“Boys and girls, do you need to go to the basement?”
When I first darkened the door of Boothbay Region Elementary School, I was baffled to hear the teacher ask this of my class. A couple kids raised their hands. They left the room. Eventually they returned–that seemed promising. It was a few days before I correlated the term “basement” with the bathrooms down the hall.
Since those days, I have occasionally discovered toilets that actually are in basements.
I find these cellar stools interesting for two reasons.
First of all, to call a toilet a “basement” illustrates how we use euphemisms to talk about taboo topics. Consider how far afield we will travel to avoid saying: “I will poop now.” Instead we come out with, “I’m going to visit the little girls room,” or “I need to see a man about a horse.”
But second, toilet history is just fabulous. There’s such tension between the desire to poop in private, and the competing desire to poop far away from where we eat and sleep.
The obvious compromise is the “outhouse.” It offers the privacy of a house, but it’s outside of the house. The outhouse had a long run as the pooping location of choice. But as toilet technology evolved, the crapper sneaked indoors, like a stray cat on a cold night. Although early “indoor outhouses” tested out all levels of the house, my favorite was the “bay privy,” a feature of medieval castles.
The bay privy was a bump-out, a small addition, hanging high on the wall of a seaside tower. Within that bump-out was ye olde outhouse. And far below, the bay did your flushing for you. (Not every castle was waterfront property, and so some castle privies simply discharged to the castle wall, contributing to the defense of the premises.)
But I suspect toilet-in-basements descended from cesspools-in-basements. Before public sewers penetrated urban areas, many city dwellers did their duty in an outhouse over a cesspool. Or, if space was really tight, they did it in an “inhouse” that was mounted over a cesspool in the basement.
From the outhouse evolved the portable “earth closet,” a chair-type appliance with a removable hopper full of absorbent dirt or wood ash. Then came the water closet, which used a “trap” of water to prevent sewer gases from rising out of the toilet.
The point is, the toilet was a filthy and troubled entity, not remotely welcome in the bathroom. The bathroom, after all, was where you went to wash, to clean yourself. (Technically, the “lavatory” is the washing-room, not the toilet–again with the euphemisms. Even “toilet” is from the French word for getting gussied up. “Toilet water” was another term that gravely disturbed my youthful ruminations.)
So it’s my guess that toilets ended up in basements because they just too gross to come upstairs. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that toilet technology earned the commode a place in the average washroom.
But there are other theories.
The “Pittsburgh Potty” is a commode found in older Pittsburgh homes, sitting shamelessly in the open basement. Sometimes a rudimentary shower stands nearby. They’re rumored to be the Maine equivalent of a “mud room,” a place for dirty laborers to shed a layer of grime after work.
Others argue that a basement toilet was more of a men’s room, with the upstairs loo reserved for the ladies.
I think it’s also possible that the cost of upgrading to an indoor flush was less daunting if you installed it in the basement rather than remodeling and plumbing a room upstairs. In cold regions, the risk of plumbing freezing in the basement could be lower, as well.
But ultimately, I suspect toilets lurk in basements because they are fundamentally squalid, vile, foul, vulgar: base.