The "Pittsburgh Shitter," as I've heard it called -- and not just when readers suggest alternate names for CP -- is a treasured bit of local folklore. Basement toilets have long been celebrated as a connection to the city's industrial legacy; they've even been featured in Rick Sebak's recent documentary Underground Pittsburgh.
"The story is that you came home from work in the mill, and you used the basement to wash up before you tracked grime all over the house," says Ron Baraff. An archivist and historian at Homestead-based Rivers of Steel, it's Baraff's job to delve for local working-class history. Obviously, he finds it in a lot of basements.
Frequently, he says, "If you go into these older homes, there's often a cast-cement tub down there as well. I have heard from dozens of steelworkers and their families that this was the daily routine -- especially before the 1950s, before there were big shower rooms installed in the plants themselves."
Still, he says, while the bathrooms are rare, they are not unheard of: "I know of other towns where people have the same sort of thing. You tend to find them in a lot of working-class towns" -- including Cleveland, where a toilet in the basement arguably seems a little redundant. But "there are older towns in Oregon where they have them as well," Baraff says.
Pittsburgh's basement toilets are somewhat unusual, Baraff allows, because they very often don't feature amenities like, well, walls. "They're just right out in the open. It's the fact that they are stand-alone facilities, with no walls or anything else.
"But what's really unique," he adds, "is that we claim such ownership of it. It's this weird provincial thing: The weird pride we take in our toilets is more unique than the toilets themselves."
It's a little disheartening to realize that we aren't quite as idiosyncratic as we thought. (Which is why I won't tell you about how "parking chairs" are used in other cities, too.) But Baraff raises a good point: Why is an unfinished basement bathroom the sort of thing we take pride in? Why must our minds remain in the crapper? We build bathrooms in the middle of the basement, where anyone can see them … and then we boast about having them. What would Freud have to say about this desire to exhibit the act of elimination?
To be honest, I'm afraid to find out. But maybe we just have a hard time letting go. Of our housing stock, I mean.
According to Census Bureau figures, more than 200,000 homes and apartments in Allegheny County were built prior to 1940. That's more than one-third of the total housing stock. And housing in some parts of the county is older still. Within Pittsburgh's city limits, for example, more than half of the city's housing stock dates back before WWII. Not surprisingly, those are precisely the places where you're most likely to find basement toilets. (Baraff allows that he had a basement "powder room" during a stint in Mt. Lebanon, "but that's not quite the same thing.")
We have, in other words, some of the oldest housing stock in the country. (By comparison, the national average is that only one house in seven was built in the pre-war period.) So it's no surprise we have relics of some of its most primitive plumbing.
And I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise that we sort of celebrate the fact. Part of the steel-industry legend, after all, is that heroic, titanic forces were unleashed amidst scenes of squalor and pollution. The crappiness of the work is part of its mystique. Having a toilet in your basement is sort of a wry comment on that.
In fact, we haven't even begun to plumb the mysteries of Pittsburgh's plumbing. Baraff says that according to his field research, the basement was home to another local innovation: shower heads. "When bathrooms were installed in a lot of early homes," Baraff says, "they had bathtubs only. When showers were added later, it was often only in the basement."
"I don't know," Baraff replies. "Maybe that's your next column: the Pittsburgh tub."
Or maybe I'll leave it for Sebak instead.