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Pay Toilets Disappeared In The 1970’s, But We All Still Pay Greatly In The End

The Brilliance Of Pay Toilets

Near the top of the list of greatest human inventions, just ahead of dental floss and just after the wheel, is the flush toilet.

And at the bottom of the list is the pay toilet.

If you came of age after 1975 or so, you might have no idea what I am talking about.

But there was a time in this fair land when you had to slip a dime into a slot to slip your tush onto a toilet seat. Even in Ipswich, the purported “birthplace of American independence.”

My Time At Crane Beach

pay toilets

Back in the late ’60s, I worked at Crane Beach as part of the “crew.” We were led by Sid Baer (now Dr. Baer) and our numbers included such kids as Mike McSweeney, Carl Nelson, Arthur Baer, Mike Chouinard, and Charlie Mansfield (to name just a few).

While the Crane lifeguards were the glamour squad, we were the worker bees. We cleaned the beach, parked the cars, and tended to the grounds up on Castle Hill. The whole operation was managed by Charlie Pickard, an amiable gentleman of the old school.

In those days, the beach had two bathhouses: one for men and one for women (these were simpler times).

The guy in charge of the men’s bathhouse was named Walter. Walter was a peculiar fellow with peculiar, often colorful, opinions on just about everything, including anyone who ventured in to use the washroom or take a shower. 

He had the disheveled appearance of one who hibernated beneath the bathhouse floorboards in the off season … but that is pure conjecture.

One day, our earnest leader, Sid, said he needed a volunteer to assist Walter. Although I preferred driving gang mowers up and down the Grand Allée on Castle Hill, I said I would give it a try.

My motivation was scholastic. My English teacher had given me a summer reading list of impossible length and difficulty. As I was working days, it was going to interfere with my evenings.

An Easy Shift In The Bathroom

But I knew that much of the shift in the bathhouse was slack. I could sit on a stool behind a counter and read Joyce, Twain, Thoreau, Dostoevsky, Fitzgerald, and other dead white writers in between handing out towels. Or making change for the pay toilets. 

This latter task turned out to be what made the job interesting.

A remarkably high percentage of our customers were okay with paying 35 cents for a shower and towel or 25 cents for a wooden box in which to store their possessions, but they went berserk when they encountered the pay toilet.

How To Explain The Pay Toilets

Walter’s approach was to use earthy language to describe where they could place their opinion.

I, on the other hand, quickly realized that this was an entertainment opportunity.

When some irate individual badly in need of relief but deeply offended by the need to deposit a dime before making his own deposit began ranting, I took things in one of two directions.

Sometimes, I would become equally irate. I would agree that this was a travesty, a blatant symbol of capitalist oppression. I would quote Proudhon, Bakunin, and Marx. If I saw a glimmer of agreement, I would offer to sign them up for a secret cell of the Spartacist League.

At other times, however, I would defend the 10-cent tariff, pointing out that it paid our salaries and kept the premises ship-shape. 

If I were feeling particularly inventive, I would hint that my compatriot, Walter, had stormed the beaches of Normandy (or was it Saipan?) and deserved the thanks of a grateful nation, not to mention the dime of a desperate beach-goer.
Then I would go back to reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

Pay toilets were eventually outlawed. The old wooden Crane bathhouse was ultimately swept away, replaced by a larger edifice. The irony, of course, is that back in the late ’60s you had to pay a dime to use the commode, but it was only $5 to park your car. Today, the weekend rate is $45. But, hey, the toilets are free!

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About The Author
Robert Waite
Robert Waite
Robert is Managing Director at Waite + Co., a communications firm with offices in Boston, Ottawa and Toronto. He also teaches at Seneca College. He has more than 35 years experience leading communications, marketing and government relations functions for some of North America’s largest firms, including Ford, IBM, CAE, CIBC and Canada Post. He served as Press Secretary to Senator Edward W. Brooke (R-MA) and Senator Bob Dole (R-KS) and in the Reagan Administration. He is a three-time winner of the New England Press Association’s Best Column Award. He can be reached at [email protected].
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