Here’s Why Old Houses Have a Random Toilet in the Basement
Opinions vary, but one thing is for sure: toilets in the basement are an outdated concept.
It looks misplaced, even comical, but a random toilet in the basement of an old house once served a purpose.
Usually found in pre World War II-era homes, this lone toilet looks odd not just because it’s in the basement, but because there is nothing around it to make it feel like a proper, private bathroom! Often there are no walls around it; and some are accompanied by a crude basement shower apparatus, and a large sink (or no sink at all!)
These toilets are sometimes referred to as the “Pittsburgh potty” thanks to the abundance of them in the city. Legend has it that the historically industrial town’s steelworkers and miners used them after a long day of work. They’d enter their basements to clean up before entering the main part of the house, so as to avoid tracking in grime.
But they’re not only found in old homes in Pittsburgh. “I know of other towns where people have the same sort of thing,” explains archivist and historian Ron Baraff in the Pittsburgh City Paper. “You tend to find them in a lot of working-class towns,” he says, “but there are older towns in Oregon where they have them as well.”
The information on these lonely old toilets in other areas throughout the country is almost non-existent, however. There are forums with people asking about them; and declarations that they exist in Cleveland, Chicago and more. Yet, it all comes full circle to the Pittsburgh potty.
“But what’s really unique,” Baraff adds, “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.”
And while Baraff says he’s spoken to “dozens of steelworkers and their families” who claim these were, indeed, meant to clean up, he must be referring to the ones that had a sink and shower. A toilet by itself, then, is an entirely different story.
According to architect William Martin, the basement toilet wasn’t mean to be used at all.
Thanks to old school plumbing technology, sewage backups were much more frequent many years ago. “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,” Martin told Pittsburgh’s NPR News Station. “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.”
As an indicator for when a sewage backup was occurring, toilets were installed in the basement. “Sewage backs up the pipe and into the fixtures that are connected to it,” Martin told TODAY. “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.”
You’ll never look at one of these lone toilets the same again.