Many Public Toilets Used to Be Pay as You Use

Pay Toilet in Paris

Today I found out many public toilets used to be pay as you use. Or, for those of you like me who’ve been around for more than a few decades, “Today I found out what happened to pay toilets.”

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, bus, and train stations, and one would also 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 affected the Roman financial scene.  Vespasian’s initiative was derided by his opponents, but his reply to them became famous: “Pecunia non olet”  (“Money does not smell”)…  Wise words.

Fast-forward to the United States in 1935, Walt Disney opened “Walt’s”, a popular cafe on Hollywood Blvd., and the first restaurant ever run by an animation studio.  In 1936, “Walt’s” also 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 something 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.

Another pay toilet complaint was the “no paper” argument.  What if you shelled out your dime or quarter and discovered no T.P. in your stall?  This wasn’t exactly an uncommon occurrence for those of us who remember using these.

The real death knell for pay toilets came after several lawsuits were 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 (urinals weren’t pay as you use on account of the lack of doors to stop people from using them and the fact that there wasn’t much in the way of cost to defray with urinals, unlike when people are defecating).  Even the most anti-feminist male chauvinists could see their point on this one.

In addition to the above lawsuits, 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.

Now with both the homeless and feminist groups lobbying against them, and people in general hating them, in 1973, Chicago became the first city to ban pay toilets.   New York state followed and outlawed them in 1975.  Many of the big cities in America joined the crowd and started banning pay toilets.  By the end of the 1970s pay toilets became virtually obsolete in the United States.  Although long gone in most parts of America, pay toilets still survive and flourish in many corners of the world, such as France, Sweden, Germany, Colombia, and Singapore.

If you liked this article and the Bonus Facts below, you might also like:

Bonus Facts:

  • A group called “C.E.P.T.I.A.” (“Committee to End Pay Toilets in America”) was formed to put an end to pay to poop potties.
  • 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 the United Kingdom, it is O.K. to charge for use of a pay toilet, but it is against the law to charge to use urinals.
  • In Russia, it is common for patrons to bring their own toilet paper.
  • Future president Ronald Reagan was Governor of  California when toilets were banned there.

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  • You missed a bonus fact: the British idiom “Spend a penny” meaning “Go to the toilet” came from the coin operated locks on pay toilets costing one penny:

  • They still have pay toilets in Thailand. And most charge extra for toilet paper.

    I’ve seen pay-to-lock toilets as late as the ’80s in some American cities, where access to the toilet is free but it cost a quarter to lock the stall.

  • When I took the French TGV once, I was astonished to find that the toilet in the station was a pay variety. Fortunately, I had change – the change maker was one flight up, half the station away….and only spoke French.

    • @bill I must have paid to the same cranky lady you did to use the toilet.
      First, I asked around for the “toilette”, which I thought it was a french word, but no one could understand. Then finally I saw a sign that took me to the bowels of the train station (Paris).
      Finally I arrive at the toilet with bent knees, almost crawling and I find a cranky old lady showing me the palm of her hand in the international sign for “Pay me”.
      Fortunately, I had a few British pounds and I think I ended up paying with a 5ver. An outrageous sum for using a toilet and probably 100 times more than I should have paid. The lady seemed happy though and by the end of it I was pretty happy too.

  • I n France, Germany, Netherlands, etc. they still utilize pay toilets to cut down on binge drinking. Now, they have a big problem with public urination. In Amsterdam they have “pissiors” (it’s an sheet metal curtain w/ a hole in the ground to piss in.).

  • In the UK, most toilets in public spaces charge 20-30p to use. It’s very common.

    And they are often urinals… so I’m not sure if it is illegal to charge for them…

  • Where did you get the information about “Walt’s Cafe” ? There was a “Snow White Cafe” (which is now a bar) near Hollywood and Highland that has some sketchy link to Disney, maybe. I’ve never heard of Walt’s or found any info on the place. Just curious 🙂

  • When stationed in Germany it was legal to piss in public as long as you faced away from the street. A lot of areas stunk like piss in the cities. Bathroom (WC) busy? Go outside & piss on the building wall.

  • The situation in Britain now is very unpleasant. Finding a public lavatory is exceptionally difficult in most parts of the country. Usually you have to go in to a shop and ask if they have one.

    The councils started closing the public ones out on the streets in the late 70s, partly to save money and partly because they were being taken over by drug users as illegal drug use was becoming much more common at that time.

    You could still occasionally find public lavatories in parks, but again the councils in most parts of the country closed them down because of “cottaging” or so they claimed that was the reason.

    Now the streets in the centres of big cities usually reek of urine in the mornings, especially in the areas where there are nightclubs.

    This has also lead to some bizarre advice from the police.

  • It is true that you never to go anywhere… except to the crapper. And it’s the only, truly the only place in the world that when you leave, notice that, you are happy !!!

  • Here I sit broken hearted paid to $hit but only farted.

  • In many parts of the world you have to tip an attendant to use a public toilet. Sometimes they give you toilet paper, other times it’s just for the use. I’ve faced this in Egypt, Morocco, Cuba, Tanzania, and other sub-Saharan African nations. The rationale is generally to pay for upkeep, cleaning, etc. On vacations to those countries we were always advised to keep some small amounts of change with us in case we needed to use the restroom.

    Also, in many of those companies the toilet paper is disposed of in a small trash can rather than in the toilet due to inadequacies of their plumbing systems.