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Montreal Vespasiennes

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By: Dick Nieuwendyk – mtltimes.ca

Montreal owes much to mayor Camillien Houde who in the 1930s, during the Great Depression commissioned many public works projects in Montreal as make-work projects, designed to give unemployed men a chance. They included the construction of more than twenty vespasiennes – public restrooms, that came to be known as “Camiliennes.”

Vespasienne built in 1930 on Viger Square - relocated to St. Louis Square in 1976
Vespasienne built in 1930 on Viger Square – relocated to St. Louis Square in 1976

The history of the Vespasiennes traces back to the Roman Empire. In ancient times urine was considered a valuable commodity, since it contained important minerals and chemicals such as phosphorus and potassium. The Romans believed that urine would make their teeth whiter and keep them from decaying so they used it as a mouthwash and mixed it with pumice to make toothpaste. Urine was also important for the textile industry, and often used to bleach wool or linen and tan leather. It actually worked, since urine contains ammonia.

In 70 AD, when Vespasian became Emperor, he imposed a tax for the collection of urine from the sewer systems of Rome, and in 74 AD he introduced the first public toilets in history, which Romans called “vespasians.” The tax was unpopular, but actually benefitted the Empire – some of the collected tax was used to finance the construction of the Coliseum, which was erected during the reign of Vespasian. The emperor once said “Pecunia non olet”, meaning “money does not stink”, a phrase we still use today.

Vespasienne on St. Louis Square - 2015 - now a sandwich and ice cream shop (Photo: Dick Nieuwendyk)
Vespasienne on St. Louis Square – 2015 – now a sandwich and ice cream shop
(Photo: Dick Nieuwendyk)

The Montreal vespasiennes were constructed according the plans of architect Jean Omer Marchand, and built in places such as Phillips Square, Place Jacques-Cartier, and Place d’Armes, where they were built underground and accessible by two wide sets of granite stairs. In Dominion Square, Cabot Square, and Viger Square, the toilets were housed in octagonal stone kiosks with large windows and copper roofs. When Viger Square was rebuilt in the early 1970s, its camillienne was transplanted to St. Louis Square, where it became an ice cream parlour. The same happened to the public restrooms in Dominion Square and Cabot Square.

In the mid 1970s, because of limited usage, and high cost of maintenance, most public restrooms shut their doors for the last time. The remaining structures serve today as a reminder of an essential public service that Montreal once provided to those with full bladders.

Source: Ancient Origins / Maisonneuve.org / ARVM

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