What in the world is a ‘Pittsburgh potty’?

Facebook / Ed Williams

There’s a single home furnishing that has everyone wondering, “What in the world were these home builders thinking?” What is it? A lonely toilet with no shower, no bathtub, no sink and—most troubling of all—no doors!

I looked at homes recently in Cincinnati, Ohio, and was incredibly confused every time I saw the lonely john in the middle of the basement. I imagined it was difficult to hide the commode between the love seat and the vintage end table. But it turns out there’s some real historic value to what many would consider to be a mysterious eyesore.

What Is This Strange, Middle-Of-The-Basement Toilet…And Why?

First off, they have a name: the Pittsburgh potty. One real estate agent told Today that Pittsburgh potties were, essentially, old-style mudrooms for steel workers in the Steel City.

“Instead of tracking dust and dirt throughout the house after work, they would enter their house through a separate entrance right into the basement,” Jackie Konopka of Triplemint told Today.

And before that, the Pittsburgh potty was used as a Band-Aid for sewage problems. Some architects believe basement toilets were first installed in homes in the late 1800s and early 1900s. That’s when bigger cities in the U.S. began having similar sewage issues. Sewage pipes installed in the street was a relatively new idea and, as populations increased, there were more and more homes experiencing backups.

Before the basement toilet, the sewage backup would come up through the first-floor bathroom, in the toilet or bathtub. Homeowners and builders came up with an idea to install a toilet in the basement, since it’s the lowest point of the home. It’s a lot easier to clean up a flooded basement than a nicely tiled kitchen or living room!

The Pittsburgh Potty Has Everyone Talking

Today, there’s really no reason to use a Pittsburgh potty that’s in your basement, but surely you’ll have a guest or two who’s curious enough to unload in the most nontraditional bathroom in the house. Heck, you may just decide to try it for yourself, like one Pittsburgh Magazine writer who remembers the Pittsburgh potty that was located in her grandmother’s basement: “So there we would sit on the basement potty under lights so fluorescently bright you could do surgery under them,” Virginia Montanez wrote in 2010. “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.”

More recently, one Maryland native even announced plans to put a whole collection of Pittsburgh potties into a coffee table book. Yep! A book of crappers. Ted Zellers grew up in Maryland, but has lived in Pittsburgh for more than a decade. He’s putting together a book featuring basement commodes from older homes. It started with friends, then Zellers started going door-to-door in older neighborhoods, asking strangers if he could photograph their basements. Zellers has more than 100 photos, but has yet to decide when the book will be published.

And if you need more convincing that these toilets are a talker, they’re even featured on Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” website in the article “Need To Know: Pittsburgh.” They’re number eight on the list of pro tips you’ll need when visiting Pittsburgh.

Some companies even offer tips for sprucing up your Pittsburgh potty. From Keystone Basement Systems:

  • Enclose the space with curtains to make it feel more like its own room.
  • Provide a sanitizing station with a homemade hand sanitizer container.
  • Create a more comfortable atmosphere with lights and a DIY lampshade.

In closing, having a Pittsburgh potty in your home: acceptable. Using a Pittsburgh potty: questionable.

Home, Life

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About the Author
Emily Hanford-Ostmann
I have a background in newspaper and broadcast news writing. When I'm not informing others about what's happening in town...I enjoy running, a great workout class, and finding my next favorite show on Netflix. I also find great joy in clearance shopping.

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