Perhaps you remember seeing one of these as a child at your grandparents’ house, or perhaps one exists in your own home, curiously sitting in the basement. As a child, I recall visiting my grandparents’ house and discovering a random toilet in their basement. There were no privacy walls, sinks, or anything else… Just an open toilet for everyone to see. It was later discovered that this was done on purpose, and many homes have these ‘Pittsburgh Potties’ as well.
They’ve become something of a legend in western Pennsylvania. (According to 90.5 WESA, Pittsburgh’s NPR news station, one local man is even collecting photographs of the unusual toilets and hopes to compile them into a book.) Pittsburgh has been known historically as a ‘Steel City’. Many workers were thought to have these toilets in their basements so that they could come home from work, clean themselves up, and use the bathroom before going upstairs.
The concept makes perfect sense. They could enter through a separate entrance on the side of the house instead of tracking dirt and dust throughout the house after work. Consider them a historic mudroom. While the Pittsburgh restrooms were undoubtedly used in this manner, that was not the true reason for their installation. According to Martin, the toilets, which are typically found in pre-World War II homes, were installed to prevent sewage backups in the nice part of the house.
He explained that if there was a sewage backup on your street, it would enter your home through the fixture closest to the ground. “As cities grew, there were (sewer) problems… they would have backups,” Martin, who is also a member of several historical societies and boards, told TODAY. “When a sewer backs up, it backs up into structures. So the plan was to install a fixture in the basement where the sewer line entered the street, so that if there was a sewer backup, it would go there rather than the main house.”
Cleaning up a concrete floor in an empty basement is essentially easier than cleaning up a nice bathroom!