Stupid Question ™
Aug. 26, 1999
By John Ruch
Q: Why do some public toilets have a little gap in the front of the seat? I’ve never seen such seats in a private home.
A: The modern toilet is an engineering catastrophe.
It catches defecation and female urination OK. But its small size (exactly fitting the buttocks-to-genitals region) and shape make it unsanitary and annoying for anything else: wiping, standing urination, comfort.
“Open-front” or “split-front” seats with the little gap came in around 1940 to mitigate the errors. If standing males don’t lift the seat, they can drip urine onto its front; the gap supposedly eliminates this.
It also keeps the penis from touching the seat when a man is seated.
Though hardly making toilets much better, open-front seats were instituted as code almost everywhere by the 1950s. They didn’t catch on in private homes because of the public-toilet stigma. Also, men are theoretically more conscientious at home and will always lift the seat (though many do so in public toilets as well).
But different societies have different concerns. In Mexico, new toilet seats are almost all open-front, whether public or private, even though there’s no seat code at all.
* * * * *
An update on the Aug. 12 column about Friday the 13th: I said Friday and 13 were originally independently unlucky (the former due to Good Friday, the latter due to the Last Supper). They came together as Friday the 13th in this century, which was popular only post-1930 (for unknown reasons).
Reader Tim Adams disagrees. He says Friday the 13th dates to Friday, Oct. 13, 1307—the date that a group of Crusader knights called the Knights Templar was arrested for heresy.
The Templars—a staple of conspiracy theories—were arrested on that date, and a couple of recent books assert this as the origin of Friday the 13th.
But they offer no proof beyond the coincidence of dates.
And a survey of 14 Templar histories from 1852 to 1999 undermines the claim.
Pre-1930s books don’t mention the date was a Friday and say nothing about Friday the 13th.
Books from the ’60s to the ’80s start mentioning it was a Friday, obviously alluding to Friday the 13th, but make no claim that the Templars originated the superstition. (One even claims Friday was chosen as the arrest day because of Good Friday.)
It is only in the late ’80s that the origin claim pops up, and only in conspiracy literature.
Friday the 13th is clearly of recent origin. The earliest known citation of it is from 1913, predating its mention in Templar literature.
It is probably that a 1930s-1960s Templar historian noticed Oct. 13, 1307 was a Friday and simply decided to note the amusing coincidence.
Tim could still be half-right: it’s possible that a ’30s-’60s Templar history somehow popularized Friday the 13th. But while further evidence is lacking, how Friday and 13 came together remains a mystery.