Not to brag or anything, but in my 30-plus years of pissing in urinals, I’ve gotten to know them pretty well. I’d even argue that I know urinals better than most men do. After all, I once spent a week tracking down guys with urinals in their homes and I also investigated the phenomenon of dudes spitting in the urinal. But when I was taking a particularly long piss at a gas station the other day, I stared at the humble urinal cake and realized that, while I have a vague idea of its chemical composition, I know little else about it.
At first, I tried to track down the inventor of the urinal cake, but — surprise! — the internet is full of falsehoods and misinformation. For one, some claim Ben Franklin invented the urinal cake because he baked cakes for all of his founding father buddies, but then someone dropped a cake in Ben’s outhouse and it eliminated the smell. That’s so stupidly wrong that I barely know where to begin — Ben Franklin may have written a scientific letter about farts, but he didn’t invent the urinal cake. Others claim that an inventor named George A. Sleight invented it in 1921, but that’s wrong too, as I discovered ads for urinals cakes in old newspapers dating back as far as 1885.
In search of the original urinal cake creator, I looked through hundreds of patents for urinals and urinal accessories, but I never did find a satisfying answer. I did, however, grow an appreciation for the many inventors who contributed to urinal history. In particular, I enjoyed finding the patent drawings for urinal cakes and the apparatuses that held them. While most patents for urinal cakes are just descriptions of their chemical components — and thus, lacking pictures — there was a real artistry to the drawings I did find. So although it’s by no means a definitive history of urinal cakes, here are some of the best urinal cake patent drawings over the past century and more.
The Glass Bulb, 1880
There are centuries-old examples of urinal-like structures, but the modern urinal was officially invented in 1866 by Andrew Rankin, and it became popular during the latter part of the 19th century to accommodate all the men working in factories. Apparently, it didn’t take them too long to discover that urinals smelled like piss, because urinal cakes began appearing in urinals almost right away.
The earliest patent I could find was from 1880 and an inventor named Edward J. Mallett Jr. It’s maybe the most unique urinal cake drawing I found. Made of glass, this device was more of a case that sat in the urinal and held liquid disinfectant that would gradually seep out over several months.
I’d love to credit Mr. Mallett’s invention for paving the way for urinal cakes to come, but it’s clear from his words that urinal cakes already existed in 1880. “In order to neutralize the offensive odor arising from urinals, it has been the practice, to some extent, to put in the urinal-bowl some substance, usually carbolic soap or a soaplike block or cake of which one of the constituents is a preparation of carbolic acid,” wrote Mallett.
Additionally, it’s impossible to say how successful his invention was, but my guess is that it didn’t do too well, since modern urinal cakes sound just like the “soaplike blocks” that predated this invention. He does perhaps deserve some credit for the earliest known container for urinal disinfectant, though, as urinal cakes are commonly found in some kind of plastic strainer nowadays.
The Dangly Ball, 1884
This is the earliest patent I could find that contains an actual urinal cake, even if the drawing depicts a standard sit-down toilet instead of a urinal. If the drawing isn’t entirely clear, the pipe labeled “B” is the back of the toilet and that oval labeled “D” is the urinal cake. This inventor — Charles Catlin — proposed the idea of a ball-shaped deodorizer suspended by a string to be used in both toilets and urinals. So, when you were going to the bathroom, directly in front of your two hanging balls would be one more hanging ball.
A Shapely Specimen, 1903
Between 1884 and 1903, I found several patents for urinal cakes, but all of them were mere descriptions of the chemical components, so there were no pictures. But in 1903, an inventor named Clarence Jenkins proposed something shaped a little differently than a simple block of chemicals. “The principal object of the invention is to provide a convenient form of block or cake of the character mentioned, to be placed in a urinal basin directly over the water outlet, which will permit the water to pass freely,” Jenkins wrote.
Like all of these inventions, it’s really impossible to say if it was a success or not since historical literature and newspapers are scant with breakthroughs in the field of urinal cakes, but this seems to be Jenkins’ one and only patent, so let’s just applaud him for thinking out of the box when it comes to the shape of a urinal cake.
A Sticky Solution, 1905
In 1905, Simon Kohn proposed the idea of a urinal cake to be used in all kinds of toilets, urinals included. His proposal was two things in one, with the top of the cake being a water soluble germicide that would last several weeks, and the bottom being an adhesive that would be insoluble in water. That way, if you’re filling a cuspidor — as pictured — with piss and shit, the cake doesn’t float to the top or get tossed out when you empty the thing, which, I’m guessing, was a problem back in the day?
Mr. Sleight’s Contraptions, 1918 and 1921
Here are a couple of inventions by a guy named George Sleight, who is sometimes wrongfully cited as the inventor of the urinal cake. In the one above, he proposed a case for a urinal cake that allowed water to pass through. In the above drawing, the striped block labeled “13” is the urinal cake. Frankly, this one seems a little convoluted to me, which perhaps explains why he proposed something very similar just a few years later.
In this drawing, the stripey block labeled number “8” is the urinal cake, which would have a spike through it and be surrounded by a whole other apparatus for water to pass through. Once again, I think Sleight was overthinking things, so can the rest of the internet please stop giving him credit for the brilliantly simple idea of just chucking a bar of disinfectant in a urinal?
The High-Water Mark in Urinal Cake Art, 1934
Now we’re getting to some real artistry. Rich with details and labels, this 1934 patent by Melvin Fuld — amazing name — is nothing more than a strainer for a urinal cake. This is before the days where every fucking thing in the world was made of plastic, so Fuldy propsed a strainer of ceramic or metal. We don’t use those materials for urinal cake strainers today, but it’s easy to see how much influence this design continues to have.
Despite there not being a lot of information about most of these inventors, I did a little digging on Fuld and found out that he and his brother, George Fuld, invented a few things together and also wrote some books about the Civil War. I’ve not read them myself, but I implore everyone reading to buy these books right now because this man is clearly a genius.
A Basic Block, 1969
Skipping ahead to 1969, we have this urinal block designed by Albert C. Nolte Jr. Able to clip to the side of a toilet or urinal, it’s simple and straightforward. Nolte is no Melvin Fuld, but he ain’t bad.
Here Comes the Plastic, 1971
Beginning in the 1970s, I began to notice strainers that more closely resembled what you see today, being made of plastic and with intricate patterns. This one is by Seymour Leavitt and Barry L. Schneider, who not only designed a fine-looking strainer, but a uniquely shaped urinal cake to accompany it.
Compound Cakes, 1984
Issued in 1984, this patent by Eric D. Barford, Daniel J. Jeffrey and Paul A. Raynor really covered its bases. The goal here was to have two cleaning agents in one, the first of which — represented by the stripey parts — would be standard urinal cleaner (they were unspecified as to the type). The second cleaning fluid is bleach, which would more thoroughly clean the urinal itself. It’s pretty clever, and several urinal cake patents in the years to come would contain two types of cleaners.
A Slightly Safer Soluble, 2006
For the last entry in this excremental exhibition, I present a patent from the 21st century by inventor Thomas L. Williams. As it turns out, most urinal cakes — being made of para-dichlorobenzene — are pretty toxic if you get too much of them, which is why Williams proposed a cake made of something different: calcium oxide. However, a quick search of calcium oxide online seems to show that it’s a pretty dangerous chemical too. While this is concerning, perhaps it’s only fitting that urinal cakes be hazardous to your health. After all, so many things in the world are both beautiful and deadly.