Why Do We Say 'Rubber Room'?

Andrew Simonet, author of "Wilder," explores the origins of the phrase "rubber room," a key setting in his book. 

Andrew Simonet, The Conversation
4-minute read

As with other sensationalized and suspect mental health practices (strait jacket, lobotomy, shock therapy), rubber room became shorthand for losing one’s sanity. If you or someone you know has ever been institutionalized by force, you may flinch at these light-hearted uses.

This 1965 "Popular Mechanics" article quotes one cab driver: “When you drive 150 miles a day in the kind of traffic, you’d become a rubber-room case if you got mad every time you got cut off.”

And this from the December 2, 1972 episode of "All in the Family":


Branch Two: The Labor Dispute

Workers no longer needed by a company, but whose union stipulates they remain employed, languish in the second incarnation of “rubber room:” the room of endless boredom. So boring, management hopes workers will quit rather than show up. Here, the term flips from a room designed to protect an unstable person to a room designed to make a person unstable. General Motors had them all over the country in the early 2000s:

"New York Magazine" recounted New York Typographical Union No. 6’s rubber room, offering two false origin stories for the term:

“They called it the Rubber Room because guys used to bounce off the walls,” says one former news reporter. (Others see bridge-playing connotations in the name.)”

The most famous union rubber room is for New York City teachers accused of misconduct. The 2010 documentary "The Rubber Room" captures the Beckettian limbo of spending years not working.

Branch Three: The Disco

Rubber can certainly mean condom, but I was surprised some people thought a rubber room was sexual. Then I read about Studio 54:

At the top of the club, in the 3rd floor, overlooking both the balcony and the huge dance floor was the infamous Rubber Room. The room had a High-Tec bar and was designed with thick rubber on the walls to be easily washed down with water and soap after all the sex and drugs going on up there.

In her cleverly titled memoir, “I’ll Never Write My Memoirs,” Grace Jones describes Studio 54’s “rubber room...that could be easily wiped down after all the powdery activity.”


About the Author

Andrew Simonet, The Conversation Grammar Girl

Andrew Simonet is a choreographer and debut YA writer in Philadelphia. He co-directed Headlong Dance Theater for twenty years and founded Artists U, an incubator for helping artists make sustainable lives. He lives in West Philly with his wife, Elizabeth, and their two sons, Jesse Tiger and Nico Wolf. Andrew is the author of "Wilder."