In January of 2008, New York City officials held what may have been the city’s first and only toilet paper cutting ceremony. The celebration was in honor of a pay toilet opening on Madison Avenue that offered pedestrians a place to relieve themselves.
The cost of using this glass and steel kiosk was 25 cents, but it came with a penalty. If occupants weren’t done within 15 minutes, the door would fling open, subjecting passersby to a view of something they’d rather not see.
This vaguely cruel arrangement was one of the last gasps of the pay toilet model, which had been around for a good portion of the 20th century before concerns over taxing bowel movements as well as gender discrimination took hold. Thanks to some enterprising high school students, the practice of paying to poop was destined to get flushed.
In ancient Rome, Vespasian may have been the first municipal leader to mandate pay toilets as well as a tax on bodily discharge. In addition to taxing the urine used for leathering, his citizens were charged for using toilets in 74 CE, though privacy was hardly guaranteed and the fees didn’t subsidize any real toilet amenities. Excrement and urine didn’t always make it into waste areas; they often ended up on the floor instead. Parasites were common. Rather than toilet paper, people cleaned themselves with a sponge on a stick, which had to be passed around for everyone to use. It’s a wonder the Romans lasted as long as they did.
Later, England made great use of pay toilets during their Great Exhibition of 1851, a kind of prototype World’s Fair showcasing Victorian ingenuity. Visitors used the pay toilets more than 800,000 times, paying a penny each time—which is a pretty good example of said ingenuity.
By the 20th century, industrial advancement had conspired with colonic capitalism to realize coin-operated stalls. For exact change, users would be permitted to relieve themselves. By 1970, an estimated 50,000 pay toilets were in place.
Installing a pay toilet was rarely about profit for city governments, as maintenance costs could easily outpace whatever fee was required. If one were truly desperate, they could always try crawling under the stall door.
There was a perceived safety aspect to toilet locks, as the barrier of payment was thought to discourage drug use, sexual activity, thefts, or “hippies” from loitering, though it’s not clear why any persons using the toilet for nefarious purposes couldn’t just pay their dime and get on with it.
But there was a larger, more glaring issue: While toilets were subject to a fee, urinals were not. That meant men had the freedom to empty their bladders without being charged, while women looking to use a stall had to pay.
It was a subtle form of gender discrimination, but it didn’t go unnoticed. In 1969, California State Assemblywoman March Fong Eu took to the steps of the California State Capitol building and smashed a porcelain toilet with a sledgehammer to protest the inequality promoted by the locked stalls. It was the beginning of a revolution.
At roughly the same time Eu was making her feelings known, four high school students decided to make pay toilets their pet cause. In 1968, Dayton, Ohio, teenagers (and brothers) Michael and Ira Gessel were on a road trip in Pennsylvania with their parents when they encountered a pay toilet at a Howard Johnson's restaurant. The brothers couldn’t believe spare change was needed to relieve themselves. Back in Dayton and with friends Steve Froikin and Natalie Precker, the group formed what became known as the Committee to End Pay Toilets in America, an activist group that championed free bowel movements for all.
The foursome drafted model legislation and circulated press releases drawing attention to the issue, which received national media exposure. Their logo was a fist clutching chains rising out of a toilet bowl to represent this evacuation oppression. The Gessels were voicing what America had been thinking all along: That charging a person to poop verged on being inhumane.
While some of this was clearly a kind of juvenile theater—the foursome wrote ballads like “Ode to a Pay Toilet”—their endgame was no joke. They opened collegiate chapters around the country and drew the attention of lawmakers.
Speaking with the Associated Press in 2018, Michael Gessel said he believed the movement was solid. “We did what no one else before us had succeeded in doing, which was to move the debate from a pure joke to serious action,” he said. “I think there was a window to do this. We were involved in the ’70s, it was the beginning of the feminist movement, then called women’s liberation, and 10 years later you had Ronald Reagan and a curtain of conservatism that came down. I think people would not have been open to the humor of it.”
Change was relatively swift. Chicago made the first move following a Committee press conference, removing pay toilets from public facilities. Ohio followed suit, with then-governor James Rhodes signing a bill into law that mandated one free toilet for every paid bowl in the state. Before long, roughly half the pay toilets in the country were decommissioned.
While pay toilets are a bit of an endangered porcelain species today, they're not totally out of the picture. They're more common overseas, especially in Europe, where residents of Paris, London, and Amsterdam still need some change in order to do their business. And while New York State banned them in 1975, New York City has made exceptions periodically, including the 2008 pay toilets with the trap door-esque time limits. Those are still in use in at least five locations today, though inflation hasn’t hit: It’s still 25 cents. And they appear to be a bit of a secret, as each only sees an average of 18 to 50 flushes daily.
In San Francisco, Good2Go is an app that connects those with bloated bladders to touchless restroom facilities at businesses. There is a fee for the service, which can range from 99 cents for one use to $19.99 for a monthly pass of “unlimited usage.” Vespasian would approve.