History of world’s oldest pay toilets can be traced to ancient Rome. Emperor Vespasian was not only the founder of the Flavian dynasty after the civil wars that followed Nero’s death and the initiator of the Roman Colosseum. He was also the man who introduced first public pay toilets in 74 A.D.
As previously mentioned in our article, the history of bathrooms is thousands of years old and can be traced to ancient Scotland.
Around 8,000 B.C. inhabitants of the Orkney Islands built the first latrine-like plumbing systems for carrying wastes away from the home.
However, ancient Romans went further and found a somewhat odd way of making money on public “waste”.
History counts several bizarre ancient taxes and one of them was the urine tax.
In ancient Rome, human urine was a valuable commodity. Urine was used for a variety of reasons such as tanning, laundering, and even teeth brushing!
Emperor Vespasian (r. A.D. 69-79) and Emperor Nero (r. A.D. 54-68) discovered a golden opportunity to profit from pee. They levied a tax on the acquisition of urine. The result of the urine tax led to the popular Latin phrase Pecunia non alet which means Money does not stink.
Before the first public toilets were introduced, ancient Romans urinated into pots that were emptied into cesspools.
In 74 A.D. Emperor Vespasian re-introduced the urine tax and ordered to construct
public pay urinals, where the waste would be collected and sold as a source of ammonia, which was used for tanning leather and cleaning clothes.
Public urinals are no longer common in Italy, but they are still known as Vespasiani to this day.
In modern times, John Nevil Maskelyne (1839-1917) is credited with the invention of a pay toilet.
John Nevil Maskelyne was an English stage magician, inventor and a descendant of the Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne.
In the 19th century, Maskelyne invented a lock for London toilets, the insertion of a penny coin to operate it, hence the euphemism to “spend a penny”.
There has been a lot of disagreement about pay toilets and many feel they should be banned. “When a man’s or woman’s natural body functions are restricted because he or she doesn’t have a piece of change, there is no true freedom,” Ira Gessel, founder of The Committee to End Pay Toilets in America,(CEPTIA) said.
Like much of the world, pay toilets were once common in the United States. The majority of pay toilet locks were manufactured by one company, Nik-O-Lok, which charged 10 cents per use. By 1970, America had over 50,000 pay toilets. By 1980, there were almost none because many people felt pay toilets were an unethical infringement on basic human rights.
It took some years, but CEPTIA was successful and pay toilets were banned in several states.
In Europe, on the other hand pay toilets are very common sight. Paying to use a public WC is a European custom that annoys many Americans.
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