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Whatever Happened to Pay Toilets?

Neatorama presents a guest post from actor, comedian, and voiceover artist Eddie Deezen. Visit Eddie at his website or at Facebook.

(Image credit: Flickr user Michelle Kinsey Bruns)

Going to the bathroom might be the one and only activity in America that's cheaper than it used to be. Pay toilets used to be the rule in airports and bus and train stations, and one would often encounter them in gas stations and restaurants.

The earliest pay toilets in history were erected in ancient Rome in 74 AD, during the rule of Vespasian, after a civil war greatly effected the Roman financial scene. His initiative was derided by his opponents, but his reply to them became famous: "Pecunia non olet," i.e. "money does not smell.”

Okay, here's your "question of the day" folks: “Who had the first pay toilets in North America installed?" The first pay toilets in North America were installed by Walt Disney. Walt disney? The cartoon guy? The Mickey Mouse guy? In 1935, Walt opened “Walt’s,” a popular cafe on Hollywood Boulevard, and the first restaurant ever run by an animation studio. In 1936, Walt's became the first establishment in North America to install pay toilets.

Pay toilets spread across America and were soon common sights in almost all the major cities. Pay toilets were never meant to be a profit-making enterprise, but merely to help defray the costs in cleaning and supplying the bathrooms. It was presumed that the dime or quarter "entrance fee" would motivate users to keep the pay stalls cleaner.

That theory didn't work though, for instead of encouraging users to exercise best behavior, bathrooms with pay toilets were often trashed by angry patrons. Later, many of the coin boxes in pay toilets were broken into and the money was stolen.

Most pay toilets in the 1950s and 1960s were operated by municipalities. But the small amount of revenue generated by pay toilets in airports simply was not worth the attendant hassles: the numerous complaints about their presence and the constantly broken locks that rendered the toilets unusable.

(Image credit: Flickr user Patrick Haney)

The real death knell for pay toilets came with several lawsuits filed against the municipalities by women's groups. Pay toilets were sexually discriminatory, they claimed, because women, unlike men, were forced to pay to urinate. Even the most anti-feminist male chauvinists could see their point on this one. A group called “C.E.P.T.I.A.” (Committee to End Pay Toilets in America) was formed. Their purpose was self-evident. In 1973, Chicago became the first city to ban pay toilets.

A group of homeless people actually filed a class-action lawsuit in New York to end pay toilets. “The fact that I can't find any place to relieve myself in New York causes me lots of problems and pain,” testified a New York homeless man. New York state outlawed them in 1975.

Another pay toilet complain was the "no paper" argument. What if you shelled out your dime or quarter and discovered no T.P. in your stall?

Many of the big cities in America joined the crowd and started banning pay toilets. Interestingly, it was governor Ronald Reagan who banned them in California. Pay toilets in America were almost obsolete by the end of the 1970s. Most establishments in America have switched to the "token system" or the "key punch" system, or they simply openly refuse entrance unless one is a customer.

(Image credit: Wrightbus)

Although long gone in most parts of America, pay toilets still survive and flourish in many corners of the world. In Mexico, a majority of pay toilets have turnstiles and an attendant at the entrance who gives out toilet paper and sometimes, a paper towel. In some areas of Taiwan, you must pay for toilet paper, but the toilet itself is free. In Russia, the patrons must bring their own toilet paper. In the United Kingdom, it is okay to charge for use of a pay toilet, but it is against the law to charge to use urinals. Pay toilets also remain common sights in France, Sweden, Germany, Colombia, and Singapore.


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New York outlawed pay toilets in '75 alright, but waived that rule for NYC in '93. Now there are plenty of em around. Not exactly a recent development, and deserving a mention.

It's a weird idea, isn't it? You pay, but less than it really costs, and get the hassle of needing to have change in a hurry. And in exchange for the .25-$1 or so, the locale risks having to clean up human waste off the walls and floor.
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There are still some places in the US where you must pay to "go" - as Eddie says, they make you pay for a token. Last time I was in the Casino in Seaside Heights it was still the case there - still worth the money if you've had too much coconut cream pie...
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Wonder if when they started abolishing pay toilets, they used the Beatles song "You Never Give Me Your Money" as it's theme. Likely not since it was a Paul song and not a JOHN song.
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There is an old song called "Babylon Mall" about our local shopping mall by a comedy troupe (it's on YouTube). One of the lines is "you pays to pee at the mall" lol. You don't pay to pee there anymore but I do remember when the pay toilets were there. I think they removed them in the early nineties.
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