Every so often, for seemingly no apparent reason, men are met with one of the great pleasures of owning a penis: the opportunity to piss into a urinal filled with ice. It’s a unique satisfaction — bestial, even — to mark one’s territory in a dive bar or steakhouse bathroom with a 98.6-degree stream capable of leaving a sloppy signature or set of initials, provided there are no i’s to dot or t’s to cross. But that’s all emotion; it doesn’t explain the logic behind why some business owners prefer ice to urinal cakes. And so, over the last several days, we tracked down barkeeps and bathroom historians on both sides of the country for a few good answers. Here’s what they told us:
- Like many cold cases, ours begins at the end of the Civil War. More than 25 million immigrants entered the U.S. between 1870 and 1916; New York and Chicago bore the brunt of the population surge, requiring an overhaul of the public sewer system. As more and more people became accustomed to denser living conditions, expectations in regards to privacy were modified. The outhouse was now a thing of the past and what had once been a solitary act for many (going to the john) was now, by necessity, a partially shared experience when visiting a restroom outside the privacy of one’s home.
- Not surprisingly then, the urinal was patented in the U.S. by Andrew Rankin on March 27, 1866. “The urinal is the best thing on Earth because it takes care of our urine like a shell,” Rankin’s great-great grandson Gauthier Rankin explained to MEL. He added that he’s “working for the beautification of Andrew Rankin and the development of urinal worshipping” via a Facebook page he started in honor of the earlier Rankin’s invention.
- If we’re being honest, though, it is a shell that stinks of piss. That’s probably why Rankin included in his patent directives for a deodorizing composition that relieved “the obnoxious and disagreeable effluvia and odors arising from urinals.” In other words, he was essentially blueprinting a predecessor to the urinal cake.
- Rankin’s recipe for the deodorizing compound was both sloppy and specific. “Mix together in about the proportions stated: Three pounds copperas, three pounds brown or other sugar, molasses, syrups or other similar article of a sweet nature or possessing saccharine qualities, three ounces saltpeter, one pint solution of chloride of soda, six quarts water. My deodorizing composition hereinabove referred to being of a much heavier specific gravity than the urine and consequently remaining in the bowl, it will completely relieve the smell and odor emitted from the urine, the advantage of which is manifest.” While not explicitly stated anywhere in the historical record, reason suggests the practice of dolloping molasses, copperas, saltpepper and chloride soda in urinal bowls several times a night grew cumbersome, so at the turn of the 20th century, the proper urinal cake was born — with complications.
- As Alyssa Lerner, editor for the science-related YouTube series “SciShow” explains, the original urinal cake was essentially a mothball. “The little slabs were mostly made of naphthalene. The main thing naphthalene does is vaporize, making the air smell very strongly like mothballs, and therefore less like urine. It’s also been shown to stop some bacteria from producing ammonia, which might eliminate some of the stuff that’s causing the odor in the first place.”
- It’s also been shown to destroy red blood cells when inhaled in large quantities, which is why it was phased out as an ingredient in urinal cakes in the mid-1900s and is now totally banned from use in schools.
- Which brings us to ice. Bars needed a cheap, reliable and poison-free alternative to urinal cakes, and ice checked all the boxes. Describing scented urinal cakes as “worse than the condition they’re designed to address,” Gerard Meagher, manager and co-owner of the Old Town Bar, one of the 10 oldest surviving bars in NYC, explained to The Wall Street Journal in 2010 that “in the old days we used to put ice in the urinals. It was kind of a game for people to melt the ice.”
- We called McSorley’s Old Ale House, the oldest Irish tavern in NYC and favorite haunt of Hunter S. Thompson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, to ask if they still ice their porcelain. “Nah, we stopped doing it around 30 years ago,” a surly bartender who sounded like Tony Soprano after a spin class told us. Why exactly? “Because the urinals flush now. They didn’t back then, and the melting ice acted as a slow, continuous flush.”
- Kevin Moll, CEO of the Denver-based National Restaurant Consultants, which offers wisdom to the hospitality industry, once explained, “With the sewer lines in older hotels and bars, because they’re so long, a foul odor can permeate up through the pipes. If you keep ice in the urinals, the constant cold drip keeps the odor away and discourages drain flies.”
- And ice isn’t exactly hard to come by. Bars and restaurants received daily ice deliveries until commercial freezers became the norm in the 1940s. A Brooklyn Daily Eagle article from July 1872 explained the uses of ice in NYC included everything from cooling down “mint juleps, brandy smashes and claret punches” at the saloon, to preserving meat in the butcher shops and bodies at the morgue. To make way for new deliveries, old ice was likely thrown into urinals because it was the easiest way to melt it thanks to the constant stream of incoming warm liquid.
- Or as commenter Edymnion explains on a Fark.com post about why bars put ice in urinals, “They can’t put it in sinks because people have to use the sinks, and they can’t put it in the toilets because someone would try to flush it and clog the thing. They put it in the urinal because that’s the only place left short of tossing it out the back door.”
- Fellow commenter Mikey 1969 points out that “some bar owners say ice works even better than urinal cakes because it actually flushes the urine instead of just trying to deodorize it. First saw this at the brewery I worked at. Worked like a charm. Not only does it melt and flush, but it’s more of a barrier to get through. With a urinal cake, it just kind of sits there next to the urine, so as a result, it smells like piss AND urinal cakes.”
- That’s why the Italian restaurant SCOPA in Venice, CA ices its urinals, according to its general manager, who explained to MEL, “It’s all about the temperature. Warm molecules in the urine are kept from entering the air because the temperature of the ice suppresses it.”
- Non-scientifically speaking, per the folks at brokensecrets.com, it doesn’t hurt that a urinal packed with ice “provides entertainment and encourages accuracy, too.”
- NPR’s Morning Edition devoted an entire segment to encouraging urinal accuracy. Or more specifically, limiting misdirected stream, the primary goal of having an image of an insect on urinals just above and to the left or right of the drain. Richard Thaler, a professor of behavioral science and economics at the University of Chicago, explained why: having something to aim at (such as Donald Trump) reduces spillage.
- Lloyd Rayner took this notion to the next level with Ur-In-Goal, which makes urinal mats in the U.K. “The mats are made from a flexible plastic which moulds snug into the urinal bowl,” he said in an email. “The football goal clips into the mats so to sit on top. The ball hangs from the crossbar from a flexible plastic string. The object is to target the ball and thus score a goal. The mats are scented, available in lemon, cherry or strawberry.”
- But back to ice. If you don’t believe everything above — or words aren’t your thing — check out this charming cartoon by the TheCuriousEngineer on YouTube. He’s sure to melt your heart while explaining why he believes restaurants and bars would prefer that you melt ice in their bathrooms as opposed to pissing all over a urinal cake. As he puts it, “Some guys, in their alcohol-induced enthusiasm, take the [urinal cake] as a personal challenge to see if they can they can break the [urinal cake] apart by the sheer force of their Superman-like stream. This, unfortunately, results in the urine splashing everywhere, which creates the opposite of the intended effect.”
C. Brian Smith is a writer in Los Angeles. In another recent piece for MEL, he talked to a guy who studies man caves for a living.