Behind Establishment magazine is a list of entrance codes for bathrooms in New York: the TJ Maxx near Union Square, the Standard Hotel in the East Village. Although the publication maintains a more up-to-date list on its website, the codes sometimes change. (Chipotle is particularly known for this.) If in doubt, the magazine says many places print their bathroom codes on their receipts — these can be pulled out of the trash cans. Some bathrooms on the list come with an additional endorsement: “a reader says this bathroom is the ‘shit'” Establishment noted for a Guitar Center in Queens.
The most basic needs are what inform the rest of the more than hundred page black and white independent magazine devoted to all things bathroom and hygiene.
Erin Sheehy designed the magazine with fellow writer, Elizabeth Gumport, in 2019. “When I started thinking about it,” Sheehy says, “all of a sudden I had like 20 story ideas, and they were really good.”
Sheehy and Gumport, who jointly edit the magazine, realized that it was a specific way of addressing the big topics that interested them, including public spaces, urban infrastructure and the environment, while thinking about the gender, race, class and disability. “It was like you could talk about all these things, and it was could be funny or rude, but there’s something liberating about it being a little silly like that,” Sheehy said.
They were inspired by a magazine from the 70s on “gourmet baths” called Wet. Even though Sheehy says the magazine didn’t really define gourmet baths, it had a compelling sensibility in covering topics other than spas. (This is a goal that has proven interesting for some other writers as well as.)
The first issue of Establishment explores history with stories like “How did we get separate bathrooms, anyway?” by Gumport and “The Groom of the Stool”, by Sheehy, about Henry VIII’s bathroom servant. The issue chronicles events like the 504 sit-in that ensured disabled access to public spaces (yes, including bathrooms) and the sanitation riots at the El Paso-Juarez border. in 1917.
These stories range from sink photography, morning routine surveys, interviews with plumbers, and reviews of pill capsules and cleaning ingredients. Establishment delves into the inherent silliness of the subject – there’s a guide to which household item best replicates the look of urine – but ably maneuvers being a literary publication, art portfolio, beauty blog, and trade magazine. Its articles can be read in isolation, but like any good magazine, the full issue of Establishment offers its own rewards.
They were working on the second issue when the pandemic hit, and Sheehy initially had doubts. “It was like, should we be doing a bathroom magazine right now?” But soon people started contacting her, telling her about their fears about contamination, hygiene, restricted access to public toilets, etc. What was originally intended to be shorter turned into another issue in its own right.
In this issue, Joyce S. Lee, researcher and zine creator, explores the design of toilet paper. “I had thought of embossing on toilet paper as analogous to that of business cards, a symbolic rather than a functional improvement,” Lee wrote. “I hadn’t thought that the texture of the embossing could play a role in performance – the way the weave of tea towels works differently from, say, a bath towel.”
Lee reflected on the broader usefulness of toilet paper, reflecting on its scarcity at the start of the pandemic and drawing on her experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal, where she became accustomed to washing with a water instead. As his Peace Corps instructor said, “Imagine you had poop on your hand. Would it feel cleaner to you if you wiped it down with paper or washed it with soap and water? (Yes, they review bidets.)
A Ward 5B essay, “Bleach: The Scent of Plague,” recalls how bleach once again permeated his senses during the initial outbreak of the coronavirus, just as it did over thirty years ago during the AIDS epidemic. In another story, Sheehy wrote an essay about the role of water in the summer 2020 protests following the death of George Floyd.
Sheehy and Gumport funded the first issue of Establishment themselves; sales of the first issue paid for the second. They print the magazines from a facility in Queens, then ship them from Sheehy’s apartment in Brooklyn. It’s a small operation that doesn’t bring in much. “We’re just thrilled that someone would find this twenty years from now,” she said, “and be like, ‘What is this? “”
Feven Merid is CJR’s Editor and Senior Delacorte Fellow.
TOP IMAGE: Cover photography by Zekarias Thompson