Toilets: Social and Cultural History for Kids

To make the point that even middle-class kids didn’t get toys in WWII Britain, thanks to factories and employees focused on the war effort, I show how a chamberpot doubled as a helmet. I have no shame. Truly.
In my Could You Be A World War II Kid? presentation for schools, I slyly use the Blitz to introduce a subject close to the hearts of kids: Toilets. History, I point out, is not just about dates and presidents and battles. Historians study EVERYTHING. I ask them to hypothesize about what they would do if they were time-travelers, living through a World War II London air raid at two in the morning, and realizing that they needed to pee. Inevitably, one kid says (s)he would pee in a corner, while another says (s)he would pee on her/himself: I suggest (to much laughter) that they would have an air raid shelter to themselves, since nobody else would want to be with them.

Finally, I hold up a chamberpot, and explain why it would have been used in 1940 even if households had flushing toilets. Kids are impressed and grossed. And then we talk about why that is, and how that attitude to chamberpots is a reflection of historical change. I recall my one Scottish great-granny, who resisted having a toilet installed into the 1970s, because she thought them dirty things that belonged outdoors. And then there is my other Scottish great-granny, who handed me (aged 7, and appalled) a chamberpot because she didn’t like people coming downstairs and flushing in the night, since it woke her. Born in 1899 and raised in a two-room toiletless tenement flat, “Babs” was oblivious to the horror of a kid raised in a four-bed, two-loo post-war council house. 

There’s an interesting modern parallel to my great-grannies’ attitudes toward toilets, and that is the Indian families who choose smartphones over flushing loos. I explain to the kids that behind every Indian family who makes such a puzzling decision, is a granny who refuses to have such a revolting thing as a toilet in her home.

It’s a great set of stories: they explain how culture changes over time and place, and why people have reasons for being different from the children in my audience. People who have never seen my shows or read my books sometimes find it hard to understand how I teach historical thinking without resorting to jargon or tedious textbook stuff, but this is a great illustration of what I do: I connect the past to kids’ lives through carefully-chosen story and characters. Kids get it.

And let’s face it, so do adults. Those of you who are fans of my Snipesville Chronicles series will recall that I don’t shy away from bringing my middle-school time travelers face to face with the horrors of past toileting. From Hannah’s disbelief on encountering austere, crunchy, shiny World War II toilet paper (it was a luxury compared to newspaper . . .) in Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When to her very different response in the last book, One Way or Another. In 1905, as a seasoned time traveler and experienced Edwardian maid, she basically shrugs off having to empty other people’s chamberpots. Her experiences also illustrate how profound cultural difference and acculturation can be. Not that I use words like “acculturation” in my novels.

Oh, and by the way: The BBC just posted a great story that shows the relevance of these toilet stories that I have been telling for a decade:

Learn more about my books,  Could You Be A World War II Kid? and my other programs for schools, all presented by a middle grades author, published academic historian and former professor with 15 years experience working with kids and teens (that’s me!) at

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