Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Paradox Of Pay Toilets Revisited

I have blogged previously on this obscure and odd topic, but staying in Europe for extended periods as I am doing now (based in Florence, Italy for the semester, but traveling around giving lectures) always reminds me of it. Plus, I have new observations on some of the supposed explanations.

So, the paradox is that in the supposedly more market capitalist US, there simply are no pay toilets, at least not overtly, although there were some a half century ago, usually with slot for coins on the doors of them, not somebody sitting at the entrance taking money for you even to get into one. However, in supposedly more socialist Europe, at least some of its countries, certainly including France, Italy, and Russia, one finds this latter in many public toilets: someone sitting at the entrance taking money before you can enter at all. Why?

One explanation I have heard is that it is an employment preserving device. However, increasingly I see those people being replaced by slots for coins in the newer ones at the entrances.

Another is that it is necessary to pay for their upkeep. Well, I was just in one the other day in Siena that had the woman out front taking money, but it was in terrible shape without even seats on the toilets. Yes, I grant that the newer ones are usually in good shape. But, this does not answer why we do not do this in the US. Indeed, in Virginia in the last few years the rest areas on the interstates were closed for awhile due to funding shortages (since reopened), but not a single solitary soul suggested publicly that maybe the resolution was to make people pay for using them.

In short, I do not see either the employment or paying for their upkeep arguments as holding much water. This remains basically a mystery to me. Somehow in the US we think releaving oneself for free is a divine right, even as audiences laugh and cheer at the idea of people dying who do not pay for health insurance, while in much of Europe it is taken for granted that one must pay to releave oneself, even as they have universal health insurance coverage.

BTW, I do recognize that de facto private toilets are often for pay in that businesses will make them available only to paying customers. But one finds this in about equal proportions in both the US and most of Europe as near as I can tell.


Peter Dorman said...

I think it goes beyond capitalism/socialism, Barkley, and has something to do with cultural values about the body. A useful bit of data is that free public restrooms in the US tend to be much cleaner and better maintained than free public restrooms in Europe. (In other words, control for the money thing.)

Jack said...

You apparently didn't get into the toilets in Harrods in London. I don't recall for certain, but I think one or two shillings for the entry. But out of this world cleanliness and accutrements. First quality towel to dry your hands. Cologne, sir? No extra charge.

Barkley Rosser said...

Well, yes, but why do we not demand that people pay for all that cleanliness in the US? Charging a fee is what all those anti-tax types claim to want, but they are nowhere on this.

Hmmm. Well, guess I'll have to check them out next time I am there, :-).

Not Stacy said...

In a similar vein, Americans increasingly expect free wifi and - free electricity! Everyone with a laptop or phone that needs a charge thinks nothing of drawing power from any outlet, anywhere, never considering who might be footing the bill.

Nerdy McGee said...

My question in Europe this summer was, "How do they get by without drinking fountains everywhere?" This is another realm where the US is a bit more socialist. Pay roads, too, are a rarity in the US, but ubiquitous in Europe.

I'd guess that it's a hangover of the two places' historical experiences with land, but that's just my pet theory.

hipparchia said...

you can thank women's lib for this one, it seems:

New York State outlawed pay toilets in 1975 in response to the charge that such facilities discriminated against women. Women always needed a stall, while men could make do without, opponents argued.

apparenty there was also the committee to end pay toilets in america:,28804,1991915_1991909_1991809,00.html

Billikin said...

Hmmm. The first thing that came to my mind about pay toilets was how much less sanitary they were than the free toilets of today. The main exceptions were the "free" toilets at movie houses.