“Pittsburgh Potties”: A Real & Very Mysterious Thing

updated May 3, 2019
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Ever wandered down into someone’s basement and seen a fully functional toilet in the middle of the room? ‘Pittsburgh Potties’ are just that —common commodes installed in your average unfinished basement, without walls or doors —and so named because of their prevalence in Western Pennsylvania. Why, you might be asking, is this an actual thing in this area? I’m glad you’re as curious as I was.

One theory is that they were put in homes built before World War II for steel and mine workers coming home from work. After a long dirty day, these guys would enter through a basement door, clean up and do their business down below before heading upstairs, and therefore avoid messing up the house proper. Given Pittsburgh’s industrial roots, this makes a lot of sense. Of course, to me, it also begs the question: why does just the toilet so often remain and not, say, the sink or makeshift shower for washing?

(Image credit: Chris Winters on flickr)

In some cases the original installer took pity on future users by tucking the commode more discreetly under the stairs or around a handy corner — as it appears to be case in Chris Winters’ home (seen above, wedged between two concrete walls). But for the most part you find them right smack dab in the wide open, in all their glory.

(Image credit: I Love 2 Sweat)

Regardless of origin, today these toilets are mostly just creepy relics — old eye sores that people don’t want to use, but just don’t bother to rip out. Although I imagine that, if hard-pressed, someone might run downstairs when other bathroom(s) are occupied by slow family members, or when there’s a long line of holiday guests waiting to use the loo. Remodeler Courtney noted how handy hers was (as seen above) when they were doing a recent bathroom remodel. I also read somewhere that the younger generations sometimes call them a ‘party toilet’: a vessel for vomiting that spares the rest of the house during particularly wild ragers (do kids still call big parties ragers these days? Probably not).

And before they become a thing of the past, Lawrenceville, PA resident and amateur photographer Ted Zellers is documenting this unique home feature for posterity, hoping down the road to turn it into a gallery show or a coffee table book, celebrating one of area homes’ perhaps more quirky aspects. (The lead image is one of his.)

Terry’s Plumbing of Pittsburgh hopes they stick around as well and helpfully suggests a few ways to make yours more acceptable, including putting a sign on the basement door to let others know when it’s in use, and cleaning it regularly.

When my wife and I bought our current home here in Missouri, we were stunned to find a working toilet randomly installed in the rustic open loft area on the second floor of our garage. We removed it during the subsequent remodel but laughed about it for years afterwards, trying to figure out its purpose when there were already two perfectly fine bathrooms — with doors mind you —mere steps away just inside the house. Had we known about the Pittsburgh toilet then, we might have been a little bit closer to an actual explanation. And then we might have left it up there.

Still, if you’re house hunting in Pittsburgh, definitely be wary of real estate listings that mention a “partial bath.”