meanings and origin of ‘to spend a penny’

With allusion to the former price of admission to public lavatories, the informal British-English phrase to spend a penny means to use a public convenience, and, by extension, to urinate.

This price of admission dates back to the second half of the 19th century—the following, for example, is from The Derby Mercury (Derby, Derbyshire, England) of Wednesday 1st December 1880:

A Proposal is About to be Made to the Derby Town Council which deserves very favourable consideration. It concerns the erection of public lavatories in the streets of our large towns, and we believe that it is intended by a limited liability company to ask for powers to erect ornamental structures here and there in Derby, for the convenience of both sexes. Our objection to a certain unsightly “atrocity,” formerly opposite to the Post Office, is not to be brought into judgment against us for advocating the claims of the “Châlet” Company. Their undertaking is to build a light, cheerful and ornamental structure, divided into two distinct compartments, the entrances being at either end of the châlet; that to the ladies’ compartment being entered through a vestibule, fitted up as a cloak-room, where parcels may be left at a small charge. The lavatory and retiring-rooms will open out from the cloak-room, the whole being under the charge of an experienced female attendant. The arrangements on the men’s side are similar, increased lavatory and closet accommodation being afforded in place of the cloak-room. The charges are to be one penny for booking parcels, one penny for use of retiring-room, and the same for lavatory. A shoeblack, in the service of the company, will be stationed at each châlet.

The following from the Evening Post (Reading, Berkshire, England) of Tuesday 9th February 1971 evoked the effects of decimalisation:

Reading Corporation has been preparing for D-day for about two years. And as far as the public is concerned, there will be virtually no problem on and after February 15.
[…]
All car parking charges, fees for swimming pools and other local authority facilities—with one exception—will remain the same in value but will be charged in decimals from February 15.
The exception is spending a penny. The old penny slot machines are to be converted to take 1p. which means that the charge will be 2.4d after conversion.

 

EARLY OCCURRENCES OF THE PHRASE

 

The phrase to spend a penny is first recorded in Strange Story (London: Jarrold’s, Ltd., 1945), by the British novelist Hilda Lewis (1896-1974)—this is the relevant passage from the novel, as published by Random House, New York, 1947:

They began to push their plates away from them. But even that was not the end, for Ede took a case from her handbag and handed cigarettes round; they sat back and smoked, all five of them, sending up the scent of cheap cigarettes to blend with the strong smell of tea.
At last Lil stood up, smoothing down the skirt of her short tight frock. “Us girls are going to spend a penny!” and she giggled a little. “Shan’t be ever so long. Be good little boys till we come back.” She took an arm each of Ede and Rose and marched them off.
Lil and Ede stood in front of the cheap mirror in the green gloom of the “ladies’ room.”

The earliest occurrence of to spend a penny that I have found is from the column Round the Town, by “The Ferret”, published in the Fraserburgh Herald and Northern Counties’ Advertiser (Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire, Scotland) of Tuesday 20th May 1947:

A young lady in town is most sorrowful at the moment. She went to “spend a penny” and used half-a-crown * by mistake. She hasn’t got over it yet.

(* half-a-crown: a coin of the value of two shillings and sixpence)

The second-earliest occurrence that I have found is from Sportsman’s Viewpoint at the Races, published in the Daily Mirror (London, England) of Thursday 29th June 1950:

Queues for Everything
Biggest snag about racecourses is that whereas one can spend £s quite easily on betting and drinking, it is very difficult indeed to “spend a penny.”

In the following letter to the Editor published in the Evening Chronicle (Newcastle upon Tyne, Northumberland, England) of Thursday 18th July 1957, to spend a penny does not refer to ‘the call of nature’:

Beach changing
There is no need for anyone going to Cullercoats to change on the beach. The public toilets are one minute’s walk. A little common sense would tell anyone to spend a penny and get changed in comfort.

 

TO SPEND A PENNY & ADMISSION TO PUBLIC TOILETS

 

Published in the Daily Herald (London, England) of Monday 17th January 1955, the following article evoked the question of access to public lavatories:

How to spend a penny

A £4,000 building to be put on the promenade at Hunstanton, Norfolk, has started an argument.
Should it have a penny-in-the-slot turnstile or an attendant?
The argument arose when plans for the building were discussed by the Council. Seven of the 12 members present were for a turnstile.
The others, led by the only woman there—Miss Edith Bowker, a nursery home matron—were very much against it.
Miss Bowker declared that a large woman sometimes became trapped in a turnstile.
                                                                    SEPARATE
Councillor Kenneth Gillespie suggested a separate arrangement for outsize women.
But the Finance Committee vice-chairman, Councillor Tom Legge, said: “It must be a turnstile or an attendant—and we can’t afford an attendant.”
So the turnstile won.
Why is the Council so set against penny-in-the-slot locks?
Mr. Wyn Lloyd, the Chief Finance Officer, said last night: “People leave the doors open for others.”
Last summer Hunstanton’s two other turnstiles netted £572.

Two articles published in The Manchester Guardian (Manchester, Lancashire, England) evoked penny-in-the-slot locks and turnstiles at women’s public conveniences:

1: Wednesday 17th June 1959:

WOMEN NEED NOT SPEND A PENNY
Discreet experiment
By our own Reporter

Manchester Health Committee—six women, seventeen men—agreed yesterday on a discreet experiment. The penny-in-the-slot locks on the doors at the women’s lavatory in Cannon Street are to be removed for a trial period. If the experiment is a success, it will be extended to other women’s lavatories in the city staffed by attendants.
Alderman R. E. Thomas, chairman of the committee, said yesterday: “It is another step towards more equality between the sexes. In any case, collecting the pennies and looking after the locks is an expensive business.”

2: Thursday 20th July 1961:

First stage won in turnstile battle
By our Parliamentary Staff

“These instruments of torture are the crowning insult to our womanhood.” With these words, and amid cheers from members on both sides, Mrs Barbara Castle introduced her Public Lavatories (Abolition of Turnstiles) Bill in the Commons yesterday. “Is it a crime to spend a penny?” she asked aggressively.
As Mrs Castle frankly explained at the beginning of her speech—under the 10-minute rule—this was not a subject which one would normally choose for a bill, but the Minister of Housing and Local Government had left no alternative. There was a growing practice, she insisted, of erecting steel barriers at the entrance to women’s lavatories with turnstiles operated by inserting a penny.
The bill, she explained, was intended to give the Minister the power to prohibit such turnstiles, which he claimed he did not have. The Minister had urged complainants to raise the subject with local authorities, but this had proved useless. Mrs Castle quoted an answer from one local authority which predicted that, one day, authorities might be sufficiently courageous to erect turnstiles in men’s lavatories, too. This point seemed to win over even the last objectors and Mrs Castle was given leave to introduce the bill.