Variations: so poor he didn’t have a pot to piss in, not having a pot to piss in, no pot to piss in, not having a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of, I don’t have a pot to piss in, ain’t got a pot to piss in
Origin: This colorful phrase has a literary and historical pedigree. Can you name the famous author? Perhaps it is John Steinbeck, in his powerful novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939), describing the poverty-stricken Joad family during their difficult journey west on Route 66 during the Great Depression. Good guess — wrong author, right time period. The author is actually Djuna Barnes from her novel, Nightwood, published just a few year earlier in 1936. According to literary critic, Roger Austen, “[Nightwood is] the best known, most deeply felt, and generally best-written expatriate novel of the thirties dealing with gay themes.” The novel is recognized by literary critics not only for its fervent gothic prose style, but also being one of the first novels to depict homosexuality explicitly. Interestingly, the first edition was published by the renowned British publishing firm, Faber and Faber, where T.S. Eliot worked as an editor. Eliot was responsible for toning down indelicate language as well as writing the introduction to the book.
The sentence, relevant to our discussion, occurs midway in the novel, when the protagonist, Robin Vote, reflects on the human condition: “My heart aches for all poor creatures putting on a dog and not a pot to piss in or a window to throw it from.” Apparently Barnes had a penchant for toilet metaphors; another line in the novel reads: “Tell the story of the world to the world; shit or get off the pot.” This last sentence was excised by Eliot in the first edition; the line appears in an unbowdlerized edition of the novel published in 1995.
The pot that Barnes is referring to is, of course, the chamber pot (also known as a chamberpot, pot de chamber, or potty) introduced circa 6 BC by the inventive Greeks who couldn’t hold their urge to urinate until the next morning — perhaps as a result of drinking too much wine. The chamber pot was a bowl-shaped container made from ceramic or metal, with a handle, and sometimes with a lid. They were kept in the corner of a bedroom or under a bed. Dedicated fans of HBO’s hit show Rome (set in 1 BC) or Deadwood (set in 1870s) will be familiar with its use and the ways it was unceremoniously emptied. The chamber pot was quickly replaced by the flushing toilet, invented by Briton John Harrington in 1596, and the water closet, invented by another Briton Joseph Bramah in 1778. (Incidentally, the oldest flushing toilet dates back to 1,700 BC, in the palace of Knossos on the island of Crete. The palace had bathrooms with hot and cold running water, water fountains, and a toilet with a wooden seat and water reservoir that emptied into one of four drainage systems that emptied into sewers made of stone.) However, in developing countries or very remote communities that lack indoor plumbing, the chamber pot is still a part of everyday life.
For further reading: Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, New Directions (2006)
The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs by Charles Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred Shapiro, Yale University Press (2012).
Playing the Game: The Homosexual Novel in America by Roger Austen, Bobbs-Merrill (1977)
Toilets of the World by Morna Gregory and Sian James, Merrill (2006)