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A Brief History of Pay Toilets in the U.S.

Joey is an undergrad at the University of Alabama studying History and Economics. He has many interests including the History of the World.

Early Pay Toilets

The earliest pay toilet ever recorded was installed in 74 AD in Rome. Emperor Titus installed these at bathrooms and bathhouses in order to ease the financial burden resulting from the several wars that Rome was involved in. The toilets, however, did not last. An outcry from Roman citizens and protests caused these toilets to eventually be installed. However new more luxurious pay to use toilets were placed next to common ones in order to make up for their losses.

The first modern pay toilet was invented by an Englishman, John Nevil Maskelyne. Maskelyne was a famous magician, inventor, and conman. So his creation of a device that forces people to pay for a bodily function makes sense.

The First in the US

The first pay toilet in the United States was installed in 1910 in Terre Haute, Indiana. These first pay toilets cost a nickel. That would be roughly $2.80 in 2019. As can be expected after these machines were placed nationwide a lot of people started complaining, protesting and even boycotting.

Prior to protests, many businesses were making loads of money playing these locks on stalls withing bathrooms, or even on the bathroom door. However, once the backlash began these places of business started to lose money as now, nobody went to that location, because of their use of a pay toilet.

The boycotts and protests continued, largely unsuccessful. Pay toilets continued prominently into the 1960s. However, by this time businesses gave out tokens to paying customers in order to use the pay toilets. This practice evolved after pay toilets were removed so that only paying customers could use the facilities at certain stores.


"You can have a fifty-dollar bill, but if you don't have a dime, that metal box is between you and relief."

— Ira Gessel

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In 1970 the "Committee to End Pay Toilets", or CEPTIA was founded by then 19 year old Ira Gessel.

Ira, working out of Dayton, Ohio, lead CEPTIA and held interviews newspapers and through donations lobbied for the banning of pay toilets. Three years later Ira's first success appeared when the city of Chicago banned the use of pay toilets within its city.

However, CEPTIA was not finished. According to the New York Times, in 1974, there were roughly 50,000 Pay toilets still in use in the United States that were made by the Nik-O-Lok Company. CEPTIA still had a lot more fighting to do.

"When a man's or woman's natural body functions are restricted because he or she doesn't have a piece of change, there is no true freedom."

— Ira Gessel

Through Lobbying and arguing in court CEPTIA and Ira Gessel were able to get pay toilets banned in 18 states. In the states that did not ban them, pay toilets were so stigmatized that no business with them could hold a positive reputation.

One of the more famous arguments by CEPTIA was the sexism created by pay toilets. As men could use the free use urinals, while women were forced to pay to use stalls. Therefore those businesses who installed pay toilets were partaking in sexist business practices that were illegal.


This however is not the end of the pay toilet story in the United States, as many of the bans on pay toilets are being lifted. In 2007 the Ohio state ban on these Toilets was lifted.

Many other states followed Ohio and have either lifted or eased up restrictions on Pey toilets, so the United States may go through another phase of protests and boycotts on pay toilets once again.

© 2020 Joey Dykes

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