Why Is There a Toilet in the Basement? The Mystery of the ‘Pittsburgh Toilet’ Explained

Mizuki Hisaka
Written by Mizuki Hisaka
Updated April 28, 2022
A renovated basement
Photo: Anatoli / Adobe Stock


  • Pittsburgh toilets go back to the 1880s and up to World War II.

  • A sewage backup would hit the plumbing fixture lowest to the ground, so these toilets kept sewage overflow contained in the basement.

  • They’re common all over the U.S., although some homeowners feel they’re a bit of an eyesore. 

  • Consider turning the toilet into a finished basement bathroom.

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There’s something strange about walking down the basement stairs to see a random toilet out in the open. But once you discover the history of the Pittsburgh toilet, you’ll have some context for this seemingly out-of-place feature. Whether you decide to keep this piece of Americana or ditch it, it’s up to you.

What Does a Pittsburgh Toilet Look Like?

A Pittsburgh potty is a working toilet installed in the basement, usually in the middle of the room. There are no walls for privacy, which makes it seem incredibly strange to us in modern times. Some Pittsburgh toilets may also have a sink, a shower attachment, or a concrete tub. 

Which Homes Have Pittsburgh Toilets?

Homes built between the 1880s and before World War II may have Pittsburgh toilets. Although they’re called “Pittsburgh” toilets, they’re not exclusive to that city. People all over the country have found these historical relics in their basements: from New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Oklahoma, Indiana, and beyond.

Why Do Pittsburgh Toilets Exist?

A white toilet bowl in a bathroom
Photo: Africa Studio / Adobe Stock

Before World War II, plumbing was not as sophisticated as what we have today. A sewage backup would hit the plumbing fixture lowest to the ground, and a logical solution was to install a toilet in the basement. To clean up an overflow, all homeowners had to do was scrub the cement flooring (sparing their beautiful bathroom on the main floor).

In short, these toilets were simply an ingenious solution to the common sewage problems in those days. Today, we would be shocked if the sewage started overflowing in our homes! But back then, a blockage on your street could spell disaster for you, and tragedy did strike every so often.

This historical information also explains why so many basements were left unfinished. There wasn’t a point in building out a guest apartment or a hang-out area for friends because that stinky sewage could one day destroy it. Besides plumbing issues, there are other causes of basement flooding one has to account for, like clogged gutters, poor weatherproofing, and an improper drainage system.

There is another widely-circulated explanation for the toilets. Some people believe that steelworkers would come home and use the basement bathroom before going upstairs to join their families. However, according to WESA, Pittsburgh’s NPR News Station, experts have not verified these claims.

Pros of Pittsburgh Toilets

As weird and awkward as it might seem to use a Pittsburgh toilet, you’ll appreciate it if all of the other bathrooms in your house are full. The extra toilet is also helpful if you’re in the middle of a remodel and your usual bathrooms are out of commission. Even if it doesn’t have walls, having that extra toilet downstairs is better than nothing.

Cons of Pittsburgh Toilets

For many people, these toilets are an eyesore in the basement. Considering that our modern plumbing system means we’re unlikely to deal with backups and sewage overflows, these toilets are arguably unnecessary.

Renovating Your Pittsburgh Toilet

One thing is for sure—an extra bathroom is convenient. Since the Pittsburg potty in your home is already functional, all you need to do is to install walls, flooring, and fixtures. This is a bonus when you consider that a bulk of the cost to install a toilet is the labor to put in the toilet and drain pipe. You could DIY parts of the project, but call a plumber in your area when it comes to plumbing work. 

Why not take advantage of what you already have, especially if you’re doing a whole basement remodel? There are many reasons to add a bathroom to your basement, like increasing your home’s value. If you want to kick back and relax in your new game room, home theater, or hobby room, having a nearby bathroom in the basement will make the space even more convenient.

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