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What Is the Difference between a Toilet and a Commode?

Michael Pollick
By
Updated May 16, 2024
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Many people use the terms toilet and commode interchangeably to describe the porcelain fixture located in a bathroom, and in one sense, both words describe essentially the same thing. One guest might ask for directions to the commode, while another might ask for the nearest toilet, and it is highly unlikely the host would only recognize one or the other. There are actually some differences between the two in the strictest sense, however.

A commode could also refer to a low-lying set of drawers, or a portable washstand with a cupboard hidden beneath the counter top. The definition of that most closely matches this discussion is a boxy structure that conceals and supports a seat over a removable chamberpot or bedpan. The key idea is portability: a commode is not connected to water or sewer lines, but serves more as a privacy chamber for users on the move, so to speak. It would find the user, not the other way around.

A toilet, on the other hand, is considered a permanent plumbing fixture. The porcelain bowl and tank attached to the floor of a bathroom, loo, or water closet can always be called a toilet. Although the term toilette can also refer to a woman's vanity or dressing table, this derivative refers solely to a water-filled fixture used for waste elimination. In the strictest sense, a bedpan or portable toilet seat with an attached dry receptacle would be a commode, while the water-flushed bowl and tank in the bathroom would be a toilet.

It is not unusual for these terms to be used interchangeably as different cultures begin to blend. Asking for the nearest bathroom in Great Britain, for example, may lead to some bemused looks, because they refer to that destination as the loo or water closet or WC. In certain Asian countries, there is no such fixture as a toilet, and users must squat over a designated opening in the floor to conduct their business. A separate cleansing fixture known as a bidet may deliver a jolt of clean water to users in some European locations.

In short, the only real difference between the two devices is portability, although few people alive today can remember a time when a portable commode would have been used in place of a flush toilet in a modern home.

Why Is a Toilet Called a Commode?

The toilette rooms of 16th century Europe, where bathing and grooming took place, also became where people kept their commodes. As American households began to incorporate indoor plumbing into their toilet rooms during the late 18th century, and the more permanent porcelain fixtures gained popularity, the meaning of toilet slowly came to refer to the bathroom waste receptacles we know today. While one is portable and the other is not, their basic functions remain the same, which makes it fairly easy for people to use the two words interchangeably.

What Is a Commode Used For?

A commode is a much more versatile piece of equipment than the standard toilet. If you have ever spent time in a hospital when getting out of bed to use the facilities was a nonstarter, you may have experienced using the handy little stool with the attached bowl. Or perhaps you have gone camping and brought along a mini folding stool with a toilet seat attached or the larger, heftier unit with tanks for water and waste. The primary purpose of the commode is convenient bathroom use anywhere you are.

How To Use a Commode Properly

Learning how to use a commode properly depends on the type you encounter. The most common are those for medical and camping purposes.

Bedside Commodes

The purpose of the bedside commode is to provide a safe and convenient place to eliminate waste for people who are bedridden or on bed rest. These sorts of receptacles almost always require the assistance of medical staff or a loved one to ensure the user is transferred carefully to and from the commode. These units should be placed near enough to the bed that the user can be shifted in one smooth motion from bed to seat. From there, the user completes their business, and the individual assisting may need to either help with general hygiene (like wiping) or be ready to pivot move the person back to the bed when finished.

Once the user has completed their time on the commode and is safely back in bed, the assistant is then free to remove the collection bucket and dispose of the waste into the permanent toilet. It is also important, especially in this setting, to ensure proper sanitization of the bedside commode after every use.

Camping Commodes

There are three main types of camping commodes: folding, bucket and cassette.

The folding commode is exactly as you would imagine: a foldable stool or chair with a toilet seat attached. How you would use these varies depending upon how and where you are camping. In some instances, you might dig a hole and place the seat over it so that your waste can be properly buried afterward. If you are in a location where removing your waste is a requirement, you can attach a bag underneath the seat.

The bucket and cassette commodes are also used when you are not allowed to bury your waste at the campground. While less elegant, the bucket commodes get it done with little fuss. You just need to insert a bag into the 5-gallon bucket and cover it with a seat. That's it! Minimal sanitization is required.

The cassette commodes are for those who can't do without the modern luxury of the permanent porcelain thrones — complete with flushing capabilities. These also come with tanks for storing both waste and water for flushing. However, thorough cleaning and sanitizing are a must with these commodes, which may make them less convenient in some ways.

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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to HomeQuestionsAnswered, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By anon285740 — On Aug 17, 2012

How about "Commode" was the brand name of the toilets that were made in the early 20th century?

By anon162769 — On Mar 24, 2011

I have inherited my great nan's commode, well and truly antique. I think that it is a gorgeous piece of family history that goes back generations and I am proud to have it as a decorative, small table in my house. I find it humorous to think what my great nan would have thought of what her old commode is doing now. I imagine that she would never have thought that such a piece of furniture could be quite so treasured today.

By anon156444 — On Feb 27, 2011

If one were to purchase an antique commode, one would wind up with a beautiful piece of furniture that might be used in any of several rooms in the house. It would bear no resemblance to a toilet or a flower pot and would not have to be cleaned out thoroughly except as one might want to clean out any piece of furniture. It might have held a bedpan-type of device at one time, or it might have been used as a chest of drawers.

By EarlyForest — On Sep 13, 2010

I was always wondering why certain antique tables were called French commodes -- now I know. What I thought was just a low set table with some drawers actually served quite a different purpose at one time -- very interesting, wisegeek!

By LittleMan — On Sep 13, 2010

One of the only true commodes remaining are the commode shower chairs or "handicap commodes" that are used in nursing homes and rehabilitation centers.

These folding chair commodes are portable, and have a little bucket under the seating area for patients to use as a toilet. Many of these commodes even have seats that lift up and down to help the patient get in and out of the chair.

Besides all this, the chair also functions as a shower chair for patients who find standing while showering to be difficult.

So the whole idea of a commode as furniture hasn't entirely gone out of style -- it's just been modified a bit.

By Planch — On Sep 13, 2010

How very interesting. I never knew there was a difference between a commode and a toilet -- I thought they were just the same thing going by different names.

I guess that makes those advertisements for antique commodes more understandable though -- well, as understandable as someone buying something once used for excretion can be.

I guess if you cleaned it out though it would be a nice museum piece, or even a flower pot...but I think I'll stick with keeping my toilet and antique decor separate.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to HomeQuestionsAnswered, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a...
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