That Rando Toilet in the Basement; Compiled Musings on the “Pittsburgh Potty”

We thought we’d start the new year with a little levity. 

Maybe you’ve seen, or even have one of those awkward, kind of creepy freestanding toilets in the basement. And maybe it has friends, a derelict-looking shower or sink up on some old wooden platform, just there, looking gross. Not a bathroom, to be clear, because there are no walls – just fixtures you don’t want to interact with emanating the vibe that only the direst need would qualify them for consideration of use, and even then, maybe not.

Pittsburg Potty in a basement. The dreaded basement toilet

Client: What’s up with that?

Us: (donning our monocle and clearing our throat) This is an excellent example of what many
refer to as “The Pittsburgh Potty”. Indeed, there are several theories on these toilets and
accompanying facilities that exist in so many of our pre-war homes.

Here, close the lid, have a seat and get comfortable while I share more than you might want to

One theory suggests that the “Pittsburgh Potty” was installed as a solution for steelworkers and miners in pre-war Pittsburg who used the basement as a rest stop and mudroom where they would clean up to avoid tracking their work grime through the rest of the house. 

Though, they are found all over, not just in Pittsburg. And often with no sink or shower.

So possibly this situation emerged in basements across the country in the homes of workers of any kind, and the name came about retroactively because there are just more of them in Pittsburgh.

As far as the basements with a lone toilet and nothing else, Everyday Old House cites reading about a woman recalling her grandfather lying out a clean set of clothes in the basement before going to work and then removing his clothes in the basement after work, where they would remain until they were washed. So a worker, coming back dirty from work, entered the home through the basement, used the toilet, undressed, and left their dirty clothes there before going upstairs to clean up.

Sure, ok, though that’s not a very strong case for the toilet’s presence.

Another popular theory says that these toilets have zero to do with workers but instead were installed in basements because the basement was the lowest point of the waste system. If there were a backup, the basement toilet would overflow, saving the main living spaces from being impacted. This mode of plumbing might seem circuitous, but previous sewer systems likely employed tree trunks, so in comparison…

As years passed and the population increased, outmoded plumbing systems had to improve a lot, and relatively quickly to keep up, so the concept of installing a basement toilet to channel sewage waste actually makes sense.

But then, what about the shower and sink? Scratches head.

Here are some other theories to noodle on.

  • The toilets were for workers doing work on or in the house, as apparently, the first porta potty patent wasn’t until the 1960s
  • The toilets were installed to minimize a worker’s break time by eliminating the minutes it
    would take to find a bathroom on another floor
  • Households were often multigenerational and generally larger back then, so the basement toilet was a utilitarian solution to help accommodate all of its members.
  • Fathers needed their own peaceful, if not attractive, spot to “relax”.

Of the lore surrounding the so-called Pittsburgh Potty, Pittsburgh archivist and historian Ron Baraff is quoted in Family Handyman as stating, “…what’s really unique is that we claim such ownership of it…It’s this weird provincial thing: The weird pride we take in our toilets is more unique than the toilets themselves.”

Regardless of where the basement toilet originated, it is satisfying that there seems not to be a definitive answer as to why it exists. But for today, before they have all been banished, we can enjoy the low-stake mystery, the subject of playful debate, the cause for bonding with a subculture of antique homeowner trivia buffs the potty affords us. Or not.

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