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Why Don't We Have Pay Toilets in America?

Forty years ago, thanks to an organization founded by four high school friends, human rights beat out the free market—and now we can all pee for free.
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The CEPTIA press conference in 1973. (Photo: CEPTIA/Facebook)

The CEPTIA press conference in 1973. (Photo: CEPTIA/Facebook)

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.

THE PENNSYLVANIA TURNPIKE WAS notorious for its pay toilets. Stalls were outfitted with specialized locks—most of them manufactured by a company called Nik-O-Lock—that required a dime (and only a dime, as no change was given) in order to unlock the stall door. In late 1968, at a Howard Johnson along the Turnpike, Ira and Michael Gessel, two brothers from Dayton, Ohio, decided they’d had enough.

“We thought we could do something about it,” Michael says. “Now, could we really do something about it? At the time, we were in high school.” Michael was a freshman, Ira a senior. “We really didn’t know how to exercise political power, but we thought we’d have fun with it. And we didn’t like pay toilets.”

Ira and Michael vented their frustration with two close friends, Steve Froikin and Natalie Precker, and the four of them formed the core of the Committee to End Pay Toilets in America. “For the most part, we were just having fun with it,” Precker says. “We enjoy each other’s company, we got together a lot, and it was something we could toy with mentally.” At first, CEPTIA (although it had not been officially named yet) was a creative outlet for four intelligent teenagers. Ira and Steve left for college in September of 1969—Harvard and the University of Chicago, respectively—and CEPTIA became an excuse to stay in touch. For about a year, the four discussed an anti-pay toilet crusade, backed by a genuine desire to see them done away with but little knowledge about how to make that happen.

And then there was CEPTIA’s main contention since the very beginning: "Pay toilets are an unethical infringement on basic human rights."

In June of 1970, CEPTIA held it’s first official meeting at the Dayton Public Library, although it started 15 minutes late because library officials were worried an adult was not present. The meeting was attended by 29 members—mostly friends of the four founders—and the group cited a total membership of 48 at the time. Lifetime membership cost a quarter and included a card signed by one of the founders. The group also created an anthem, a newsletter, and a logo. The anthem, to the tune of your standard high school fight song, featured such double entendres as “We’ll work until we know / that toilets in America / Are free where-e’er we go / We’ll flush them out! / We’ll wipe them out! / We pledge, O CEPTIA!”

The quarterly newsletter, titled the Free Toilet Paper, reported on the group’s activities and included the odd anecdote about encountering pay toilets on vacations abroad. “We feel that pay toilets are unjust infringements on our basic human rights ... elimination is an important body function that must take place, dime or no dime,” Michael wrote in the first issue, which reads very much like a product of the lighthearted movement the group was at the time. “The social action committee hopes to be able to present CEPTIA members with effective weapons of guerrilla warfare in the form of ... bumper stickers.”

The logo, though, was the group’s tour de force, an emblem unique to its time and CEPTIA’s place in it: a fist, pulled from the New Left movement, grasping chains and rising out of a toilet bowl. Froiken came up with the idea after seeing an ad for laundry detergent in which a fist bursts out of a washing machine.

In early 1971, CEPTIA was bankrolled to the tune of $25.20, or, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ inflation calculator, $148.30 in 2014 dollars. They used Ira and Michael’s father’s printing machines and kept costs low by staying up-to-date on postage increases.

AROUND THE SAME TIME as the fateful Gessel family trip down the Pennsylvania Turnpike, legislators across the country began proposing various bans on pay toilets, but to no avail. In California, Assemblywoman March Fong proposed a bill that would ban pay toilets in public places throughout the state. In one of the more exuberant demonstrations, Fong smashed a toilet draped in chains in front of the California State Capitol. Despite the theatrics, the bill “went down the drain in defeat,” as the Associated Press put it. (Not a single news organization seemed able to resist the lure of the toilet pun.) Oregon state Senator Edward Fadeley failed to get a similar bill out of committee, while Illinois failed to pass a bill that would have banned pay toilets throughout the state.

The debate around pay toilets began to resemble contemporary American politics: filled with hyperbole and categorical declarations. While CEPTIA and Co. claimed fee-free bathrooms as a basic human right, opponents clung to their right to do whatever the heck they wanted with their toilets. “If a man ain’t got a dime in his pocket, he shouldn’t be using my restrooms,” a West Baltimore gas station owner told a state legislative committee in 1970. He went on to declare that getting rid of pay toilets would be “the biggest mistake ever in Maryland.” Chicago store owners called charging for toilets a “constitutional right.”

As more bills navigated state capitols, Nik-O-Lok, Ira and Michael’s original antagonist, became nervous. A variety of newspapers (including the Free Toilet Paper) estimated the receipts from America’s toilet stalls at around $30 million annually ($161 million in 2014 dollars), of which Nik-O-Lok received a substantial portion. “Any time anybody tries to put you out of business, you’re worried,” a Nik-O-Lok spokesman told the Wall Street Journal. (Nik-O-Lok still exists, although its website hasn’t been updated since 2003. Repeated requests for comment were not returned.) Nik-O-Lok and American Coil Lock Company, another stall-door lock manufacturer, argued that pay toilets “discourage drug addicts, homosexuals, muggers and just plain hippies from haunting public restrooms.”

As their opponents tried to combat the movement with sweeping ideological statements, CEPTIA’s founders largely resisted the urge to stray from their single advocacy issue. Steven Karganovic, the president of the Chicago chapter and Froikin’s friend, wrote in the Chicago Tribune: “As young people become increasingly disenchanted with nihilism and grandiose but ineffectual or destructive schemes, they should be encouraged to deal with each problem separately and modestly as the only sure way to ‘serve the people’ and improve our way of life.”

In a direct response to a Nik-O-Lok leaflet titled “Why Pay Toilets?,” CEPTIA published a pamphlet titled “Why Not Pay Toilets?,” which featured the organization’s first widespread usage of the feminist argument against the locks. Because the locks were on stall doors—and not on the outside of the bathrooms—men could use urinals for free, while women had to pay to do the same deed. The pamphlet also argued that “Pay toilets foster public dishonesty and disrespect for authority due to the widespread circumvention of the lock fee,” a jab at Nik-O-Lok’s drugs/gays/criminals/hippies fear-mongering. And then there was CEPTIA’s main contention since the very beginning: “Pay toilets are an unethical infringement on basic human rights.”

ON JANUARY 11, 1973, 30 reporters gathered in the downtown Chicago Sheraton hotel, representing every major local paper and several national outlets including the Associated Press, United Press International, and Reuters. At the front of the room, the four original CEPTIA members, all still college students, sat at a table on a small stage. Precker, then enrolled at Kent State, had purchased a dress and flown to Chicago for the press conference—but because nobody thought to cover the front of the table with a cloth or sign, she focused on keeping her knees together.

"I think an effort like that today would very quickly polarize into people who were adamantly against it or to people who would demand that we do something. In the '70s, we walked the middle that doesn’t seem to exist anymore."

“Pay toilets loom in the dusty corridors of our nation’s bus and train stations,” Michael Gessel told the assembled press. “They await the unwary traveler in the shiny rest rooms of our airport. They find victims in shopping malls, restaurants, hotels, department stores and laundromats. Wherever man goes the specter of the pay toilet is sure to appear.”

Precker explained four methods of thwarting pay toilet locks: the “American Crawl,” in which the urgent victim crawls under the stall door (a New York state senator would later admit to contemplating this from time to time); the “Doorman,” where one individual sacrifices his or her dime and then holds the door open for others; “Stick It,” which involves placing a piece of invisible tape over the locking mechanism so it can’t engage; and “The Stuff,” where some unused toilet paper is lodged into the locking mechanism.

A month after the Chicago press conference, Mayor Richard J. Daley announced that pay toilets would be removed from the city’s airports. Daley declared he “Did It for Women’s Lib,” a quote that ran as a headline on several major papers. That March, Chicago became the first major American city to ban pay toilets altogether. (Nik-O-Lok would challenge this law in court and lose.) Over the next few years, California, Alaska, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New York,  and New Jersey enacted similar legislation. By 1976, CEPTIA claimed 1,800 members across the country.

Meanwhile, CEPTIA’s founders had grown up. Ira was in graduate school at MIT studying mathematics. Steve had moved on to law school, while Natalie received her college degree from Kent State and was working full-time. Michael, the longest-serving CEPTIA president and youngest of the bunch, was almost out of college as well. “It became very time-consuming because it evolved into a very serious advocacy effort and we didn’t have the time to keep it up. The burden of continuing the work grew.”

In June, 1976, with no one left to take the reins, CEPTIA issued a news release proclaiming victory: “There are so many anti-pay toilet bills being introduced around the country that [we] can no longer keep track of all of them. CEPTIA ... wasn’t making a bid for power: its end was its own elimination.”

Indeed, by the end of the decade, almost every American toilet had been freed.

THE FOUNDERS GENERALLY AGREED that CEPTIA was a product of time, place, and circumstance. It’s difficult to imagine an organization of CEPTIA’s modest size and budget accomplishing such widespread legislative victories today. Newspaper and television coverage allowed word to spread without the time commitment organizations now have to dedicate to social media or email. Michael recalls being “isolated a little bit from the enormous waves of media attention and social media that exist today,” which allowed them to run the organization without putting their lives on hold. These smart, motivated people didn’t have to choose between their causes and their lives.

CEPTIA’s efforts aside, the early 1970s were a tumultuous time in American politics. Many politicians looked for easy ways to boost their approval ratings. When he banned pay toilets in Chicago airports, Mayor Daley was in the middle of a bribery scandal. Many politicians latched onto the issue because it was a sure winner: Nobody liked pay toilets except the people who made money off of them. CEPTIA gave politicians evidence that any bill against pay toilets would go over well.

Moreover, CEPTIA utilized a non-combative rhetorical approach that has largely faded from American politics. “I think an effort like that today would very quickly polarize into people who were adamantly against it or to people who would demand that we do something,” Michael says. “In the '70s, we walked the middle that doesn’t seem to exist anymore.” Natalie has a similar take: “CEPTIA was overt, clever, and therefore welcome.”

Although mostly a distant memory, the founders still have the occasional reminder of their activist days. Recently, in Chicago, Froiken’s son tried to use the bathroom at a Chipotle when the manager told him he had to buy something. Froiken’s son, well-versed on the city’s bathroom laws, correctly pointed out that this was in direct violation of city ordinance. The manager, somewhat reluctantly, allowed him to go for free.