Where Have All the Pay Toilets Gone?

If you haven't seen a pay toilet in years, you can thank two teenage brothers. 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 that could only 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, but by 1980, there were almost none. That’s because in 1968, two brothers — Michael (pictured) and Ira Gessel — decided to put their anger towards having to pay to use the toilet to work by forming the Committee to End Pay Toilets in America (CEPTIA). In June 1970, CEPTIA held it’s first official meeting, which was attended by 29 members — mostly friends of the brothers. Lifetime membership cost a quarter and included a card signed by one of the brothers. They also created an anthem, a newsletter, and their own logo. By early 1971, CEPTIA was bankrolled to the tune of $25.20. The brothers used their father’s printing machines to keep costs low, rolling out issues of their newsletter — Free Toilet Paper — reporting on the group’s activities. In 1973, Chicago became the first American city to enact a ban on pay toilets, and it wasn’t long before other cities followed suit. By the end of the decade, pay toilets were nothing more than a distant memory.