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[REV 25-NOV-2014]

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Potty Mouth: 1941

Potty Mouth: 1941

January 1941. "This is the only toilet in a two-family house in New Brighton, Pennsylvania." Medium format negative by Jack Delano. View full size.

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Unique, water-waster design

I haven't seen a toilet like this since I went to camp as a kid. If you look closely, there isn't a 'trap'; the water/waste goes straight down! See how the seat is slightly 'up'? That is because when you sit on it, that opens the water valve to the bowl, and it continues flushing for as long as you are seated! This freaked me out when I was a kid, and to this day, I hate it when an automatic flush toilet goes off while I'm sitting on it!

Flushed with pride?

I boarded in a house with a Pgh. toilet. It got the most use when another boarder used the sole bathroom from thirty minutes to over an hour at a time, and in spite of other residents' pounding on the door and calling for him to give others a chance.

Someone once asked him what on earth he did in there, and he said, "I was *reading,*" as if that were not only obvious but logical. I remember how someone would yell, "I'm going downstairs!" when headed for the creepy Pgh. toilet, letting everyone else know privacy was needed.

In reply to Mattie's question, I believe the one where I boarded flushed into a sewer. Someone told me that the basement flooded a year or two before I lived there. She said the flood came from the sewer; clean-up was most unpleasant.

How does it flush?

It may seem hard to believe that such an ancient piece of plumbing could have an automatic flush valve, but there appears to be one attached to the rear of the seat. I went to a Vancouver, Canada, high school that was built in 1905. It was three storeys high, and the only men's washroom was in the basement. When I attended this school in 1966, it still had the original toilets. The wood seat, the same as you see in the photo, was always raised slightly. When you sat down, it armed the flush mechanism. When you stood up, the flush valve opened and the water flowed. My Vancouver neighbourhood has a few of these basement toilets.

A beautiful composition

Rather an untoward photographic subject for the era, but I like to imagine Jack Delano being shown around this house and not being able to resist the way the light illuminated this scene.

[The light, as in most of Jack Delano's interiors shots, was supplied by Jack Delano. - Dave]

(We have a toilet in the basement in our Victorian-era house in Boston - while whatever was there originally has been replaced with a contemporary model, I imagine it served the same purpose as the Pittsburgh potty.)

If basements weren't scary enough

An architect explains that they were a sort of relief valve for early sewers.

Pennsylvania Winters

Primitive as this seems today, it was a better option than our coal-patch outdoor privy!


Yep, let's take America back to the 1940s.

Realtor's nightmare

I'm surprised that any of these survive, but Esandrof says that they do.

What would a realtor would say when showing a home with a Pittsburgh Potty? Is it possible to put a positive spin on this feature?


This reminds me of growing up in the Bronx in the '40s. Your parents didn't say "flush the toilet", they said "pull the chain".

A familiar sight

We live in a 1925 house in NJ that has one of those toilets in the basement -- luckily, not the only toilet in the house. Sometimes, it comes in handy.

Paging Thomas Crapper

That toilet is ancient even for 1940. The conical hopper bowls went out in the 1890s, I think. It also appears that the freshwater supply burbles up through the tank, which would be a potential cross-connection, a major health hazard.

Pittsburgh toilet

"A Pittsburgh toilet, often called a 'Pittsburgh potty', is a common fixture in pre-World War II houses built in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States. It consists of an ordinary flush toilet installed in the basement, with no surrounding walls" -- Wikipedia

I almost missed the enema bag

Oh sweet Jesus, to make matters worse the enema bag hanging behind the top step surely would have brought nightmares to any kids in that house. It made me clench when saw it.

[Also note the newspaper/TP. - Dave]

No trap

Did it flush into the sewer or a cesspool?

SHORPY OLD PHOTO ARCHIVE | History in HD is a vintage photo archive featuring thousands of high-definition images from the 1850s to 1960s. (Available as fine-art prints from the Shorpy Archive.) The site is named after Shorpy Higginbotham, a teenage coal miner who lived 100 years ago.

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