Pay toilets got their start in America at the nation’s airports, bus stations, and highway rest stops. If you were traveling somewhere, you often had to "go" -- and companies like Nik-O-Lock capitalized on this unavoidable need. Restrooms at stops along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, for example, outfitted bathroom stalls with special locks, manufactured by Nik-O-Lock , that required a dime (and only a dime-- nickels and quarters were not acccepted) to unlock. But not everyone was happy to pay to use the restroom, which led to the formation of the Committee to End Pay Toilets in America (CEPTIA). This grassroots organization with a fitting acronym was formed in 1970 by four high school and college students, led by 19-year-old Ira Gessel. Their national crusade led to the elimination of some 50,000 pay toilets in the United States by the early 1980s.
A movement that couldn't be stopped:
- Membership in the organization cost only 25 cents, and members received the group’s newsletter, the Free Toilet Paper. CEPTIA claimed that fee-free bathrooms were a basic human right.
- In April 1969, assemblywoman March Fong Eu took a bold stand against pay toilets in public buildings by draping a toilet in chains and smashing it in front of the California State Capitol. She argued that pay toilets were a form of gender discrimination, as men could use urinals for free.
- In 1973, Chicago became the first American city to ban pay toilets. Over the next couple of years, bans were enacted in New York, New Jersey, Minnesota, California, Florida, and Ohio.