What is the Difference Between a Toilet and a Commode?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

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.

In earlier times, a cabinet like this one would be called a commode because it might contain a chamber pot.
In earlier times, a cabinet like this one would be called a commode because it might contain a chamber pot.

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 portable seat like this one is a good example of a commode.
A portable seat like this one is a good example of a commode.

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.

A toilet is permanently attached to the plumbing.
A toilet is permanently attached to the plumbing.

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.

A bedpan is an example of a commode.
A bedpan is an example of a commode.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


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


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.


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.


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!


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.


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.

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