The Fascinating History of the Urinal Cake

The bathroom world is full of things people use on a daily basis but never think about. Urinal cakes are the quintessential example. These ubiquitous devices play a critical role in keeping men’s restrooms from smelling…too bad. But, what seems like a normal item actually has a surprisingly interesting and misunderstood background. Here’s a bathroom history lesson you never had in school.

Did the Founding Fathers Invent Urinal Cakes?

The origin of urinal cakes is surprisingly unclear. The question marks in the annals of history have been covered over with equally captivating and false mythology. Perhaps the most exciting origin story claims the urinal cake was invented by Benjamin Franklin. Oh, how we wish that were true!

To show off the efficacy of his franklin Stoves, the tale goes, Ben set a plate of fresh cakes near the outhouse. Why next to the restroom? Those details are conveniently omitted from the story. While using the restroom, the (supposedly) clumsy John Hancock knocked one of the cakes into the outhouse and the foul stench was quickly ameliorated.

The True Origins of the Urinal Cake

The providence of urinal cakes might be shrouded in mystery, but it’s not hard to imagine what might have motivated the invention. If you’ve ever stepped foot in a poorly maintained bathroom, you know precisely what early inventors or urinal cakes were trying to accomplish. Although the prototypical urinal cake might be lost to history, there’s a breadcrumb trail of patents and designs demonstrating gradual improvements over time.

The prevalent “cake” version most commonly used today was only one of several suggested designs. Inventors experimented with different materials, chemicals, and processes for eliminating the strong odor of urine. Here are a few of the most intriguing and impactful designs:

The Glass Case

One of the earliest patents for something resembling a urinal cake was made by Edward J. Mallet Jr. This inventor created a glass case that gradually released liquid disinfectant over time to continuously sanitize the urinal. At this point, the cylindrical style of urinal cakes was already in circulation but hadn’t yet become the dominant choice. However, Mallet does earn some respect for popularizing the idea of using a container to hold the block.

The Hanging Deodorizer

The award for the most conceptual urinal cake invention goes to Charles Catlin who envisioned hanging a spherical deodorizer in urinals (and standard toilets). Despite the obvious differences from standard urinal cakes, these suspended deodorizers would work similarly by releasing odor-fighting chemicals as it comes in contact with urine.

The Material Question

Melvin Fuld, another contributor to the pantheon of interesting urinal cake designs, would be praised in modern times for his insistence on using more sustainable and long-lasting materials for the device holding the urinal cake. Instead of using plastic (which wasn’t really popular at the time), Fuld designed his device with metal and ceramic. Although his materials of choice have fallen out of common use, Fuld’s strainer design is very much in line with current trends.

The Chemical Problem

As the shape and positioning of urinal cakes were reaching the versions popular today, there was a lot of discussion and suggestions regarding the chemical makeup of these devices. It turned out that many of the compounds that were effective at neutralizing urine stench were also detrimental to the health of bathroom users. Many different compounds used in the past such as naphthalene have fallen out of use due to their potential hazards.

The Modern Version of the Urinal Cake

Modern urinal cakes, more officially known as urinal deodorizer blocks, are composed of water-soluble compounds such as surfactants that dissolve when the urinal is being used. This design ensures the toilet and the drainage pipes are cleaned while the odor problem is solved. Some versions even contain bacterial spores that eliminate bad smells more effectively.

As a society, we’re always looking for ways to improve the way we “go”. The Portland Loo is doing its part by rethinking the design and function of public restrooms. Our by the city for the city restroom solution is highly durable, crime-fighting, easy to maintain, and cost-effective. In fact, it’s already been adopted by dozens of cities across the country and beyond!

If you’d like to learn more about the Portland Loo and what it takes to bring one to your city, feel free to contact us.