Picture this: A coffee-table book about Pittsburgh potties?
PITTSBURGH — Ted Zellers would like to take a picture of your Pittsburgh potty.
After a decade living in Pittsburgh, he’s become convinced that the humble basement basins are an “intimate piece of Americana that deserve to be memorialized.” To do so, he’s in the early stages of compiling a coffee-table book about the Pittsburgh potty.
For the book, he’s searching high and low — mostly low — for potties to photograph. A native of Maryland, the 28-year-old Zellers started by photographing the potties of friends, then put out a call on Facebook and Reddit and started knocking door-to-door in older neighborhoods such as Troy Hill, Carrick and Morningside.
“Almost everybody is nice about it,” said Zellers, a computer programmer who has never written a book before. “I expected this to be kind of a weird thing, but most people I tell this project to — including the people where I knock on their doors — recognize that this is a culturally valuable thing, and it is interesting, and they wish me well.”
For those uneducated about this piece of local lore, Pittsburgh potties are loosely defined as stand-alone basement toilets. The generally accepted history is that when miners, steelworkers or other laborers returned from a hard day’s work, they would change and wash up in the basement rather than bringing filth into the main living areas. The toilets were usually primitive, without walls or dedicated sinks.
“Oftentimes, there’s not even a tissue holder — just a roll of toilet paper on the tank,” said John DeSantis, who in his roles as former chairman of the city’s Historic Review Commission and executive director of the Pittsburgh Home & Garden Show has accumulated a wealth of knowledge about Pittsburgh potties.
While other industrial cities also had dirty workers, Pittsburgh’s topography may have played a part in the potties becoming such a fixture here. “Because of hills and valleys, western Pennsylvania has a lot of houses where the basement level is accessible from outside because the house is built on a slope,” said DeSantis. “This meant that you could go into the basement without passing through the house.”
Originally, the basements often had a pipe over a drain for a “shower” or a cast-iron tub, but those haven’t stuck around quite as much as the toilets themselves.
Even in close-in suburbs, which did not traditionally serve so many laborers, many of the homes were built with basement toilets, said DeSantis, because homebuyers here had become accustomed to them. “Families with kids who play anything outdoors, chances are they are not exactly clean,” he said. “In a more urban sense, these Pittsburgh potties are the forerunner of the mudroom.”
Some of the oldest Pittsburgh potties may also have been built in houses that were constructed before indoor plumbing, said John Canning, a former history teacher at Mt. Lebanon High School and a longtime North Side resident. He once saw a house on Beech Avenue in Allegheny West with a cast-iron basement toilet in the shape of a swan, he said, with wings stretching out on either side.
Over the years, homeowners made modifications to the potties, said Zellers, hanging shower curtains or building wooden outhouse-like walls for privacy.
When homeowners get too fancy, however, it’s no longer a Pittsburgh potty.
“It’s a continuum… For me, the line is, well, if there is a sink and a toilet surrounded by complete walls, it’s not a Pittsburgh potty,” he said. “Usually it’s clear on which side of the line things are falling.”
In his photography project, Mr. Zellers has seen some potties that up the kitsch factor, with specialty “Pittsburgh potty” signs. He’s seen others reach the end of their natural lifespans. “The toilet is not used and things are stacked around it on either side,” he said. “There could be a lawnmower.”
He caught one particularly memorable basement just after the house had sold and before anyone had moved in. “The whole basement was empty and the toilet was right there,” he said. “It made it seem so important.”
Most of the doors that Zellers has knocked on belong to houses that no longer have their Pittsburgh potties — either because they’ve upgraded through remodeling or removed them entirely. And that is what has compelled him to photograph them now.
“It’s this kooky regional thing that’s very Pittsburgh,” he said, “but it’s also something that’s disappearing.”
Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com