My husband and I moved to Pittsburgh about four years ago. Our house has the usual basement toilet and four other bathroom toilets -- but two of them have no sinks. Are these sinkless bathrooms from before they knew about germs? | You Had to Ask | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

My husband and I moved to Pittsburgh about four years ago. Our house has the usual basement toilet and four other bathroom toilets -- but two of them have no sinks. Are these sinkless bathrooms from before they knew about germs?

Question submitted by: Margaret Alcala, North Side

Ah, another City Paper reader whose mind is in the toilet. Regular readers of this column (Hi, Mom! Hi, Dad!) will recall that I addressed the subject of the basement toilet -- that notable fixture of working-class housing in Pittsburgh and other cities -- two weeks ago. But I barely plumbed the depths of a related question: Why are such toilets so often found on their own, with no sinks or other bathroom fixtures?

But thanks to you, I have a chance to address that question -- and to use some really juvenile bathroom metaphors I didn't get around to the first time. So I'm, well, flushed with excitement. Especially because I've found an expert in just these kinds of questions: Thomas Hubka, a professor of architecture at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

A graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, Hubka has made a study of working-class housing across the country. And he says your sinkless toilets aren't unusual.

"Today we think of a toilet, sink and tub as being bundled together," he says. But prior to the 1930s, "with average-to-poor folks, the addition of plumbing is more incremental" -- with facilities added on a piecemeal basis.

That's in large part because installing plumbing was expensive, requiring lower-income households to be judicious about which fixtures they put where. So toilets in the basement often lack sinks, Hubka says, "because if you can only have one sink in the house, you put it in the kitchen."

In fact, Hubka says, when you try to define the differences between working- and middle-class households, household plumbing is a key dividing line. "If you're living without a toilet," he points out, "you're living differently."

(Other key indicators that distinguish a working-class home from more prosperous dwellings: a "technological kitchen" -- one with a refrigerator and other early appliances -- and whether your home has a dining room.)

Just having access to running water at all could be an important status marker. Most homes had water by 1900, but for much of the previous century, cities often built sewer and water systems to serve the wealthy, while bypassing everyone else. Part of the problem was that back then, we didn't really know much about germs. In an essay compiled for the book City at the Point, historian Joel Tarr notes that there was "[c]onfusion over disease etiology," and the first sewers were built in commercial areas "to avoid nuisance, not [for] the protection of public health." And in fact, for much of the 19th century, whenever it came time to build streets, sewers or water lines, "the needs of the city's downtown or older sections received first priority." To be rich meant that your shit really didn't stink -- or at least that you didn't have to smell it.

Pittsburgh's "new wards were inhabited by many working-class Irish Catholic and German immigrants," Tarr continues. And politicians, taking their cues from the rich and powerful, "strongly opposed providing the new wards with city services and blocked their access to the water supply system for several years."

This points up another reason you'll find so many toilets in the basements of older homes in the area. As noted here previously, one advantage of having a washroom in the basement was that it allowed grimy millworkers to take care of business without soiling the rest of their homes. But another advantage, says Hubka, was that if you had to retrofit your home with a toilet, putting it in the basement "was usually the easiest way to plug into the existing [water and sewage] system." A toilet in the basement also made it easier to rent out the top floor of your home; your tenants could use facilities up there, while your family retained the basement.

So next time you use the bathroom, you might want to reflect on how your home's quirky charms actually reflect decades of class conflict. Your sinkless toilet reflects the aspirations, and the limitations, of a more impoverished area.

Give it some thought: You'll get a whole new perspective on the phrase "trickle-down economics."

Comments (0)
Comments are closed.