The History Of The Pittsburgh Potty Revealed

The Pittsburgh Potty

The history of Pittsburgh is full of interesting facts and hometown tidbits. This is one for the scholars. Here are three stories that give an honest and revealing look into the basement toilet, an attraction that is common to most older homes in this area. Apparently, it is a unique local rest stop, and it has an official designation. It is called the Pittsburgh Potty!

It's Called The Pittsburgh Potty

I’ll never forget it, ever. There. In the middle of my grandmother's basement laundry room in her Bridgeville home, a home she shared with my grandfather until about a decade ago.

There. With no walls surrounding it and no privacy screen or veil of any sort.

There. With a window directly behind it.

There. To the right of the clothes dryer and to the left of a shelf full of non-perishables.

A toilet.

A real, working, flushing TOILET, sitting in the middle of my grandmother's basement.

Growing up, I will admit, I used that toilet on occasion. Four sisters and lots of cousins regularly descending upon my grandmother's house for dinner every Saturday meant it would be a rare occurrence when you would find the lone furnished, wall-enclosed upstairs bathroom available and/or devoid of noxious fumes. So there we would sit on the basement potty under lights so fluorescently bright you could do surgery under them, willing our little bodies to empty as fast as they could. Wondering if there was a cousin or a stray dog watching us from the window. Praying Grandma wouldn't choose that particular second to retrieve a can of sauce from the shelf. Thinking this must be what it's like in jail. Wondering why the heck doesn't Pap-Pap put some [darn] walls around this thing. And then we’d feel guilty because we thought a swearword in our heads.

I spent the next two and a half decades thinking my grandmother's house was the single house built by the crackpot crew that decided to punk them by putting a wall-less potty in the middle of their basement. Until I bought a house.

My husband and I visited house after house, and in every fourth basement a potty! Out in the middle of nowhere! Potties haphazardly strewn about basements of every shape and size. Potties with handles and potties with pull cords. Potties with lids and potties without. Potties so small you wonder if chipmunks use that potty at night. Potties so loud and big and water-wasteful, you fear they could suck the space/time continuum into them.

That was when I came to assume that these potties must be all over the country, not just in my grandmother's old basement. We purchased a house with a stray potty, and we've given that potty a warm home. But we simply pretended as if the stray potty didn't exist, and we certainly didn't make eye contact with the potty when we walked past it to do laundry.

Then, very recently, a conversation began on Twitter in which Doug, an Erie native now living in Pittsburgh, asked, "What is a Pittsburgh Potty?" Without even reading the answers, I knew: "IT HAS A NAME!"

The Pittsburgh Potty! The lone, sad, old, stained but useful basement toilet found scattered throughout the homes of the Pittsburgh region. I immediately took to Google to learn more about this phenomenon and discovered that WQED's and Pittsburgh Magazine's Rick Sebak featured the Pittsburgh Potty on his show “Pittsburgh Underground.” I learned that the toilets were originally installed for steelworkers to use upon their return home from work and before heading upstairs for dinner.

Fascinated with this new historical knowledge about my beloved Pittsburgh, I returned to the Twitter discussion to find that the catalyst for the original question was a real-estate ad for a local home featuring "a walkout basement with a Pittsburgh commode." Doug wondered is that something a person really wants to advertise when selling a house, that there's a place with no walls should you decide to relieve yourself sans privacy?

Apparently so, because Twitter responded to Doug with the following responses:

* "Hey, my house also has that feature!"
* "I told my wife I wanted to put ours back in, but she refused. I threatened to use the stationary tubs."
* "Everyone I know has one!"
* "In my house, that would be known as my husband's bathroom."
* "It's a huge selling feature for Pittsburgh natives. I'm not kidding. We weren’t so lucky in our Southside home."
* "We're high class people. Our Pittsburgh Potty has a bidet. Well, it's a hose mounted on the bottom, but still ..."

And suddenly, just like that, I became proud of my Pittsburgh Potty. It is a treasured, historic artifact! We Pittsburghers take pride in what makes us unique, even if they are ridiculous things like salads made unhealthy with french fries, chairs that reserve parking spaces, our utter inability to yield, Steelers jerseys in church, or yes, that odd toilet in the basement that despite our best intentions, we will probably never enclose.

That means someday soon, during a large family gathering at our home, in a moment of urgency and necessity, my son will find himself down there, wondering, "Why in the name of all that is Pittsburgh doesn’t Daddy put some [darn] walls around this thing?!"

And if I've done my job well, he'll feel very guilty for thinking that swear word.

Article reprinted from the February 2010 issue of Pittsburgh Magazine.
Written by Virginia Montanez.

The Pittsburgh Potty

Documenting The Pittsburgh Potty:
An Architectural Mystery In Our Basements

Ted Zellers has knocked on doors from the West End to the North Side to Polish Hill and beyond, all to ask people if he can have a look in their basements.

“I’ve been surprised about how positive the reactions of people have been,” he said. “I was really worried when I started this that a lot of people would think I was a weirdo for wanting to do this.”

The Lawrenceville resident and amateur photographer is compiling photographs of those lone basement toilets. He said he’s hoping to one day share them in some kind of coffee table book, or eventually a gallery show.

“Everybody recognizes that, yes, toilets are a part of all of our lives,” he said.

It’s a part of life that a lot of people don’t really think a lot about. Basement toilets can come in handy, especially if there are multiple people living in an older house with only one finished bathroom. But Pittsburgh’s basement toilets often lack any accompanying sinks, showers or, more notably, walls.

“What I always liked about them was, they were obviously placed in unexpected spots,” said WQED host Rick Sebak. “So there’s no rhyme or reason as to where they’d be in the basement. Sometimes right in the middle, sometimes in a corner, which seems to make more sense.”

In 2007, Sebak hosted a special called "Underground Pittsburgh." It partly explored the region’s basements -- including Pittsburgh potties.

“I know that various people have accommodated it, you know, either put a curtain around it or, at my house, in the basement, somebody put cinder blocks, so it’s still open at the one end," he said. "It’s kind of a stall.”

But when and why Pittsburgh toilets originated is more difficult to pinpoint.

“People say that mill workers came home, they were super dirty, they didn’t want to dirty the house, so they went in through the basement, showered in the basement and did their bathing in the basement and then came upstairs where the house was clean,” said Stephen Cummings, a realtor with RE/MAX in Pittsburgh who primarily works in the East End.

While that answer is accepted locally, there are few experts -- if any -- who can confirm that theory. Multiple local historians declined to verify the authenticity of the mill worker claim, since they didn’t specialize in basement, or toilet, history.

Cummings, who said he's sold or helped sell more than 600 houses in his eight years as a realtor, said Pittsburgh potties tend to show up in houses built between 1880 and 1910. Some showed up in houses in the ‘20s, less in the ‘30s and even fewer built in the ‘40s, he said, with them petering out after World War II.

But the 1880s were also a time when wealthier Pittsburghers might have had servants living in their houses. And with basement toilets in some of the city’s larger houses, Cummings has another idea.

“Some really large, older houses I’ve seen all over the city, if they’re large enough, they have signs of what was possibly even a kitchen in the basement, as well,” he said. “And I think that could show that they had servants living in the basement or using the basement as living quarters.”

But ultimately, the Pittsburgh potty evokes a sense of nostalgia for many locals. Sebak remembers them from his childhood.

“I can remember my grandmothers both had one in their basements and, you know, as a kid, it was kind of easier,” he said. “Just run down and use the toilet in the basement.”

That nostalgia and uniqueness is something Zellers is hoping to capture with his photo project.

“Culture comes big and small, public and private,” he said. “And the Pittsburgh toilet that has almost no documentation associated with it, despite the fact that there is an incredible amount of variety and personalization in these toilets that people have put in over the years.

"I think that these are worth seeing. They’re worth sharing.”

Article reprinted from September 9, 2017 WESA.FM.
Written by Sarah Kovash.

The Pittsburgh Potty

Architect Offers Explanation For Pittsburgh’s Basement Toilets
(And It’s Not What You Think)

Basement toilets are a pervasive feature of Pittsburgh homes -- so much so that one local photographer set out to document them.

And although local lore suggests they were first installed so that mill workers and miners could clean up before entering the main part of the house, multiple local experts said they couldn't verify that, and most declined to weigh in on how these mysterious home features came to be.

Now, one architect is providing some answers. 90.5 WESA’s Sarah Kovash spoke to architect William Martin, who studied at Carnegie Mellon University and graduated from the Pratt Institute. The New Jersey resident is also chairman of the Historic Preservation Committee at the Pascack Historical Society. Martin said they weren’t designed for steel workers; in fact, they weren't even meant to be used.

SARAH KOVASH: These toilets are usually found in pre-World War II-era homes. Can you give me a little background as to what plumbing was like then?

WILLIAM MARTIN: Well, they go from just before World War II to back to about the 1880s, depending on where you are in the country and depending on whether or not your city had sewers in the streets or not. So, about the mid-1800s is when cities realized that in order to develop and have density of population to protect their populations they needed to have underground sewers in order to deal with all of the trappings of a dense population.

The large cities, especially in the Northeast, began to put sewers into the streets. In some cases back then, they didn't have the piping we had, they would use trees and hollow out the trunk and it would use that as a sewer pipe because they needed the big size of the pipe to make it work.

KOVASH: How effective was that as a sewage pipe?

MARTIN: It worked very well for a long time. But as the population increased, and there's more and more of fluid flowing through the pipes, they began to have some issues. You know, you have clogs and things like that. And then of course as the technology advanced through you know closer to 1900 and in the early 1900s, you know, the early 20th Century, they had new materials for piping and things gradually got better in terms of the sewers and how they worked.

KOVASH: So, how did we eventually end up with toilets in our basements, then?

MARTIN: As the systems were used more and more, backups would occur. And when a sewer backed up, it would back up and it fills up the pipe like you're filling up a jar. Eventually you're going to reach the point where you fill up the jar and it starts to spill over. Well, in a home, what happens is the sewage backs up the pipe and into the fixtures that are connected to it. So, if you have your main living space on your first floor and you have your nice tiled beautiful bathroom and the sewer backs up on your street -- and you might not even be the cause of it -- the sewer backs up. It's going to come up through your bathtub, it's going to come up through your toilet and it's going to spill over and it's going to be all over your living space.

So the idea was to put a toilet fixture in the basement, and that's why they're by themselves, because they really weren't meant to be used. And they are at the lowest point of the system. So, as the sewer backs up, it will make itself known in the basement, because the toilet in the basement would overflow and into largely an unfinished basement, and then you would know to alert the city that there was a clog that they needed to clear it. And once the clog was cleared, you could then clean up the mess.

Now, when you were cleaning up the mess you were simply cleaning up your basement concrete slab, which was a relatively easy thing to do. This is also the reason why people did not finish their basements, because the sewer backups did occur from time to time.

KOVASH: If they weren’t meant to be used, why put a toilet down there? Why not just leave a drain or pipe?

MARTIN: The drain isn't big enough. It's a small aperture. The toilet is the largest fixture that's connected to the system. So if there’s going to be a backup, it will come out of the toilet in the basement. If you put it on a floor drain, what will happen is, as the sewer backs up it will continue to back up, fill up the plumbing once and you'll have the same problems upstairs. You need to give it the simplest way to get out and that's what they did.

KOVASH: Most people in Pittsburgh agree that these toilets, or Pittsburgh Potties as they’re sometimes referred to, were installed for miners and mill workers to use – especially when they came home from work so that they could clean up before going into the nice part of the house. Are you saying that’s not the case?

MARTIN: I’m not sure that some didn’t do that, but these are not unique to Pittsburgh.

KOVASH: So where else are these basement toilets found?

MARTIN: Well, they’re all around northern New Jersey, all around the suburbs of New York City. They exist in New England, up in the Boston area, Philadelphia, you know, all around the Northeast. I'm not sure about other parts of the country because I haven't encountered them in other parts of the country, but it wouldn't surprise me if you saw them in other cities, as well.

Article reprinted from October 11, 2017 WESA.FM.
Written by Sarah Kovash.

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