The pay toilet was invented as a way of keeping the toilets clean, both as a psychological reason and as a way of defraying the cleaning costs. They also served as a way to keep vagrants out, since they required cash before entry.

There are three main kinds of pay toilets:

Mechanical locks on the stalls

From these, we gained the term "spend a penny" as a euphemism for going to the bathroom (itself already a euphemism, but that's for another writeup). The construction was fairly simple and similar to those of the 25-cent vending machines found in supermarkets across America; a coin of the appropriate denomination inserted in the slot allowed the handle to be turned and the door to open.

The urinal posed quite a threat to this method; not (necessarily) because people would poop in them, but because women didn't have such facilities. If a man just needed to take a leak, he could just do so in the urinal for free. The women got, well, pissed, at the discrimination, and pay toilets of this form became much harder to find.

There were other solutions sought to this problem, of course, including the well-thought-out female urinal1. Some sources also claim that it was a politician about to pull a Tycho who got mad enough to ban these devices. Somehow, i see the idea of a lot of angry women as a more motivating force.

Old ladies guarding the entrances

This can be found (and are almost ubiquitous) in (at least Western) Europe. An old lady (occasionally a nun) will be guarding the room before the stalls, and you have to pay a pseudo-random amount of money to get by her and into the lavatory.

From there, unfortunately, the quality (or even presence) of a toilet isn't guaranteed; you may find a Western-style bowl, one without a seat, or even the aim-and-squat style with two raised platforms for your (surprised) feet.

Mechanical, high tech stalls

These are the newest kind of pay toilet. These are the ones usually found on modern streets, with a number of interesting features.

Many are self-cleaning. The floor is usually grated, and after each use, a concentrated spray of water and cleaning fluid is shot down from the ceiling and hoses down the entire stall. In some devices, this also serves to flush the toilet.

Toilet paper is often rationed. In at least one toilet in Milan, pushing a button dispenses a set amount of paper, and the button can only be pushed a limited amount of times. This saves the owners money, but can come as quite a shock to the unprepared.

There is usually a time limit. This is also usually irreversible; after 20 minutes or so, the door will pop open (and usually reclose to activate the cleaning cycle). This is ostensibly to keep bums and murderers and rapists out, but is more often a source of alarm and worry for the end user.

Pay toilets on the streets of modern cities are seen as a way of keeping people from peeing on buildings while letting stores keep their bathrooms private. In this manner, the pay toilet actually serves a use rather than being an annoyance2.

It was nearly impossible, in my research, to find a decent history of the pay toilet. Any help would be appreciated.

I found one webpage claiming that the first pay toilet was installed in Rome on February 11th, 157 BC. How this date was finalized is beyond me.

Most sources point to the Terre Haute, IN station of the Pennsylvania Railroad as being the location of the first North American pay toilet, in 1910. Other sources (which are probably wrong) claim that the first were in a Hollywood restaurant opened by Walt Disney in the 1930s.

The coin-in-slot type is still available; there is a company that manufactures devices which use tokens instead of coins. They are intended to be used by stores, to allow them to offer relief only to paying customers.

1 Some men's urinals have since been redesigned to appear similar to the female model. This is probably to help catch drips and keep the floor cleaner.
2 At least in New York City, this was caused by a group of homeless people suing the city for public toilets.

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