Maybe you remember seeing one of these at your grandparents’ house as a child — or maybe one even exists in your own home, curiously sitting in the basement.
I used to remember going over to my grandparent’s house as a child and seeing a random toilet in their basement.
There were no walls for privacy, no sinks, nothing…Just a toilet out in the open for all to see. It turns out that this was done on purpose and many homes have these ‘Pittsburgh Potties’ in their homes as well.
They have become somewhat legendary in western Pennsylvania. (One local man is even collecting photographs of the odd toilets, and hopes to compile them into a book, according to 90.5 WESA, Pittsburgh’s NPR news station.)
Pittsburgh has been known historically as a ‘Steel City’. It is thought that many workers had these toilets in their basements so they could come home from work, clean themselves off, and use the bathroom before going upstairs.
The idea totally makes sense. Instead of tracking dirt and dust throughout the house after work, they could just enter through a separate entrance on the side of the house. Think of them as a historic mudroom.
While the Pittsburgh potties certainly may have been used that way, that’s not the real reason they were installed. As Martin originally told 90.5 WESA, the toilets, usually found in pre-World War II houses, were actually there to prevent sewage backups in the nice part of the home. If there was a sewage backup on your street, it would come into your home through the fixture that’s lowest to the ground, he explained.
“As cities developed, there were (sewer) problems … they would have backups,” Martin, who is also involved with various historical societies and boards, told TODAY. “When a sewer backs up, it backs up into buildings. So the idea was to put a fixture in the basement where the line came into the street, so if there was a sewer backup, it would go there instead of the main house.”
Basically, cleaning up a concrete floor in an empty basement is easier than cleaning up a nice bathroom!