Here’s Why Old Houses Have a Random Toilet in the Basement
Standalone toilets in the basement are an outdated concept. Why were they necessary in the first place?
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).
The “Pittsburgh Potty”
These toilets are sometimes referred to as the “Pittsburgh potty” because of the abundance of them in that city. According to popular Pittsburgh folklore, the historically industrial town’s steelworkers and miners used them after a long day of work. To avoid tracking in grime, they’d go right to their basements to clean up before entering the main part of the house.
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, but there are older towns in Oregon where they have them as well.”
It’s Still a Guessing Game
Information on these lonely old toilets in other areas of the country is almost non-existent. 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 is that we claim such ownership of it,” Baraff adds. “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.
Old School Plumbing
According to architect William Martin, the basement toilet wasn’t meant to be used at all. Because of 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,” Martin told WESA-FM, Pittsburgh’s NPR news station. “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.
“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.”
To prevent sewage backup into the main part of the house, 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…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.