Today I Learned: Pay as You Go Toilets Used to be a Thing

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In England and most other parts of the world, we’ve become accustomed to using public toilets at our own free will without any restrictions – aside from when they’re occupied, obviously. However, this wasn’t always the case. Just 50 years ago, some parts of the United States were actually charging people to use public toilets in what can only be described as a ‘pay as you go’ system. Whilst inflation has made sure pretty much everything is more expensive than it once used to be, public toilets are actually an exception to the rule.

In America, it actually used to be quite a commonality for public toilets to require payment before being used. This was most pronounced in large, active public areas such as airports, train stations and bus stops, where people often needed to go to the toilet (especially after a long journey). In some areas, restaurants, cafes and even gas stations would charge to use their facilities; whereas now it’s just common courtesy to purchase a small item if you use their rest room.

Even if you only needed to wash your hands, use a mirror, change your child's nappy or get changed in privacy, guess what, the public toilet charge still applied. And in some cases, you could find facilities such as lights, taps, and toilets not working even after you've paid to get in.

The History Behind Pay As You Go Toilets

Some of the first documented pay as you go toilets were actually constructed way back around 74 AD in Ancient Rome. The Roman Emperor at the time, Titus Flavius Vespasianus (or nicknamed Vespasian) set this up as a way to try and ease the financial burdens of the city after civil wars had taken their toll on the economy and funding. Obviously this didn’t go down too well and many people ridiculed Vespasian for making such a choice. However, his response to this was simple “Money does not smell”. This saying has since become quite famous and has actually been quoted on multiple occasions.

A while later, 1935 to be precise; the prominent and world-renowned Walt Disney proudly opened up a popular café by the name of Walt’s on Hollywood Boulevard in LA. Within a year, Walt had installed pay-toilets and made history by being the first official establishment in all of Northern America to employ such a system. This led to an ‘outbreak’ of pay as you go toilets which quickly became the norm throughout most of America – especially the big tourist cities.

Believe it or not, these pay as you go toilets weren’t actually designed to be a money making scheme; when the fee to use a toilet was just a dime or a quarter – they weren’t profitable. They were simply installed in order to try and offset the costs of cleaning, supplying and maintenance of the bathrooms. The theory was that this initial cost to enter the toilet would actually encourage people to take more care, which would result in a cleaner, higher quality toilet experience. Sadly, this didn't go as planned…

In revolt to the pay-as-you-go scheme, many bathroom goers actually caused chaos in the toilets and left them in abysmal states for the next unknowing person to pay money to use. After a while, this escalated to theft and people often broke into the coin boxes to steal the money people had put in. Hardly a get rich-quick scheme, but it was more about the principle of having  to pay for something that arguably should’ve been free to use.

What Happened To Pay Toilets?

As you’ve probably guessed, the whole idea of paying for toilets was scrapped, or for pun’s sake, flushed. They weren’t profitable and the ongoing damage caused to locks meant that they were causing local authorities / municipalities more hassle and repairs than they were worth. In the 50s and 60s people were also complaining about paying money to use a toilet, only to find that there was no toilet paper – the outrage!

All of this made it hard to warrant the operation of public pay toilets but the real death blow was dealt by women’s rights groups who filed several lawsuits. Luckily, men were often able to escape the fees due to urinals not requiring doors and therefore making them almost impossible to become pay-as-you-go. Women, however, did not enjoy such luxury. Therefore, it was deemed to be a ‘sexually discriminatory practice’ to employ such a scheme in public locations. Couple this with lawsuits from homeless people living in New York stating it was ‘impossible to relieve themselves’, and things had to change…

Chicago were the first to embrace the complaints and took a step in the right direction to ban public pay toilets in 1973. 2 years later, New York city followed suit and outlawed pay toilets altogether. All other big American cities soon got on board and implemented the same restrictions; resulting in a the vast majority of public toilets being free to use by the end of the 70s.

Obviously this was the correct move for America; however, if you’ve visited European countries (Germany, Sweden and a few others), you might already know that pay-as-you-go public toilets are still in use – and being successfully utilised!

If you found this post useful, you may also like - Middle Ages Plumbing - Pissoirs: The History of Public Urinals in Paris - The Rise and Fall of the Outside Toilet.

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