The Luxury Pay Toilet Movement
Once, this was a free nation. Where people could strive to improve their lives and as a byproduct, and not intending to, improve the lives of others. This was capitalism. And the one of the most vibrant and vigorous capitalist ventures in the United States was the introduction of the pay toilet. Until the 1970’s when The Committee to End Pay Toilets in America, or CEPTIA, a grass-roots political organization which was one of the main forces behind the elimination of pay toilets in many American cities and states began their campaign to ban this most American of institutions, the comfort stalls were ubiquitous; but first a little history. “Unk Pisher” arrived in America in 1888, and settled in Norfolk, Virginia, then a wild, wide open salty seaport, respite and whorehouse to sailors from around the world. 1888 long predated the time when Norfolk would have the world’s largest naval apparatus and be known better for its beautiful downtown mall and parking lots.
This Norfolk was more of a western town than an eastern one. But rather than cowboys riding herd, slaking their thirst in saloons and riding hard on a passel of whores upstairs from the gambling and drinking, Norfolk was a special mooring for white caps from around the world, of government and business, who found in this city a rich tapestry of whores and drink. Plus Wheels Of Fortune” in every other house downtown and a rich variety of unique pleasures only sailors learned while seaborne. Norfolk had it all. And in all of it, Elias Frankelstein Pisher saw great opportunity. After debarking from a steamer which carried him from New York (his port of entry) to Norfolk, Pisher found many of his fellow Jews already settled and conducting business in the area near the river that nearly made downtown Norfolk into a peninsula. With fifty dollars in startup money from a Lithuanian cousin, “Pish” (as he would later be known by to his friends) walked into a waterfront café owned by one Nedda Burke, herself from Vilna, the same section of Lithuania from which Pish hailed. Pish was a physically small man, about five feet, two inches tall, of ugly continence, and rather loud when he, characteristically, felt threatened, either by man or woman. Nedda was large, but graceful. Full of the Jewish loving kindness that was taught her by her family, mostly full time “learners” or Talmudic scholars who were part of the royal court in Vilna, the home of the original “Vilna Goan”, a much revered Jewish leader of the seventeenth Century who was the main opposition to the burgeoning Chassidic movement of the time. Norfolk was sometimes called “Shit City”. This unfair appellation was given the steamboat municipality in the late nineteenth century because of the piles of shit sometimes seen steaming down Main Street, after a heavy rain. The city fathers (who also ran the rackets) had year after year refused to install a sewerage system in Norfolk, relying upon instead, a coordination of cisterns to keep the city clean from disease. That and the free sheepskin condoms, handed out by the “Whore Hospital” that treated the local prostitutes. When Pish walked into Nedda’s café he immediately fell in love. Almost. He did have a couple of whores in the upstairs “convenience”, ordered a bottle of wine, played cards in the gambling parlor next door, had a couple of more whores, ate a sandwich in the hallway, which he had stolen from a plate left outside one of the rooms for the housecleaning crew to pick up, had one more whore and then went downstairs to profess his “undying” and “first sight” love of one Nedda Burk. Nedda, then a divorced woman with three children was looking for a husband, and unlike Lithuania, where even a big woman could demand and get a very proper husband (with the proper dowry), Norfolk offered very few options for a loyal daughter of Abraham. When this little man with big dreams approached her with a proposition of marriage, she scooped it and him up with a big wet kiss. She was in love. And she would soon be rich. The Shabbos table was filled with goodies of every description that Friday when Nedda brought Pish home to meet her family. It was good to have a man in the house who could say the blessing over bread and wine, even though it was permissible for a woman to say them in a man’s absence. At that time her house was a large stone dwelling, not far from the café, at the corner of Church and Nebraska streets. However, this was outside the downtown district where anything went (and went with it as well) and was a suitable abode for Nedda and her extended family.
Along with her three children Al, Gussie and Harry, living there was Nedda’s older sister Sheila, who owned part interest in the “Whore Hospital and a young boy “lerner” from the local yeshiva, Revain. This was a nice, active proper house. But it needed a man. In 1933 Franklin Roosevelt himself sent a message to Congress saying “today we enter a new “progressive” era. And with this new era comes a “New Deal”. “The American people must be free to urinate and move their bowels whenever and wherever they want, without regard to the great moneyed interests that now control our current system. So I am asking Congress to enact legislation to close down these disease ridden vestiges of another, less modern time. I am asking, once and for all, for a free system of government run toilets to replace the greedy and unclean ones that now control the lives of so many of our people”. FDR couldn’t have gotten it more wrong. Like so many things about capitalism, he was a socialist, and when it came to business, this traitor to his class was also emblematic of the problem facing America in 1933. A solution to the depression was so very necessary, even if it did take government action. And lots of the other pay systems around the country were grotesque in their appearance and smell. But Roosevelt was attempting to cure the disease in both instances by killing the patient. More regulation of capital was not and never would be a solution to the depression. Closing down substandard pay toilet companies would mean more men and women would have to go to the bathroom by the side of the road, or worse yet, behind dumpsters or even in the street, attempting to hide what they were doing with a magazine or car door. However, Congress never addressed his proposal, except on government property and in airports and bus stations which participated in interstate commerce.
This affected many of the poorer chains, some to the extent where they were forced out of business. The “One, Two, Three Deluxe Pay Toilets” which although cost more than most other pay toilets was distinguished by its cleanliness, attendants, extra soft wiping paper, newspapers and magazines in every stall, a small buffet supper, moisturizing cream, lounge slippers, and an ingenious system of pricing that pay toilet companies had until his time not thought of; discounting, depending on what your business was. Pish knew that a number one, for example, took far less time than, say, someone making number two. That was simple math. Not to mention the occasional customer who could not make up his mind, and ended up committing both acts, making this (and Pish eventually would patent the phrase) a “number three”. His three tiered pricing was immediately popular. Most other chains charged a nickel, and left it at that. Pish’s plan was to charge by what you did in there. It would then be a nickel for a stand up, “number one” stall, a dime for the more relaxed and comfortable atmosphere of a private “number two” stall, and finally the decision that changed his and Nedda’s lives and the whole structure of the pay toilet
business, the extra comfortable “number three” stall, which at fifteen cents offered the user luxury then unknown to pay toilet users, even in big cities like Baltimore. Here the man or woman who was undecided about his or her business could relax, without the limitation of time, in a deluxe stall (a room almost!) with access to the very finest toilet accompaniments. Besides all the stuff described above, the user of a “Pish Number Three” could count on a small musical combo along with the occasional lecture or vaudeville act to make the time by go more serenely and faster. Pish had the plan. But he needed money. He needed Nedda. Norfolk, Virginia was a two hundred year old city by the end of the nineteenth century. Most toilets were in private homes, public accommodations or were just plain outhouses. However, the man or woman on the street, one just walking and minding his or her own business had no reliable, safe, and sanitary place to do his or her own business. If you were not a patron of a hotel or a tavern or restaurant, then it was considered unseemly to ask to use the facilities and the asker was usually refused anyway. Obvious public shitting or pee peeing or the more common and polite phrase, “roiling” was looked down on, even if one was athletic enough to urinate or move his or her bowels directly into the river. The city and private charitable groups had taken it upon themselves to build a “free” system of public outhouses, but as is so often the case when the profit motive is removed from the equation, the public system floundered and was a disgrace to the city. And Norfolk was already a disgrace having been featured in the April 1889 issue of “Disgraced City” magazine. Naturally, with all of the beer and liquor flowing, not to mention the panoply of cheap eats houses in the downtown district catering to sailors and whores, there was a problem with urine and shit processing.
And with no sewer system, this problem was compounded. As noted, most of the human waste went into the nearby river, via charity and public toilets (which did not process the waste so much as allow it to dry before dumping it into the river). The “Charity Toilet Society” placed pipes, special squat tubes, shit slues, young girls with pans, and cheap paper bags around the downtown district to stem the flow. Even farmers from the outlying counties would come to Norfolk, knowing that a free supply of fertilizer was there if one was brave and steady enough to hold a bag underneath a trembling, usually drunk sailor. This is what it had come to by then. There was a definite need for a solution to this problem. And it was not to be found in charity shit wagons or government piss bags. Not to mention the private “poop hats” that were popular for a while in the 1870’s. This fad ended when, after a while, men were embarrassed by the shit that would trickle from under their hats or even pour down their necks as they tipped their hats to the ladies. Skeptics might point out that Norfolk did have several for profit toilet companies, these operating mostly in the middle of the nineteenth century. There was one small company in the 1850’s that used cigar boxes placed every few city blocks and tin cups so the customers could leave their nickel. This “honor system” failed to capture much of a large following, mostly because the company failed to wipe the cigar boxes down on a regular basis. Also because many of the poor would not pay five cents to move their collective bowels in the dirty cigar boxes. Even the poor man had some pride. These folks would continue the tradition of shitting directly into the river when away from home. Some even would soil their pants or dresses rather than part with the precious nickel. This practice was frowned upon, however, and was eventually banned in 1888 when Norfolk elected a city council dedicated to “clean government”. This referred, of course to malfeasance in the administration of the city, but many voters, hoping to send a message to those who shit in their pants, thought this would help. A law that prohibited private pants shitting was passed but was repealed shortly thereafter when a hue and cry went up that this was a “rich man’s bill” for the benefit of those wealthy enough not to be used to the regular smell of feces and urine. When, in 1862, Federal troops captured Norfolk during the civil war, the United States Government provided facilities on an ad hoc basis, mostly for Union military men and their whores. These semi-luxury toilets were pipes about two feet wide, connecting to a system of tubes that ran out to tug boats waiting in the river. These boats (usually private purveyors hired by the Army) would then take the people’s business out to sea and dump it there. After the war, the city reverted to its ineffective public-private systems.
Pisher and Nedda Burke were married on May 13, 1890 in a small synagogue just east of Cumberland Street, well outside the “wild streets” of downtown Norfolk. With Nedda’s dowry and his discovery of what even the worst of us could achieve under capitalism, Pish set out to start a new, sophisticated system of “toileting”, as he would call it. For the same price as the crummy city and small private companies, Pish would provide Norfolk with quality and cleanliness for the toileting public. With startup money of 10,000 dollars from Nedda, the first “One, Two, Three Deluxe Pay Toilet” was set up at the corner of Church and Main streets, a central point of the kind of activity Norfolk was famous for; eating, fucking, fighting, drinking, puking, pointing at people until they cried, tasting day old pastries before they were sent to the dump, kicking old ladies in the chest until they fell, and most of all, defecating and urinating freely into any direction, without regard to people’s feelings or the real shame of it all. Main and Church was the place where a safe, reliable private toilet was needed most and this is where it would all start.
The first day was to be a most celebratory one. All of the city’s newspapers were in attendance as were dignitaries from the state government. It was to be the mayor of Norfolk, William B. Reynolds, though, who would cut the ribbon and be invited to be the first to use the new pay toilet. Since Pish had not yet figured out how to automate the collection of the nickel toll, so that it could run all day and all night, an old woman from Haiti, mysterious in her voodoo getup, was stationed outside the entrance to take the mayor’s nickel. After this ceremonial inauguration, the door would be left unlocked and the toilet would be free, at least until Pish could figure out how best to collect the fee. This was probably not a good idea. The thought of all those sailors, whores and common folk practicing waste excavation freely, with abandon and under no supervision in a luxury toilet was a horror to Pish. He would soon set upon at least a temporary solution. Awaiting the mayor and his ceremonial excavation was a toilet of delights for all ages, tastes and habits. No convenience or luxury was left out. In addition to two stalls for each sex, each one enclosed by marble covered with fur on the inside; there was a separate, “stand up” for gentlemen only. These deluxe stalls were all well-appointed. Each came with a rich velvet seat area, big enough for any derriere and sensitive to the touch of even a baby’s bottom. On the inside door of each gentlemen’s stall were graphics of the more popular prostitutes of the era, now either in Norfolk or perhaps about to arrive. Also just outside the men’s stall was a male nurse standing by for emergency enemas. Those making appointments in advance could also have help with their evacuation. The inside of the ladies doors was covered with lithographs of tiny little fairy babies ascending to heaven, this, in no small part to loosen the bowel muscles and move along the traffic at a decent clip. Loosening the bowel muscles was not an unimportant part of the equation, since Pish had studied the business methods of the railroad giants and his goal was to run his toilets with the efficiency and modern methodology of the dominant mode of travel of the day. And this was, in a sense, traveling. And this new, clean, modern device to allow the average person’s bodily wastes to travel from his or her orifice into a sanitary unit, would protect the city from the smell and disease of the former methods. A musical troupe was stationed outside of the building, four instruments strong, a harp, piccolo, bassoon and piano. A Mexican doctor had done research on the importance of soothing, peaceful sounds to the evacuation of the bowels.
At a nickel a pee or ten cents a poop, Pish needed to have a nice turnover business (besides the apple turnovers he sold outside the stalls), and although he wanted to pamper his clients, he didn’t want them to dawdle. There was no set time limit (“each man must move his bowels at his own pace” was an advertising slogan for the toilet system in the early days) so he needed gentle inducements for the ladies and gentlemen to relax and let loose. The common areas of the ladies toilets had the latest in perfumes, creams, pufferies, laxatives, smelling salts and a wash woman who would hand out towels and other “special” rag type female supplies. There was also a special photograph book for ladies who were afraid to make-make in public, even when behind closed doors. This book was filled with photos of naked men, and was only used in extremis, when after five minutes had passed and the woman could not move her bowels. This usually would scare a woman in the 1890’s into shitting perhaps even fifteen cents worth. Inside the common area for the men was a barber, a whore, free buffet lunch, nickel beer ( to promote even more business), olives, shoe department, emergency mohel (this attempt to attract the large Jewish trade downtown in this fashion was not successful, and soon dropped). No grown Jew needed a bris
and few families were interested in bringing their son to a public toilet mohel in order to undergo this most sacred of religious obligations, a set of checkers and a small sitting area for gentlemen to recover if their particular bowel movement had been a rough one. Both the women and men of Norfolk were in awe of Pisher’s wondrous pay toilet and after a few days, he knew that his fortune was in sight. The dream was becoming reality.
Expansion was the watchword in the late nineteenth century of roughneck industry and venturesome capitalism. It was no different for pay toilets. Pisher understood the need to enlarge and expand upon his operation before some other smart shit head got the idea that this could work for him too. After the problem of collecting the fare at the Church and Main Street utility was solved (a dwarf dressed like a monkey would take in the nickels dimes and quarters until an efficient way of automating the money question was found. This particular dwarf was unable to make change, however, so customers who needed to, would have to fish out the right amount, on the honor system). As commerce carried on at Pisher’s number one pay toilet, he was settling down with Nedda Burk, now Nedda Pisher. She continued to operate her waterfront café, as much for the money as to continue her independence. She was becoming quite the Americanized Jew, and felt that more dollars meant more freedom. It was quite fortunate that Nedda’s café was some long blocks from Pish’s pay toilet. Even in the carefree days of the “gay nineties” more than some would have sniffed at a husband and wife who owned both a café and a pay toilet. Money was flowing in for Pisher now. Just as he had thought, sailors and whores made up the best percentage of his clientele. Sailors harbored in Norfolk from ports as far away as Macao, Java, Siam and beyond, and took to the new pay toilets like a seaman to a whore. The whores on the other hand, found that they could rinse out their private garments between assignations and even make appointments while visiting the stalls. In a progressive move, the city council, aware that prostitution was as prevalent as pissing into stove top hats, legalized it in the summer of 1889. This move, in as salty a seaport as Norfolk, was long overdue and welcomed even by the clergy, who understood that even the best man was a sinner, and that sin, rather than being an exercise in joy and then having to skedaddle away from the church, should force men to confront their weakness’ and find solace back home, with God. But they could fuck wildly first with top notch whores who came flowing into Norfolk from nearby states where it remained illegal.
The people of Norfolk were quite happy with the new-fangled contraption. It was even said at the time that bowel movements increased fivefold just due to the excitement of having a luxurious toilet in their own city. It wasn’t quite the same as the warm springs in the western part of the state many used for its restorative and healing powers, but it was a place to take a relaxing, warm shit on a cold winter’s night. And for most Norfolkians that was plenty. By 1910, Pisher had expanded the “One Two Three” pay toilet operation to over six cities in three states. Now in Delaware, Maryland, as well as Virginia, Pish was finding competition for the customer’s nickel. Other pay stalls opened up in Norfolk and the surrounding areas, some of them even nicer than Pish’s original. One outfit included movies, a weekly dance contest, a cotton candy machine and free copies of the “Police Gazette” as part of the price of admission. And this was regardless of what your business was. A number one got the same treatment as a number three (it’s worth noting however, that most pay toilet companies that followed Pisher used his basic “One, Two, Three” method of computing charges). So a lady who had the time to take a nice slow “three” might be able to view a short film or enjoy some cotton candy. Also a private stall was one of the few places a lady could enjoy a cigarette, public smoking still being frowned upon by most. As the industry matured, it got even better for the men. Pisher had a pay stall in Washington D.C. during World War One that attracted an immense amount of attention. Indeed, it made the first Norfolk toilet look puny by comparison. This was the first of the “Four Pronged” toilets. It gave the customer the usual “One, Two, Three” option, but it also had a very special stall, where for seventy five cents (no small amount for the day) a gentleman could take up to an hour to expel waste of any type (unusual wastes were given quotes on the spot by trained rectal specialists) and during that time could get a cold beer, a shave, hear the patriotic music of a brass band, and even engage in foreplay with a company whore. Actual copulation inside the toilet was strictly forbidden by the management (this was a family business) and when the gent was about to achieve the end of foreplay, he and his whore would be taken to a nearby hotel by special express buggy (owned by Pish) to complete the transaction. Although many frowned on this aspect of the luxury toilet experience, Pish was later quoted as saying “I’d rather our customer’s did it in one of our stalls than right out there on the street, like they did before I came to America, and look, these girls is legal now”. That pretty much shut up the naysayers. But there was uneasiness with the practice until it was discontinued during prohibition. And so it went on in the early part of the twentieth century. Pisher’s Progressive pay toilet movement spawned imitators, both superior and inferior.
Gone however, were the days of a top hat and tin can on a street corner, and old fashioned now were the ideas of the people that bowel movements and urinating were dirty pastimes, spoken of only in hushed tones or by the lower whites or colored people. In the new era, people could be proud of their “pishings” (guess who coined that word?) and morning and evening plop plops. Many was the family who even ignored their own brand new indoor plumbing for the fancy excitement of public shit houses. In Norfolk, the local evening paper even sponsored tournaments for a while in the 1930’s. The man, woman or child with the fastest, best aiming sphincter muscles would often go home with a turkey or ham after one of the holiday contests. Pay toilets really changed the city. They made it respectable, nay, even a religious duty, to go about one’s business in a pay stall. Only the snooty folks, with noses upturned insisted strictly on the home for bowel and urinary functions. Most people now realized the joy there was to be had in sharing this most intimate of God’s great gifts. And the Lord blessed Unk Pisher with a fortune made out of pee and shit, and the world was never the same.