Who invented the urinal cake?

When I was a kid, I assumed the girls’ bathroom had couches, reclining chairs, and a butler carrying a tray of Capri Sun champagne flutes. Groups of girls would go in there, together, three, four at a time and stay behind that mysterious door for ten/fifteen minutes.

Why so much time? My only conclusion: it had to be different in there. There was no way it looked like ours.

I wonder if the same mystery existed but the opposite way; if girls asked what the boys’ bathroom looked like. Visions of luxury? Probably not. I’m thinking the most significant question had to be, “What is this mysterious urinal they keep talking about?”

Before the 1800’s, public restrooms were not all that common. Going to the bathroom was something you did in private; at home or away in an outhouse. In the 1800’s, there was kind of this public bathroom boom, and toward the end of the century, there was a growing movement to provide better plumbing and sanitation.

Almost smack dab in the middle of all this was Andrew Rankin’s invention of the urinal (1866). The first urinals were primarily trough style which, come to think of it, may be the origins of the “men are pigs” phrase:

Woman: Men are pigs

Man: No we’re not

Woman: You all stand next to each other and pee in a trough

Man: Eh, fair point

Over time, the urinal drifted from the trough/trench style to the single model (except for Wrigley Field.) Urinal etiquette started to develop. You always, always, leave a space between the other person peeing. For example, if there are three urinals and someone’s peeing in the middle one, the urinals to the left and the right are essentially off limits until middle guy is done. Simple code of bathroom conduct.

Now, I know what you might be thinking (well, besides why did I click on this post about bathrooms?) The sanitation question. Those first public restrooms with the old school urinals had to smell terrible. And they did. Which is why around 1880 – 1890 several inventors were working on ways to fix this.

Actually, quick detour.

As the legend goes, the first person to fix the odor problem was one of the most famous inventors in American History. Benjamin Franklin. It was some time in the 1760’s, Franklin was ego tripping, showing off the abilities of his Franklin Stove. He made some cakes, put them in the outhouse next to the urinal pot so his buddies could snack while doing their thing (eating in the bathroom: very underrated). Apparently, John Hancock fumbled the plate, and the cakes fell in. When Franklin went inside he noticed the smell wasn’t nearly as bad as usual; the cakes had essentially absorbed the odor.

Now, totally fair to classify that story as #FakeNews. It’s probably in the 65 percent chance of being true range, but I’m part of the, “It’s too awesome not to believe” camp on this one.

The truth is the inventor of the urinal cake is really hard to find.

It sounds like there were a lot of different ideas and models from 1880 – 1920. The first patent belonged to George A. Sleight on October 3rd, 1922. “The Daily Apple” blog points out that Sleight’s was not the “first device of its kind, since the patent says that Mr. Sleight’s device is a ‘new and Improved’ version.”

Time for a bad pun: Some would say he had a “Sleight obsession” with urinals… 

Sounds like there were several people who could be classified as the original inventor. I’m thinking it’d be like two hundred years from now if someone asks, “Who invented the smart phone?” the most popular answer will probably be Steve Jobs even though there were models before the iPhone (and maybe there’d be some legend about Teddy Roosevelt carving out a smart phone using a bar of soap).

Who invented the urinal cake?

This was the question I had nine years ago. Why did I think of it? No idea. “Who invented the urinal cake?” was just one of those random questions that pop up like, “Ok Google, who invented the air conditioner?” or “Hey Alexa, why do farts make a trumpet sound?” The difference, though, is back then I had to actually find articles, go to Wikipedia, dig a little more for the answer.

And in that journey was a lightbulb moment: What would it be like to be George A. Sleight? To be the guy who invented, or at least improved the urinal cake. What would it be like to announce that as your job title at a dinner party?

From there it morphed from the real George A. Sleight to a fictional version. I started to think of this idea of a guy who invented the urinal cake around 1915 – 1925 and started a business. I grew up in Midland, Michigan, the home of Dow Chemical so although I was terrible at science, I was still surrounded everywhere by chemistry. My dad was a Chemical Engineer. My mom worked at Dow Chemical. My elementary school: Adams Atoms. My high school: Midland Chemics. Seriously. Those were our names.

All of that mushed together in my brain and the thought popped up: What if this dude who invented the urinal cake, presented it to Herbert H. Dow, and that’s how the business got started?

I kept playing with the idea. Built out a timeline. The inventor passes the business down to his kid. That guy passes the business down again around 1990 – 2000. So, in 2008, where would that take us? I was a high school senior at the time so what made sense to me was writing these characters who were also high school seniors. These would be the great-grandkids of the guy who invented the urinal cake.

I knew the name of the book from the very beginning. “Toilet Bowl.” And my big plan for the plot, at least in 2008-2010, was the great-grandkids were going to revitalize the family business by launching a “Greatest Bathroom in America” contest (which I found out CINTAS already has a Best Bathroom in America contest). It was going to be an epic road trip, all around the country, these 18/19-year-olds judging bathrooms, posting their videos online, trying to go viral.

And I could dive more into the timeline of how the novel developed over nine years, but my main point is this: what eventually became a 500-page book, a project that means the world to me, and has been my relentless dream to complete for almost a decade, it all started out as a crappy idea. Literally, a book about bathrooms. It doesn’t get any crappier than that (insert eye roll emoji appropriate for this level of bad pun).

It’s easy to over-glorify the novel writing process.

I need to be inspired. I just need that one million dollar idea.

But that’s not really what I experienced this first time around. The “big idea” was, “Who invented the urinal cake?” And that became the great-grandfather of Adam, and he was friends with Brad, Mark, and Tim. Wrote the entire first draft this way. It read like a poor man’s Superbad. Then decided I should merge Adam with Tim, have those be the same character. Re-write. Try again. Wait, should they all be Godfreys? Nah. What if the Godfreys are Brad and Mark, and Tim’s kind of the outsider looking in? What if the story is told from Tim’s perspective? Yeah, that works. And what if he’s marrying Brad’s ex-girlfriend. Interesting! What if they are touring the entire country? Scratch that. What if they stay in Michigan. What if I use Midland as the center point. And what if I keep the bathroom tour, but the kids have a new invention of their own, a smart toilet that sends health updates to your phone.

The book in 2010 was dramatically different from the one in 2013 which was dramatically different from the finished one here in 2017. Essential elements stayed the same, but so much changed in between.

I don’t think every book will take eight or nine years to complete, but it’s fun for me now to look back at how the story kept evolving over all that time. It wasn’t gift-wrapped as a finished product from the very beginning. The initial idea certainly helped, sure, but it was all the other stuff that really drove the writing. When it became about Tim wrestling with his own internal worries and fears, that served as the primary fuel. When I finally picked Midland as the setting, same thing. The story found a new rhythm.

I remember an English professor at Hope College, Dr. Heather Sellers, had us start a new project by just picking a setting. Find your “Town” before even having an idea for a plot. Seemed crazy at first, turned out to be incredible advice. The setting and the conflict are more important than some big once in a lifetime idea.

This has made “life after Toilet Bowl” a whole lot easier. The next book doesn’t feel nearly as daunting. All I need is a location, a conflict, and some other crappy idea.

It’s time to get started.

New posts going up on Mondays and Wednesdays. I want to test it out, see if I can keep up this pace as the standard for 2018. I’ll also be hosting a few guest posts that I think you all will really enjoy.

Toilet Bowl is available as one full book on CreateSpaceAmazon.com, or Barnes and Noble. You can also split it up with Book 1: Meet the Godfreys and Book 2: Tour de Bathroom. Ebook and physical books available for all titles. 

What’s the story about? Check out the book trailer below.

Other stuff – if you are an NBA fan, I have the spinoff site “Medium Rare Basketball.” We’ve got the “Fast Break Lunch Break” podcast and in the early early stages of this kind of bizarre podcast show about the Sacramento Kings. 

And then one last thing, if you’d like to subscribe via email, just enter your email address in the box below or email me directly at chris@mediumraresizzle.com. Thanks for stopping by, see you Monday!

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