Entrance to men’s underground restroom at the intersection of Penn and Frankstown avenues, East Liberty, in 1915. Photo courtesy University of Pittsburgh Libraries/historicpittsburgh.org.

Pittsburgh has a public restroom crisis – again. A report released last year and the widely hailed appearance of two mobile “Pittsburgh Potties” Downtown this summer are reminders that cities that forget their histories are bound to repeat them. That’s what has happened with Pittsburgh and public bathroom facilities. 

More than 100 years ago, reports and headlines marked the appearance of Pittsburgh’s first public toilets. Back then, they were called comfort stations. They were constructed throughout the city where large numbers of people gathered: Downtown, shopping districts and parks. 

The story behind Pittsburgh’s first public restrooms and why they were forgotten in the second half of the 20th century is a pungent one with deep ties to civil rights history.

Public toilets arrived in Pittsburgh amid great fanfare in 1915, three years after City Council passed legislation authorizing a municipal election to approve a $90,000 bond ($2,855,774 in 2023 dollars) to construct public bathrooms and drinking fountains.

Ahead of the 1912 vote, there was a heavy lobbying campaign by organizations and individuals interested in getting public bathrooms installed throughout the city. Earlier in the year, a city-sponsored economic survey noted that there were only two public comfort stations for the city’s 530,000 residents.

“It is a sad reflection upon the city that it has so long neglected this matter so important to health and morals,” wrote the report’s author J.T. Holdsworth.

After describing the many places where people could find toilets — stores, saloons, restaurants, railway stations and hotels — Holdsworth wrote, “This is not a legitimate burden to lay upon private enterprise.”

Ahead of the vote, the Pittsburgh Bulletin asked in its Nov. 2, 1912, issue, “Are we civilized enough yet to demand them? And will enough people prove that they are at this election?”

On Nov. 5, Pittsburgh residents responded emphatically: Yes. They approved the bond issue with 1,603 votes for the comfort stations and 680 against them.

Entrances to underground public restrooms on Smithfield Street Downtown. One subway-style entrance was for men, the other for women. The cylinder with the ball on top in the center is for ventilation. Photo courtesy University of Pittsburgh Libraries/historicpittsburgh.org.

Around the turn of the 20th century, Pittsburgh was one of many cities across the nation that embarked on ambitious and costly programs to build public bathroom facilities. By 1921, Domestic Engineering, a plumbing industry trade magazine, surveyed 120 cities and reported that 56% had public comfort stations.

“There’s like a massive public bathroom building campaign across the country [starting] in the 1890s and Pittsburgh’s part of it,” says Temple University history professor Bryant Simon. “New York’s part of it. Philadelphia’s part of it. Atlantic City’s part of it. Los Angeles is part of it. Everyplace is building these.”

Simon is writing a book on the history of public bathrooms.

When Pittsburgh built its first public restrooms, cities were undergoing massive social and economic changes. These included the widespread introduction of indoor plumbing in homes, exploding urban populations, and social and economic patterns that were bringing large numbers of people into public spaces.

“People are traveling more. They leave their neighborhood for work. They shop, to go out, to go to the department store. Think of Kauffman’s, think of Kennywood,” says Simon who grew up in Pittsburgh and Monroeville. “All those things all require now a place for bodily elimination, but a place that can begin to approximate the changes they expect at home.”

Some of Pittsburgh’s earliest residential potties lacked the amenities found elsewhere: sinks, tubs and privacy. Built in the basements of working-class households, these stand-alone toilets were dubbed “Pittsburgh potties.” But well into the 20th century, many neighborhoods still had alleys and backyards with outdoor privies or outhouses. 

A clean, warm, ventilated public restroom was seen as a luxury.

The rhetoric around public toilets in 2023 sounds a lot like what was being said more than 100 years ago.

“The toilet is a foundational start point where each of us deals directly with our bodies and confronts whatever it provides, often on a schedule not of our making,” wrote sociologist Harvey Molotch in the introduction to the 2010 book, “Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing.” 

“It’s an equity issue for everyone. I mean going to the restroom is just a natural thing that every single person has to do,” says Point Park University professor Heather Starr Fiedler. “And so whether somebody is visiting the city as a tourist or is homeless in the city, it’s important that we provide them with an opportunity to use a restroom when needed.”

Headline from the Dec. 1, 1915, Plumbers’ Trade Journal special section on public comfort stations. Photo courtesy of Google Books.

Civic investments in porcelain and pipes

A century ago, public bathrooms were works of architectural and engineering artistry. Pictures of Pittsburgh’s first public potties were published in newspapers and construction industry trade journals. An issue of The Plumber’s Trade Journal published in 1915 featured one of the city’s first comfort stations at the intersection of Fifth and Liberty avenues.

Designed by City Architect John Brennan, the underground restroom featured a men’s room with “seven water closets, twelve urinals, three lavatories and a drinking fountain,” the magazine reported. “The architect has skillfully planned the construction of this building in such a way that all connections are sealed.”

From the street, the entrances looked just like subway portals. 

“Most people believed it to be an underpass from one side of Penn Avenue to Frankstown,” wrote former Pittsburgh resident Rona Peckich in an email that included a 1920s photo of the comfort station at the intersection of Penn and Frankstown avenues. “BUT NO –  they are East Liberty subterranean bathrooms.”

About their design, Simon explains, “They’re often kind of ornate. Public officials will brag that they have terra cotta floors and marble sinks and copper piping and state-of-the-art ventilation systems.”

He added, “They’ll even hold press conferences to announce the opening of them.” 

The Pittsburgh public bathrooms of 2023 are a lot less ornate than their ancestors but the press conferences still happen. Regional digital and legacy news organizations reported widely on the two new Pittsburgh Potties Downtown.

Temporary Pittsburgh Potty installed Downtown. Photo by David S. Rotenstein.

Pittsburgh flushed its public toilets

Pittsburgh’s first new comfort stations were a big deal. Between 1914 and 1921, the city completed 35 comfort stations: “4 underground in prominent business sections, and 4 in buildings, all equipped for both sexes,” Domestic Engineering reported.  

Today, there’s no surviving evidence from Pittsburgh’s first underground comfort stations. Their ventilation stacks have been removed and the stairways leading from sidewalks have been filled in and paved over. Only one, the North Side facility that was located where East Ohio Street intersects Chestnut Street, is pictured in a historical real estate atlas. 

Real estate atlas published in 1925 shows the location of a comfort station (public bathroom) at the intersection of East Ohio and Chestnut streets, North Side. Photo courtesy University of Pittsburgh Libraries/historicpittsburgh.org.

What happened to Pittsburgh’s historic investment in public restrooms? Like their emergence in the 1910s, the answer is tied to larger social issues, especially civil rights. 

In the 20th century, public bathrooms offered something that other public spaces lacked: privacy. By design, they were hidden behind closed doors and many were underground.

“Almost from the beginning, people begin to sleep in public bathrooms. They begin to drink in public bathrooms. They begin to wash themselves in public bathrooms,” says Simon. “And of course, they begin to have sex – particularly men, at least that’s who gains attention, having sex with other men.”

Cities also began limiting access to public bathrooms when civil rights laws and court decisions broke down Jim Crow’s racial barriers to public accommodations. 

“Public bathrooms close to stop integration and maybe make Black people disappear and this is true both in the South and around the country,” Simon explains.

Bathrooms, says Simon, always played key roles in civil rights history. They made public spaces more accessible to women and other marginalized groups in the early 20th century. 

In the 1960s, campaigns to integrate bathrooms gathered momentum after the murder of Sammy Younge Jr. for trying to use an Alabama gas station bathroom. 

“Some of the earliest gay rights mobilization, even before Stonewall, is trying to stop the entrapment of gay men in bathrooms,” says Simon.

Sign in Market Square points to one of two temporary Pittsburgh Potties installed Downtown. Photo by David S. Rotenstein.

Forgetting is costly

Have today’s scholars and city leaders forgotten Pittsburgh’s past porcelain and plumbing investments?

“I don’t think we found a lot of evidence of previous public toilets in the city,” said Point Park University’s Fiedler. She and her colleague, Professor Doreen Ciletti, led graduate students in the study that resulted in the report.

The Pittsburgh Department of Public Works had a similar answer. Agency officials did not consent to doing an interview. An agency staff person replied to emailed questions, “DPW staff confirmed we currently have no further information to provide other than of porta-johns that are placed for events.”

Pittsburgh Potty installed in Smithfield Street in front of the Smithfield United Church of Christ as seen from the Smithfield-Liberty Garage entrance. Photo by David S. Rotenstein.

A century after investing in public bathroom infrastructure, and then abandoning it, Pittsburgh is now struggling to recreate what it once had. There are many more public toilets Downtown, for instance, than people think. Several of them are owned by the Pittsburgh Parking Authority.

Fiedler thinks that they, and the two temporary Pittsburgh Potties installed over the summer, are a start. 

“We have a really nice geographic spread of public parking garages Downtown that are owned by the Parking Authority,” she says. “Most all of them have restrooms in them but they’re not really advertised as public toilets.”

They are restricted to people holding parking tickets who are using the garages. 

Public restrooms in the Smithfield-Liberty Garage Downtown. Though the signs say the restrooms are “Out of Order,” they are there to discourage use by unhoused people. Photo by David S. Rotenstein.

Recently, the Parking Authority renovated the Smithfield and Liberty Garage’s two public bathrooms. Though the work was completed, the agency didn’t remove signs indicating the bathrooms were closed. It’s a move, says one person with the garage and its bathrooms who wants to remain anonymous, to exclude unhoused people. The Parking Authority did not respond to a request for comment.

The second Pittsburgh Potty that the city recently installed is located across the street from the garage, in front of the now-closed Smithfield United Church of Christ shelter. 

It’s a bit of irony that brings to mind Pittsburgh’s public potty history that seems to have been flushed away, along with the tax dollars used to build them.

David S. Rotenstein is a historian, folklorist, and award-winning freelance writer. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and he writes about urban history, race, and the history of organized crime in Pittsburgh.