapotty in full sun on a 105 degree day is a memorable experience.

Are you sure you don't mean a forgettable experience, given the undoubtedly cognizance-shattering assault to the senses such a circumstance would create?
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:35 PM on January 4 [2 favorites]


2. big-ass scented candles in each portapotty, which both helped cover the smell and provided much needed light at night

I read this as "big ass-scented" and thought "isn't that counter-productive?"
posted by freethefeet at 11:59 PM on January 4 [10 favorites]


i realize this is off topic but one time at a doctor's office there was a dog aromatherapist (!!?!) on a daytime chat show who was like "you should burn soothing candles when your dog is sleeping so they can enjoy the smell" and i said aloud, in public and in horror, "do the candles smell like ass?"
posted by poffin boffin at 12:10 AM on January 5 [14 favorites]


I dated a woman in high school, and her dad sold porta-potties. Her last name is/was Porter. You probably don't believe me, and that's OK, I wouldn't either.
posted by Brocktoon at 12:24 AM on January 5 [2 favorites]


Here in the UK, there is some outcry at the introduction of the 'turdis' for the comfort of caught-short bus drivers
posted by Myeral at 1:25 AM on January 5 [5 favorites]


Heh, nice title.
posted by praemunire at 3:04 AM on January 5


"Let's go spelunking"? How? This has nothing to do with caves.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:50 AM on January 5


A jobsite portapotty in full sun on a 105 degree day is a memorable experience.

I've never experienced that but I did use one when it was -22F.
posted by octothorpe at 5:09 AM on January 5 [1 favorite]


"Let's go spelunking"? How? This has nothing to do with caves.

May you and your small children continue never to drop things. *Shivers*
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:45 AM on January 5 [2 favorites]


Per Wikipedia: "Chemical toilets are a type of portable toilet and are also known by various tradenames."

Yeah, this is somewhat true in Sweden, as well. At least I always refer to portable toilets as Bajamajor. I've got such a soft spot for portable toilets (really!) as they are forever interlinked in my mind with music festivals. Just looking at a picture of one I become inebriated and start to hear muffled drums pounding in the distance. Good times! Great post!
posted by soundofsuburbia at 6:15 AM on January 5


One of my cousins owns a porta-potty business in Northern Maine. Last time I saw him in person, he was pumping shit out of one at the Common Ground Fair about 15 years ago. He used to give out cheap baseball caps with the slogan "Number One in the Number Two Business">
posted by briank at 6:15 AM on January 5 [7 favorites]


Oh you over pampered sanitized plastic youngins, you have not lived until prying open a rusty hinged door on a much too long established *triple seater* outhouse.
posted by sammyo at 6:18 AM on January 5


citizen, one has not truly lived unless one has used the communal poop sponge on a stick at the public latrines behind the temple of saturn in the forum
posted by poffin boffin at 6:38 AM on January 5 [26 favorites]


I think poffin boffin takes this one. :)
posted by aleph at 7:13 AM on January 5 [3 favorites]


Here in the UK, there is some outcry at the introduction of the 'turdis' for the comfort of caught-short bus drivers

I was imagining a more all-in-one approach that was built into the bus driver's seat.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:24 AM on January 5 [3 favorites]


Something relevant happened to me in 2004. From my blog at the time:
"So I was um, using the portajohn on the jobsite the other day (I install car washes). Johnny-on-the-spots are an interesting phenomenon, in that they're either surprisingly well maintained or so damned foul you need to have a completely non-functioning olfactory system to escape without wishing you could snort stale cigarettes to cleanse your palate. This particular rest-cubicle is pretty decent. Well, except when it tips over in the wind and left on the concrete is some blue stuff that will turn you off certain colors of Gatorade for a month or so. The graffiti is interesting (if only for the egregiously poor grammar and spelling), the door actually latches, and the seat is almost always piss-free.

"It's been hot in St. Louis of late, and even when the dewpoint is something less than my grandfather's age, it's a mite bit uncomfortable in there - by the time you've unzipped, you're sweating. I guess that blue juice really adds to the old expression, "It's not the heat, it's the humidity." At any rate, I'm dropping the kids off at the pool, and someone fires up a chainsaw. Right. Outside. The. Shitter. Door. Now, at the time, I didn't know he worked for Taco Bell; I just suddenly was absolutely DONE crapping. To say I was scared shitless is something of an understatement."
posted by notsnot at 7:40 AM on January 5 [1 favorite]


graffiti as job site harassment

Oh yeah, this is a thing. I've seen racist graffiti, aggressive replies to said racist graffiti, class-warfare stuff against the upper-crust customers whose houses are being worked on, etc. By far the most common seems to be shitty "Mexicans go home" stuff, nevermind that most of the Latinx construction workers in my area are Brazilian. This isn't stuff that's coming out of my own company (I know this because we are typically only on site for a day or two and never rent toilets even when we probably should, which is an issue in itself but anyway…) but either way I've been inside of enough construction site toilets to see some pretty ugly words on the walls.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 7:48 AM on January 5


Then there is the hole in the ground covered with creaky boards and an unattached plastic toilet seat, surrounded by tall banana plants for "privacy," but as temporary resident fruit harvester you are obligated to remove one banana plant at a time until your whole self is as exposed to passers-by as your ass is to the mosquitoes that feast on it every time you pee. Also if you get up to go in the night you kick at least six toads accidentally on your way to the banana-hole, while the remaining one million unkicked toads turn their glowing unblinking gazes of judgment on you.

Anyway Hawaii was weird and portapotties can be comparatively luxurious
posted by little cow make small moo at 8:01 AM on January 5 [10 favorites]


In a cathole, in a field, in the rain, covered in bees. Yes, I got stung on my ass. That was a bad week.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 8:14 AM on January 5 [5 favorites]


My favorite company name of a portajohn company: Willy Make It, and the logo is a guy running toward an outhouse
posted by slagheap at 8:25 AM on January 5 [6 favorites]


Oh you over pampered sanitized plastic youngins, you have not lived until prying open a rusty hinged door on a much too long established *triple seater* outhouse.

I mean, it beats a double-decker outhouse by a country mile.

A few years ago, there was a building going up across from my office, and I was able to look on as the porta-potty was hoisted and then later lowered from the uppermost floors.

It was kind of stressful to watch on windy days.

But probably not as stressful as it was for the guy whose job it was to direct the crane operator while standing directly below the full porta potty being lowered.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 9:29 AM on January 5 [2 favorites]


Just chiming into say I’m a proud native son of the Andy Gump homeland (Santa Clarita, CA). It was weird when I figured out that the actual Andy Gump lived in town, but that he had originated the concept.
posted by sideshow at 10:17 AM on January 5 [1 favorite]


When I was younger I worked remodeling bathrooms. The boss never brought in toilets, his attitude was "hold until lunch." The most important lesson I learned was NEVER open a sloshing drywall bucket. And don't leave them in folks closet's when the job is done.
posted by Marky at 1:20 PM on January 5 [2 favorites]


Worked on job sites run by contractors too cheap to pay for porta-potties and can confirm that you never open a five gallon bucket if you're not 100% sure of what's in it.
posted by octothorpe at 2:00 PM on January 5 [3 favorites]


Like, at least a thousand bees, crawling on my body, licking me, while I try to take a dump in a clearing in the middle of a rainforest, six thousand miles from my home. In the rain.

I lied about being stung on my ass, though.




I was stung on my scrotum.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:34 PM on January 5 [3 favorites]


The Meredith/Golden Plains music festivals (held at the same location, once a year each) use rows of composting toilets and they are far far superior to portaloos.
Certainly far superior to the terrifying toilet trucks that were in use at the Falls festival when I was working the markets there. The first year I was working, the trucks had cubicles and urinals for the blokes, which (inevitably, on a three-day New Year rock festival) broke down, jammed up, got blocked with vomit and beer cans, or any number of other disasters, which resulted in stale piss washing over the floors and down the precarious stairs. People gave up and started pissing on the wheels... washing away the mud holding the wheel chocks in place...

So the next year, they had trucks with cubicles only, and implemented a long, winding fence of corrugated sheet with a trough riveted to it. About 30 metres - it could accommodate about 40 men, if those men were sober. Which they weren't. And it only had one drainage outlet. And they set it up on a downhill slope, so everything flowed downhill to the one drainage outlet. Which clogged. We called it the Wall of Shame.

So you'd be standing in piss-stinking mud, trying to keep sane and dry, as the wall itself swayed from drunken bogans leaning on it, punching it, crashing in to the other side as they gave up on the queue and pissed on the exterior (at times you'd have someone else... uh... washing your shoes...)

Then the gale force wind hit...
posted by prismatic7 at 5:35 PM on January 5 [2 favorites]


I was stung on my scrotum.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 8:34 PM on January 5


Anti-eponysterical?
posted by McCoy Pauley at 10:19 AM on January 6


Anti-eponysterical?

You know, an injury like that just taint funny, Dix...
posted by MonkeyToes at 2:48 PM on January 6


octothorpe can confirm that you never open a five gallon bucket if you're not 100% sure of what's in it

That is why you treat your workers with a minimum level of empathy.

Have heard so many stories of California Cannabis grow/processing operations that treated their workers like shit - so they shit around the greenhouse.

Not out of vengence or anything, the work conditions and "metrics" were so shit that they had to shit inside the greenhouses to keep them up. This was 2015-ish and these were shysters from CA up in Canada to talk to us for god know what reason but they thought that this story was "FUNNY!" and that it'd make us more want to partner with them on something.

We've had a couple of contracting companies renovate our two storey log-wood farm cabin into an office. Plumbing was the first thing we got fixed. We have a porta potty outside for when no-ones in the "office" but we totally welcome the contractors to use the finished (and heated) facilities inside the cabin.

Which our former (American, failson of a Vegas realestate mogul) COO had/ would-have adamantly railed against for ... reasons. Fuck him, good riddance.
posted by porpoise at 11:20 PM on January 6


« Older “I'm so excited because I love mess!”   |   JOY had always been an idiosyncratic operation Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments