There’s a difference between a public toilet and the one in your house, and it’s not the smell: their seats are shaped differently. Almost all public restrooms have what are called open front toilet seats, which are shaped like the letter u and have an opening at the front. Most private bathrooms, by contrast, have oval or round toilet seats that wrap all the way around the toilet. Why the gap?
The two-prong, open-front seat is required by the plumbing codes adopted by most public authorities in the U.S. “All water closet seats, except those within dwelling units, shall be either of the open front type or have an automatic seat cover dispenser,” as California’s state plumbing code reads [PDF]. The requirement was first included in the American Standard National Plumbing Code in 1955, and in the Uniform Plumbing Code in 1973, according to Dan Cole, a Technical Services Manager with the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO).
This is largely a matter of hygiene. No matter what kind of junk you’re packing, u-shaped seats give you a little breathing room to avoid touching the seat with your genitals, and provide one less place for urine to splash.
Open-front toilet seats are largely designed to make it easier for women to wipe, according to Lynne Simnick, the senior vice president of code development at the IAPMO. The opening is designed to “allow women to wipe the perineal area after using the toilet without contacting the seat,” she says. So basically, open toilet seats are designed for front-wipers. (Clearly the ladies in question have not been lectured on how to prevent UTIs.)
U-shaped seats are also cheaper, since they use less material. And they’re less likely to be stolen, according to Roger Barry, the managing director of Healthmatic, a UK-based company that designs and manages public restrooms. Though I question why anyone would want to steal a public toilet seat, he says that theft is a major problem. “The appearance of u-shaped seats is something that has dampened in the UK,” he reports, mostly because public toilets are no longer fitted with toilet seats at all to combat stealing.
Indeed, we should be grateful to have any toilet seats at all in public washrooms.