On a recent drive to my late mother’s and grandmother’s hometown of Columbia, Tenn., I stopped at a place I’d been curious about for many years. On the courthouse square in Lewisburg, Tenn., stands a Ladies Rest Room. That may not seem particularly unusual – until you learn that it was built in 1924 not as a toilet, but as a lounge used to encourage farm women to come to town.
These unique lounges were a trend in the early 1900s when people in cities in the West and Midwest were trying to lure more women and children to come spend money. Towns then were a little rougher around the edges and women apparently didn’t like the dirt and noise accompanied by such trips. Not to mention, they would likely have few choices of toilet facilities.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, at one time, there were 200 such ladies’ lounges across the country, including parts of Tennessee, but most were single rooms inside stores or courthouses.
According to its application form for the National Register of Historic Places, the Ladies Rest Room in Lewisburg is thought to be the first women’s lounge housed in a separate building.
The application says: “The idea of a ‘Ladies Rest Room’ first appears in the literature of Tennessee agricultural reform in 1913, when the first issue of Tennessee Agriculture published an address by Mrs. Rutledge Smith of Cookeville, to the state convention of homemakers in the fall of 1912.” Smith urged city women to be more welcoming, saying, “The city woman is not necessary to the country woman, but the country woman is absolutely necessary to the existence of the city women.”
The NRHP form describes how women needed to come to town to see the modern conveniences, such as electric washers and refrigerators, and encourage their husbands to purchase them because men tended to invest in tools to make their farming jobs easier and didn’t consider their wives, leaving homes “devoid of almost everything in the way of labor-saving devices that could tend to increase the efficiency of the home.”
The kitchen of the Ladies Rest Room in Lewisburg, Tenn. (Photo courtesy of Center for Historic Preservation, Middle Tennessee State University)
A historical marker states: “The Ladies Rest Room was erected in 1924 by the Marshall County Court as a place for women and young children to rest, use a toilet, or eat a packed lunch during a visit to town. The building was designed with a large sitting room, a two-stall restroom, and a bed/sitting room for the matron who was paid to live on the premises and oversee the daily operations. The Ladies Rest Room, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995, was closed to the public in 2002. Ownership was transferred to the City of Lewisburg in July 2007.”
The building was quite popular, with one woman writing a letter of thanks to the county officers that included this great line: “The savage man makes of his woman a beast of burden, the brutish man holds her a ‘little’ better than his dog, a little dearer than his horse, but the enlightened man delights to honor and elevate his woman, and in doing so honors and elevates himself.”
While the building is no longer a women’s lounge, it was renovated and is being preserved.