I.P. Freely
September 17, 2014 10:52 PM   Subscribe

What happened to pay toilets in the USA? In the early 1900s, when railroads connected America’s biggest cities with rural outposts, train stations were sometimes the only place in town with modern plumbing. To keep locals from freely using the bathrooms, railroad companies installed locks on the stall doors—only to be unlocked by railroad employees for ticketed passengers. Eventually, coin-operated locks were introduced, making the practice both more convenient and more profitable. Pay toilets then sprung up in the nation’s airports, bus stations, and highway rest stops. By 1970, America had over 50,000 pay toilets. By 1980, there were almost none.
posted by modernnomad (98 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
Maybe we just live in a different time now, but I have a hard time imagining those locks not being broken inside of a day after their installation.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:01 PM on September 17, 2014 [5 favorites]


pay toilets are illegal in california, thanks in large part to march fong (later, march fong eu), an assemblywoman and later, california secretary of state, who made this one of her signature issues and at one point, smashed a toilet bowl on the steps of the state capitol.
posted by bruce at 11:02 PM on September 17, 2014 [13 favorites]


pay toilets “discourage drug addicts, homosexuals, muggers and just plain hippies from haunting public restrooms.”

Fuck yeah free toilets!

That was cool, but wait, did I miss how CEPTIA actually helped bring down pay toilets? I confess I skimmed a bit.
posted by latkes at 11:03 PM on September 17, 2014 [2 favorites]


pay toilets are illegal in california, thanks in large part to march fong (later, march fong eu), an assemblywoman and later, california secretary of state, who made this one of her signature issues and at one point, smashed a toilet bowl on the steps of the state capitol.

Dude, this is in the article.
posted by latkes at 11:04 PM on September 17, 2014 [21 favorites]


But here's a cool picture of March Fong Eu jogging.
posted by latkes at 11:06 PM on September 17, 2014 [5 favorites]


"[...]CEPTIA … wasn’t making a bid for power: its end was its own elimination.”

Oh, what a line for them to go out on. Bravo.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:09 PM on September 17, 2014 [18 favorites]


Hated these things in the few places I encountered them while vacationing in Britain. Didn't realize America still had them till the 80's!
posted by sbutler at 11:09 PM on September 17, 2014 [2 favorites]


and then i rtfa...
posted by bruce at 11:11 PM on September 17, 2014 [4 favorites]


* silently and frantically waving at modernnomad to shhhh-sh-sh-sh! *
posted by Angleton at 11:14 PM on September 17, 2014 [1 favorite]


My impression from the article was it had to do more with how it discriminated against women than this group, bout I guess the author thought this was the funnier hook.
posted by tavella at 11:14 PM on September 17, 2014 [1 favorite]


The only pay toilet I know of left in Norway is in the main railway station in Oslo, where the toll is supposed to discourage "undesirables", I guess.
posted by Harald74 at 11:19 PM on September 17, 2014 [2 favorites]


Until I went to New Zealand, where they have some public toilets that are literally works of art, I hadn't ever really thought about access to public toilets.

But now I have seen the public toilets! I know what the US is missing! Better public toilet access for all people with desperately-crosssed legs!
posted by aniola at 11:30 PM on September 17, 2014


I worked the graveyard shift at a Kinko's in Seattle. Specifically, on Capitol Hill, which is ground zero for artists, hipsters, cool kids and junkies. At night, especially in the cold months, that's where they'd go for a nice private, warm, free place to shoot up. They'd ask to use the bathroom, I'd give him/her the key, and later find needles, trash, all manner of bodily fluids, including sprays of blood spattering the white walls. One junkie, just to be an asshole, I guess, unspooled an entire roll of toilet paper (and maybe other stuff) and stuffed it in the toilet, flushed, and clogged it up something fierce. Had to call a plumber on that one.

In short, we spent an inordinate amount of time dealing with assholes who would fuck up the bathroom. I don't know if a pay toilet would've solved the junkie problem, but it probably would've been better.
posted by zardoz at 11:32 PM on September 17, 2014 [13 favorites]


I had the same experience working swing shift at Kinko's in NW Portland, zardoz. We were always trying some new restroom policy or another but nothing was ever really effective. Either the policy was so harsh that it made all of the customers mad, or it was so weak that it didn't do any good. We had a pregnant lady threaten to pee on our floor because we weren't letting anyone in the restrooms at one point - a new manager had just instituted a more draconian policy after we spent a miserable week dealing with horrible restroom scenes every day.
posted by dialetheia at 11:42 PM on September 17, 2014 [9 favorites]


Soundtrack for this thread: Urinetown: The Musical.

It's a privilege to pee!

posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 11:47 PM on September 17, 2014 [3 favorites]


pay toilets “discourage drug addicts, homosexuals, muggers and just plain hippies from haunting public restrooms.”

well thanks a lot, now we have Candyman
posted by mannequito at 11:47 PM on September 17, 2014 [10 favorites]


Let's not forget inflation! According to the CPI Inflation Calculator, a dime in 1970 was the equivalent of 61 cents today!
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:53 PM on September 17, 2014 [5 favorites]


Ha! IIRC the price at Glasgow Central Station was £0.40... which is $0.65 USD. Funny that.
posted by sbutler at 11:57 PM on September 17, 2014 [1 favorite]


There are a few public toilets- the automated self cleaning kind- here in Sydney that were originally going to be I think 50 cents a visit.. they were even going to hand out free toilet tokens to the homeless and such! But I don't think they ever actually set them up so you would have to pay. Mostly they've just closed them down entirely- so there's a whole bunch of perfectly good public restroom facilities dotted around the CBD that no-one can use at all!

Other than that- I don't think the pay toilet concept ever really went anywhere here.

ALSO: I'd been wondering about the origins of the phrase "spend a penny" as in to take a pee.. and it would appear that this whole pay-toilet thing might have something to do with it.
posted by Philby at 12:03 AM on September 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


Come to think of it, pay toilets would be a horrible pain nowadays because a lot of people never handle cash money anymore unless they have a specific use for it. And card-taking pay toilet locks, with the need for privacy precluding effective surveillance, would be prime targets for skimmer installation.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:13 AM on September 18, 2014 [8 favorites]


The Oakland Amtrak/CalTrain station has locked bathrooms that require miniature tokens from the ticketing counter. The tokens aren't much larger than sequins; they're not the size of any North American coinage or transportation tokens I've ever seen.

But the ticket counter isn't even staffed most of the day, or at all in the evenings, unless there's a train in the station that moment. Being a passenger dropped off long before a train arrives - and Amtrak is rarely on time - sucks.
posted by Dreidl at 12:17 AM on September 18, 2014 [3 favorites]


When I was there a couple of years ago, the mens' toilets in Grand Central Market in downtown L.A. had a little coin-operated lock on the main door. You could of course just wait for someone else to come out and hold the door. Never seen anything like it anywhere else.
posted by grahamparks at 12:22 AM on September 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


Can't you just crawl under the door of a pay toilet? I'm not sure how it is in Europe, but in the US there's usually about 18 inches under the door.
posted by crapmatic at 12:34 AM on September 18, 2014


Nope, in the rest of the world, those doors are all the way to the floor. Otherwise people would just etc.
posted by Too-Ticky at 12:40 AM on September 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


They tried these just a couple years ago in Seattle for some reason. They just became pay to play self service prostitute fuck stations and crack smoking rest stops.

The city sold them on eBay in a haze of shame.

Why they just couldn't build some normal fucking public bathrooms like we have in the parks and such, I don't know.
posted by emptythought at 12:41 AM on September 18, 2014 [3 favorites]


Can't you just crawl under the door of a pay toilet? I'm not sure how it is in Europe, but in the US there's usually about 18 inches under the door.
posted by crapmatic

hmm.
posted by Wolof at 12:42 AM on September 18, 2014 [12 favorites]




pay toilets are illegal in california, thanks in large part to march fong (later, march fong eu), an assemblywoman and later, california secretary of state, who made this one of her signature issues and at one point, smashed a toilet bowl on the steps of the state capitol.

I've seen pay toilets in California mostly in large cities' downtown areas. The Starbucks I go to in downtown San Diego went from token (customer) or quarter (non customer) to a code you have to enter (which the staff tend to only give to customers). There's a Wendy's downtown I've been to that requires a token/quarter to use. One time I entered to find a buck naked homeless man using the sink to clean up. The worst McDonalds in the World in San Ysidro CA by the Mexican border has a quarter turnstile to enter the restroom area WITH A SECURITY GUARD making sure you don't jump the turnstile. And even if buy something from the McDonalds you still have to pay -- and they may not have quarters to give in change.It is a popular spot to use the bathroom since the bathroom at the Customs and Border Patrol border crossing has been closed "for cleaning" since Dick Nixon's opening ceremonies in the 70s.
posted by birdherder at 1:13 AM on September 18, 2014 [4 favorites]


birdherder: "The Starbucks I go to in downtown San Diego went from token (customer) or quarter (non customer) to a code you have to enter (which the staff tend to only give to customers)."
The Starbucks in Cologne has solved that fairly elegantly: the toilet code (six digits) is printed at the bottom of every receipt. This also means you can change it daily with no problems.
posted by brokkr at 1:17 AM on September 18, 2014 [6 favorites]


Here I sit broken-hearted,
paid a dime but only farted.
Yesterday I took a chance,
saved my dime and shit my pants.

posted by fairmettle at 2:02 AM on September 18, 2014 [37 favorites]


WITH A SECURITY GUARD

A security guard seems a bit much but the pay toilets I've encountered in Latin America came with an attendant who takes your money and offers you like three squares of toilet paper. It's a good system since they take care of cleaning and can make (small) change. I don't recall exact costs, but when you are desperate price is not such a big factor.

I haven't seen a coin operated toilet since I was a kid.
posted by Dip Flash at 2:26 AM on September 18, 2014


Can't you just crawl under the door of a pay toilet? I'm not sure how it is in Europe, but in the US there's usually about 18 inches under the door.

As someone who was once stuck in an airport with no loose change (and no obvious place to get change nearby) I can tell you that it is indeed possible. Other mefites around my age can probably verify this as well.
posted by TedW at 2:31 AM on September 18, 2014 [3 favorites]


We were always trying some new restroom policy or another but nothing was ever really effective. Either the policy was so harsh that it made all of the customers mad, or it was so weak that it didn't do any good.

Oh, man, I could've been the author of your comment. Kinko's customers can be the biggest douches in the world, and demand to use the bathroom, even though it's not a goddamn restaurant and there's no law dictating customers can use it at all. But yeah, same thing: we banned customer use and people bitched like crazy. No good choices.
posted by zardoz at 3:12 AM on September 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


Seattle installed five automated public restrooms in 'problem areas' in 2004, but the result was such a literal shitshow the city gave up and removed them in 2008.

The program was doomed to failure from the outset, partly because of Seattle's political shit or go blind culture of 'consensus', exacerbated by a four decades long succession
of 'business friendly' mayors and city council members. But mostly because even the 'evangelical progressive' citizens, insulated by their wealth, prefer everyone below them
in the wealth pyramid magically vanish after business hours to whichever dilapidated suburb they can afford. If you are homeless, you should go somewhere else entirely.

Seattle is the most mean-spirited city I've lived in. It wasn't always this way, but in the last 15 years it's transformed into a deluded libertarian paradise shithole.
posted by Pudhoho at 3:37 AM on September 18, 2014 [6 favorites]


we banned customer use and people bitched like crazy

I didn't argue the morning I was using your services when you denied my request to use your restroom. I just quietly pissed on your rug.
posted by Pudhoho at 3:47 AM on September 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


emptythought: "They tried these just a couple years ago in Seattle for some reason. They just became pay to play self service prostitute fuck stations and crack smoking rest stops. ... Why they just couldn't build some normal fucking public bathrooms like we have in the parks and such, I don't know."

Have you been to the public restrooms at Aurora Village Transit Center? I suspect that's a big reason why none of the other transit centers have restrooms, except for the open-only-during-business-hours ones at Bellevue Transit Center.

I'm a big supporter of both public transit and public facilities, but, damn, the way most bathrooms seem to be used and abused really makes me understand why there aren't more. (is that OK, or am I being mean-spirited?)
posted by fireoyster at 4:10 AM on September 18, 2014 [4 favorites]


The smartest reason to get rid of pay-to-piss was probably that it's ultimately less of a hassle to have an employee mop the inside of a tiled bathroom than clean up sewage deposited randomly around your parking lot and up against the side of your premises. Which is exactly what happens when you have a miserly toilet policy.
posted by El Mariachi at 4:15 AM on September 18, 2014 [4 favorites]


pay toilets are illegal in california, thanks in large part to march fong (later, march fong eu), an assemblywoman and later, california secretary of state, who made this one of her signature issues and at one point, smashed a toilet bowl on the steps of the state capitol.

I could have sworn that there was a pay toilet in Palo Alto next to the Burger King in the late 1990's. It was one of those that self-sanitized after you were done.
posted by Comrade_robot at 4:18 AM on September 18, 2014


I'm a big supporter of both public transit and public facilities, but, damn, the way most bathrooms seem to be used and abused really makes me understand why there aren't more.

I'm pretty sure that there would be a measurable relationship between overall social service provision and how well public restrooms function. I mean, it's not like a public rest room is the preferred location for prostitution or shooting up; it's what you use when you don't have another option, just like shitting in the park is what you do when there are no restrooms. Public restrooms will always need careful design and plenty of oversight and maintenance, but you solve the drugs/prostitution/etc problem at political level, not at the bathroom level.

But I can also remember peeing in parks and behind buildings in European cities when I couldn't find a public restroom, so it's not like great social services automatically mean great bathrooms everywhere -- just that the bathrooms available might be less awful.
posted by Dip Flash at 4:18 AM on September 18, 2014 [3 favorites]


It's practically a bonding experience for northern men clustered around the pay toilets at Marylebone station after getting the train into the metropolis,

"20p? only in London..."
posted by brilliantmistake at 4:22 AM on September 18, 2014


I propose that we reform our drug laws and the retask police to cracking down on public restroom wreckers. Those ill mannered assholes who trash the stall, clog toilets and shit and piss everywhere but the toilet.
posted by humanfont at 4:41 AM on September 18, 2014 [6 favorites]


When you are a small child in KMart and you announce to your mother you need to use the potty, watch as she scurries through her purse to find the $0.15 necessary to use it. The change had to be a nickle and a dime as it was the ever popular hand crank. Climbing in wasn't an option, these were effectively small rooms with full doors - not stalls. I remember it being impeccably clean.

So why a pay toilet? Economics. If there is a cost to a service, you discourage people that don't really need it, or are going to horse around with it. Really, if you don't get it, think about paying $5.00 to talk on this site vs. rededit.

That's right, want to know what metafilter is?

Metafilter: the pay toilet of intellectual discourse on the internet.
posted by Nanukthedog at 4:53 AM on September 18, 2014 [41 favorites]


I remember in the very early 80s somewhere I went -- in NH, maybe? -- had pay toilets, but they were always very busy, so generally people would hold them open for the next person. One year suddenly they were missing.
posted by jeather at 5:00 AM on September 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


Haven't seen a pay toilet since, oh, the '60s or so, I guess: used to be in all the highway rest-stops and places like that. Don't remember actually paying that dime though: people hated those things so much, they'd just hold the door open so the next person could get in free, and so on and so on.

Somebody asked if you couldn't just crawl under the door instead: they used to either have doors all the way down to the floor, or just a few inches above --- not enough space for even a kid to crawl through.
posted by easily confused at 5:02 AM on September 18, 2014


Metafilter: the pay toilet of intellectual discourse on the internet.

Perhaps with their current financial situation, MeFi might consider switching to a 10¢ per crap comment model.
posted by fairmettle at 5:16 AM on September 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


McNally Jackson Books in SoHo in NYC has a pay toilet. It costs a quarter, but if you ask at the desk they will actually give you a quarter to open the door (plus, as other people have noted, people tend to hold the door open for the next person.) They have a sign explaining that it's been done to cut down on drug use in the restroom. It says something like, "Have you seen what needles can do to plumbing?"
posted by Jahaza at 5:25 AM on September 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


I encountered a public restroom with pay toilets in the heart of the tourist strip in Old Orchard Beach, Maine circa 1990. It looked like it had been built (and last cleaned) during the Eisenhower administration, with an attendant who looked like he had been there since it opened.
posted by usonian at 5:36 AM on September 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


The only pay toilet I know of left in Norway is in the main railway station in Oslo, where the toll is supposed to discourage "undesirables", I guess.

As an American, Norway's attitude in general towards public restrooms mystifies me. In line with what the article says, I haven't come across any pay toilets in the US in my lifetime, and public restrooms in the US are pretty much ubiquitous. Norway, on the other hand, has a frustrating lack of free/public restrooms. I've run into pay toilets - Oslo City mall, for one. (What reason they could have for making paying customers of the mall pay to use the restroom is beyond me...) I've joked with my husband in the past that I'd almost rather tape a sign on the door saying "å gå på do er en menneskerettighet!" (going to the bathroom is a human right!) and go on the floor instead of paying $2 to pee, so hearing that was the argument CEPTIA used gave me a chuckle. Then you have the places where you have to get a code on your receipt to use the restroom, and they're not necessarily in areas you'd find many "undesirables" hanging out (Bekkestua McDonald's, I'm looking at you!) And it's a lot more difficult to find a restroom when you're out shopping at the grocery store, for example. For a country that's proud to offer 5 weeks of vacation, universal healthcare, an extensive social safety net, etc., why there's no push for free and more easily accessible bathrooms is just baffling.
posted by flod logic at 5:42 AM on September 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


For a group whose entire schtick is toilet humor, surely the Society to End Pay Toilets In America would have been a better name than the Committee.
posted by rlk at 5:43 AM on September 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


I ran into this pay-toilet business at a bus station in France some time ago (pre-Euro). I had change from half a dozen different countries jangling in my backpack but could not find the right combination of coins to get in. A kindly french guy came over and grabbed two coins from my hands and put them in the lock for me.

There comes a point where restricting toilet access to keep things tidy becomes self-defeating.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 5:49 AM on September 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


Here I sit broken-hearted ...

My dad, who was born in 1933, taught me this when I was small. I thought it was great even though I'd never seen a pay toilet.

He also told me about the iceman that came to put ice blocks in their icebox. He only had one arm but somehow maneuvered the pick and blocks anyway.
posted by freecellwizard at 5:56 AM on September 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


As a woman who doesn't enjoy disgusting things, I would pay a premium (say up to $5) to use a guaranteed sparkling clean facility. There has to be some money in this for someone.
posted by Jess the Mess at 6:00 AM on September 18, 2014 [3 favorites]


I fully expect the day where public toilet doors will require an app on your smartphone, complerte with micropayment direct from your bank account, and a barcode to run under a scanner to unlock the door.

Oh, you wanted toilet paper? You need another app for that.
posted by briank at 6:02 AM on September 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


In the basement of the East Building of the National Gallery, there's a trapezoidal marble bathroom that my friends always referred to as a Pei toilet.
posted by Stig at 6:05 AM on September 18, 2014 [15 favorites]


I don't really care if you have to pay or not, I just want some sort of public toilets so the homeless dudes that panhandle in front of the 7-11 have somewhere to shit besides the alley behind my house.
posted by Ham Snadwich at 6:11 AM on September 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


flod logic, that's because Norwegians have so much extra money lying around that they need to think of ways to pay for things you might otherwise think were free.
posted by spitbull at 6:39 AM on September 18, 2014


I like the idea of these self-cleaning public toilets (here's a pop up urinal in Watford - cool!) - anyone used one? Either the pop-up or a self-cleaning toilet?

Great FPP. The disappearance of pay toilets in America is something I hadn't noticed or thought much about (glad they're gone!).
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 6:53 AM on September 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


(Um, well actually there's not much to the pop-up one, so I don't think I need to hear about that...!)
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 6:55 AM on September 18, 2014


I remember entering a public restroom, being handed a coin by my mother who then disappeared into her own stall, then unlocking the door before me only to find one of these. Pretty daunting for a six-year-old.
posted by kinnakeet at 7:01 AM on September 18, 2014


I encountered a public restroom with pay toilets in the heart of the tourist strip in Old Orchard Beach, Maine circa 1990. It looked like it had been built (and last cleaned) during the Eisenhower administration, with an attendant who looked like he had been there since it opened.

There is indeed a (fairly famous) pay toilet in OOB. It was non-pay for a while but they went back to pay (kids under 12 free!) a couple of years ago. Here's an article. However, having just been there a few days ago, I can say for certain that it's been upgraded since your visit - they even have fancy Dyson handdryers now.
posted by anastasiav at 7:18 AM on September 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


A privately owned restroom on The Pier already has fees – 50 cents for single use or $2.50 for a day pass

I'd like to buy a day pass to the bathroom.
posted by jeather at 7:31 AM on September 18, 2014


Pay toilets were also an answer to men having sex with other men in public toilets. The modern solution seems to be simply having no toilets at all. I swear, some day I'm going to just whip it out and piss right in the gutter in San Francisco. I figure that's inappropriate, but not as bad as the local's habit of shitting in doorways.

I've always appreciated the European approach to public conveniences, having a full-time staff person who keeps the restaurant tidy in exchange for tips. €0.50 or so, pay according to your means. It's not a great job but it is a job, and the toilets stay clean, and it's a humane way to charge only the people who can afford it. I see fewer and fewer of those setups though, they seem old fashioned.
posted by Nelson at 7:31 AM on September 18, 2014


And no story is complete without a mention of the Portland Loo, which seems to have solved most of the problems associated with public toilets (i.e. easy to clean, durable, enough privacy to do your business but not enough for fucking).
posted by Ham Snadwich at 7:33 AM on September 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


I've always appreciated the European approach to public conveniences, having a full-time staff person who keeps the restaurant tidy in exchange for tips. €0.50 or so, pay according to your means.

That may depend on where in Europe you are. As I recall, on my trip to Paris, paying the attendant in the men's room at the Gare du Nord was definitely not an optional "tip."
posted by dnash at 7:39 AM on September 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


In the Bay Area there are public restrooms starting to pop up where you have to login with a social media account. Pics of the room pre- and post-use are posted to your Insta/Wall/Feed for public shaming. It's a much more effective model, the ones I've used are absolutely pristine.
posted by one_bean at 7:47 AM on September 18, 2014 [4 favorites]


I had never heard of pay toilets until we went to visit my aunt and uncle in Florida in the early 1980's. They have a daughter a few years younger than I, and it was our job to crawl under the stall doors of any pay toilets and open them from the inside.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:49 AM on September 18, 2014


When we lived in New York, like a lot of people we learned to know where all the available toilets were (B&N was good, Starbucks was ok but a terrible wait, McDonalds was iffy, depending on which one it was).

We often fantasized about opening a bathroom business. Come in, pay a small amount, use our restroom, our employee cleans it immediately after. Buy a bottled drink on the way out so we know you'll be back. We could sell memberships (9 visits, 10th is free). There could be levels (pay more and get a fancy Japanese toilet that perfumes your butt). If you looked like trouble or caused a problem, we could kick you out. If you're an exhausted parent hauling your kid around, park that stroller and go to the diaper-changing station, stocked up with wipes and gloves and also cleaned immediately after. Forget your diapers? We can sell you one.

I still think it's a great idea. I wish I had the cash to do it.
posted by emjaybee at 7:55 AM on September 18, 2014 [5 favorites]


When I was there a couple of years ago, the mens' toilets in Grand Central Market in downtown L.A. had a little coin-operated lock on the main door. You could of course just wait for someone else to come out and hold the door.

Can confirm that both the coin lock and the behavior mentioned are still in evidence there this summer.
posted by Celsius1414 at 8:00 AM on September 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


A luxury pay toilet opened a few years ago in Oxford Street (London's main shopping street) to lots of publicity. Given I can't find anything on the web that isn't several years old, it seems like it didn't last long.
posted by grahamparks at 8:09 AM on September 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


I don't know what I find wierder about Europe, the widespread practice of charging to use the restroom, or the four-plex outdoor unrinals.
posted by T.D. Strange at 8:09 AM on September 18, 2014


We often fantasized about opening a bathroom business. Come in, pay a small amount, use our restroom, our employee cleans it immediately after.

Whatever happened to the Charmin "store" in Times Square? Not profitable enough outside the holiday season?
posted by monospace at 8:16 AM on September 18, 2014


The ever-practical Dutch, in the meantime, seem to have been rather successful in combating the scourge of "wildplassen" (peeing in the wild) by installing a "pispaal" (pissing pole) in areas heavily travelled by (male) nightlife revelers.
posted by monospace at 8:20 AM on September 18, 2014


Whatever happened to the Charmin "store" in Times Square? Not profitable enough outside the holiday season?

The article says it was temporary ad gimmick.
posted by Jahaza at 8:28 AM on September 18, 2014


I admit to being inordinately enamoured of Paris's self-cleaning sidewalk pissoirs, but also that the first time I used one, I was slightly alarmed by the water sweeping across the floor while the door was still locked shut:
"Do you expect me to use the public convenience and go about my day?"
"No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to drown."
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 8:28 AM on September 18, 2014 [4 favorites]




CEPTIA logo
posted by exogenous at 9:03 AM on September 18, 2014 [5 favorites]


> In the Bay Area there are public restrooms starting to pop up where you have to login with a social media account. Pics of the room pre- and post-use are posted to your Insta/Wall/Feed for public shaming.

And I thought SF couldn't top itself.
posted by Monochrome at 9:13 AM on September 18, 2014 [7 favorites]


I'm old so I don't know if this persists nowadays. But in Ann Arbor they used to have a city ordinance that businesses with more than a certain number of seats, had to have public restrooms. As a results, many eateries had small dining areas. Larger places would close most of their dining rooms at some point in the evening, specifically so that they could close their bathrooms. It's not like they weren't busy enough to need those tables at night; the wait for tables was crazy. But no one wanted the bar crowd in their bathrooms. There were basically no bathrooms anywhere, even though the streets were teeming with crowds.

I worked in a retail store in one of those neighborhoods, back in the 80s. Our store was only open in the daytime. It had a little patio in back, and every morning when we opened at 9, one of the staff would have to go out and pour bleach everywhere, and rinse all the sewage away. It was the worst part of a pretty terrible job.

Pay toilets down there might have helped.
posted by elizilla at 9:17 AM on September 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


I was watching Secrets of Selfridges last month, and one of the interesting tidbits they shared was that one factor in helping Selfridges become popular when it first opened was that it was basically the only public place a Victorian middle class woman had in London where she would use the toilet.

So, in a way, the public toilet (pay or not) paved the way for retail as we know it today.
posted by anastasiav at 9:24 AM on September 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


I always used to be mystified, as a kid, when I came across the (once ubiquitous) British euphemism "spend a penny" (meaning "use the toilet"). But, of course, it came from the Victorian invention of pay-toilets for the public. And back then, of course, a penny was a meaningful chunk of change.

Growing up, as I did, in a place that had free public toilets it always struck me as sort of barbaric. On the other hand, many of the public toilets in my city were so disgusting that one only used them if absolutely desperate.

This is one of those conundrums of public policy to which there is never a completely happy solution. It's true that the US has "free" toilets. Mostly that means that truly "public" restrooms are comparatively rare. Mostly people think of the toilets in malls etc. as "public" but, as any homeless person could tell you, they're not, really. Outside of malls, a lot of us are used to the experience of going into some place like a McDonalds or what have you and buying something cheap just as an excuse to use the loo. You're not paying for the toilet directly, but you're paying, nonetheless.

The self-cleaning pay toilets I've used in Europe were, actually, wonderful; but then, I could afford to use them. The only thing that really bugged me about them were the ones that had a countdown before you absolutely had to be done with your business (an anti-prostitution measure). I also heard recently of a couple (later, perhaps unsurprisingly, divorced) where the husband insisted on pushing his wife into the loo after he'd finished in order to try to get two pisses on one payment--she got trapped inside while it went through its self-cleaning routine.
posted by yoink at 9:24 AM on September 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


ALSO: I'd been wondering about the origins of the phrase "spend a penny" as in to take a pee

Yep… I have a very old coin-operated toilet door lock on the wall at home (in the toilet, naturally). It takes one old-fashioned, cartwheel sized British penny, and is a thing of beauty.

In fact, it looks very like this.
posted by 43rdAnd9th at 9:28 AM on September 18, 2014 [3 favorites]


It was very off-putting to walk down a spiral staircase to the public bathroom in East Berlin in 1988, only to discover a very grumpy-looking old lady with a mop standing by the sinks. I think she was only there to scowl at us.

We peed and fled upwards to the light, being American teens behind the Iron Curtain, but my friend's dad emerged a few minutes later, holding what appeared to be a scrap of coarse, pink construction paper or maybe rosin paper from a construction project. He says it's what they had for toilet paper in the stalls, and I believed him after the rasping that the attendant's glare gave us.
posted by wenestvedt at 12:30 PM on September 18, 2014


T. D. Strange: four-plex outdoor unrinals.

*boggle*
posted by wenestvedt at 12:32 PM on September 18, 2014


As I recall, on my trip to Paris, paying the attendant in the men's room at the Gare du Nord was definitely not an optional "tip."

My first trip to Paris (94? 95?) included the usage of a "public restroom" at a restaurant which was actually a lime-dusted open pit in an unlit shed out back. As heinous as it was, it was excellent preparation for other world travel which often included standard modernish squat toilets, which were of course glorious in comparison.
posted by poffin boffin at 12:52 PM on September 18, 2014


Public toilets are readily available in most of the older parts of urban china. not so much in the new but businesses are required to make them available to even the non-customer public. This contrasts greatly with the u.s. and for what reason is unclear except the irrational hatred of having the government do anything except go to war overseas.
posted by SteveLaudig at 2:17 PM on September 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


I've seen a solution to vandalism and illicit behavior in Japanese bar bathrooms that seems to work. Instead of a door, it's a flimsy curtain, not quite floor length.

When you really have to pee, it will do. Not really where you'd go for some privacy, though.
posted by ctmf at 3:20 PM on September 18, 2014


In addition to parents with little kids, how on earth can you justify pay toilets for people with conditions that may require them to go immediately, with little notice? I was just talking to a friend with Crohn's Disease about public bathrooms this week, and well...let's just say I would not want to be fumbling around for coins in one of her emergency situations.
posted by ActionPopulated at 3:20 PM on September 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


I was just talking to a friend with Crohn's Disease about public bathrooms this week, and well...let's just say I would not want to be fumbling around for coins in one of her emergency situations.

I see a lot of boggling about having to pay to use toilets here, but honestly as someone who had to pee a lot and often travels with family members who have irritable bowel, I'd rather see lots of (nice) pay toilets rather than be stuck in situations with someone who *really* has to go and we can't find a goddamn place to use the bathroom because we don't hang out in big box stores all the time.

Shopping areas with small stores can be very bad for this. You gotta hope the lady in the small boutique will take mercy on your sister, or maybe you have to run down to the coffee shop and promise to buy pastries.
posted by Squeak Attack at 4:09 PM on September 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


I recall being a young thing travelling with my peers and encountering pay stalls at the Hoboken train station. We originally handled this by visiting the bathroom in groups (as girls are wont to do in any case) and spending only the first dime and then handing off. Then some more daring of us who did not feel like waiting for the single stall indeed just crawled under the door (and then held the door for the next girl, because we were not barbarians.) It was tight enough an adult might have had trouble with the maneuver. I don't think our adult guardians were exactly delighted with the ducking under the door solution (but the one-dime line was their idea in the first place) but eventually came down on the side of "now I don't have to rummage in my purse knowing full well I have more girls than dimes."
posted by Karmakaze at 4:40 PM on September 18, 2014


Until I went to New Zealand, where they have some public toilets that are literally works of art, I hadn't ever really thought about access to public toilets.

New Zealand has almost no homeless people, due to good public policy. The benefits of those policies greatly improve almost every aspect of everyone's everyday life, from actually delivering on the American Dream (rather than social mobility being just a dream in the USA), to less stressful work environments, to being able to have lots of Nice Things like public facilities, to a thousand other benefits.

A lot of people in New Zealand resent those policies for the same reasons that Americans refuse to implement them - the spectre of enabling undesirables instead of penalizing them rankles many people, meanwhile the immense wealth of dividends that result are not understood. People there don't realize that enjoying a romantic evening stroll in the city park is only something you can do because the parks are neither filled with homeless, nor closed and policed at night to keep out the homeless. People here don't even think to take romantic strolls in the city parks at night and it doesn't occur that this could be a thing. There are thousands of things like that, and the dots just don't get connected :-/
posted by anonymisc at 4:53 PM on September 18, 2014 [13 favorites]


In my experience, pay toilets weren't necessarily cleaner or nicer. Pretty easy for men to pee against the wall, for women, not so much. I used to own a small bookstore. I mostly told people we didn't have a bathroom, because the pipes were old and finicky. Took pity on a couple of nice old ladies - they left it an appalling mess. So, I understand why some bathrooms are off limits. That said, I know when I go to The big grocery store, Lowes or Home Depot, there will be spacious clean bathrooms. The local hardware store has a grubby closet that they may or may not let you use.
posted by theora55 at 7:02 PM on September 18, 2014


Also, of any site I frequent, MeFi is most likely to have poop, pee, and toilet posts. In the best possible way, of course.
posted by theora55 at 7:04 PM on September 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


public restrooms in the US are pretty much ubiquitous

OK, I can't let this one go. One of the most significant lacks I have noticed in the US is the rarity of public facilities. This is especially noticeable in small towns, but even in urban areas often your only option is some kind of business.

You do know what 'public' means right?
posted by HiroProtagonist at 7:23 PM on September 18, 2014 [2 favorites]



OK, I can't let this one go. One of the most significant lacks I have noticed in the US is the rarity of public facilities. This is especially noticeable in small towns, but even in urban areas often your only option is some kind of business.


That is a public restroom to me, you don't need to be a patron of the business to use it. I know it may not technically be public but if I'm in the car and someone needs to go to the bathroom we stop at mcdonald's or the gas station or wherever.
posted by Aranquis at 9:19 PM on September 18, 2014


The problem is, aranquis, that an incr number of businesses limit facilities to customers. this especially true in poorer areas or non-chains.
posted by modernnomad at 10:40 PM on September 18, 2014


The problem is, aranquis, that an incr number of businesses limit facilities to customers. this especially true in poorer areas or non-chains.

This is the rule for pretty much every restaurant or coffeehouse in downtown Chicago.
posted by SisterHavana at 10:43 PM on September 18, 2014


Also, of any site I frequent, MeFi is most likely to have poop, pee, and toilet posts. In the best possible way, of course.

But you have to pay $5.00 to use them!

instantrimshot.com
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:56 AM on September 19, 2014


I once successfully begged a CVS manager to let me change my (very smelly) toddler's diaper in their employee bathroom. I was using public transit and could not possibly subject my fellow passengers to that stench, and I had to get home. I am still grateful to her, and did my best to clean up/spray air freshener afterwards.

I wanted to write a letter to her supervisor, but it occurred to me I might get her in trouble for breaking policy. I am still so grateful, but the whole situation of bathrooms being both absolutely needed and not worth the trouble to maintain and keep clean is frustrating.

When we do get sufficiently capable robots, maintaining public toilets is obviously the first thing we need them for. They can't get grossed out, and they can work 24/7.
posted by emjaybee at 2:34 PM on September 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


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