Saving History : The Outhouse
In March of 2012 several members of the Historical Society
help to rescue a local piece of history.
The Outhouse was such a simple but necessary fixture prior to the invention of electricity and the use of indoor plumbing. It was a necessity of life.
Outhouses where not always pretty but they were functional. They came in all sizes, shapes and colors. Some where very ordinary in design. Most where small, with no insulation, no wall dividers and sparse decorations. The seat was a wooden bench with a hole in it that was built in a pit over the ground. When the pit was full most house holds would dig another pit and push, pull or shove the existing outhouse over the new pit. But when the lack of property would not allow for a new hole to be dug, such as in small developing towns, then a team of professionals where called to empty the pit. These professionals more often than not would arrive at night and called the material they carted away "night soil". Outhouses stood behind nearly every business and house in town. Quietly tucked out of view, far enough away to prevent detection on hot days when the windows were opened, yet close enough to encourage use during those fidget days of winter.The outhouse was the only option before the coming of sewers and indoor plumbing. Modern indoor bathrooms were not common place until the early 1900's. During Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration (WPA) there were teams of outhouse builders who built most of the outhouses in rural areas.
Outhouses where also known as privies and earth closets. Most had one hole. But some had two, some also had one large seat and one smaller seat for children. Most had a half moon on the door. The use of the half moon cut out has been debated by historians. Some believe it goes back to colonial times. In a time when mot people where illiterate the crescent moon was the symbol for women and the star cut out or full moon was a symbol for men. Still others believe this went as far back as the 14th and 15th centuries in England and was brought here by the colonists. It is thought that the men in general let their outhouses fall into such bad shape, that it was the women's outhouses that survived the test of time and that is why you see more outhouses with the crescent moons. There are stories of men's outhouses being chewed up by porcupines and other wildlife for the salt deposits left behind after men urinated. But most families did not have two outhouses. So many historians believe the crescent moon was to create both ventilation and light.
Toilet paper was considered a luxury item by most rural families. Newspaper or pages from and old catalogs were most often used. An old farmers almanac was especially good because it was printed with a hole on the left side of the cataloged, that was used to hang on a nail inside the outhouse. The farmers almanac actually stopped putting the hole in the catolge for a time until customers complained and the company reinstated the hole. When paper was not available leaves where used.
Although one might think that the outhouse was no place to linger, an awful lot of activity went on there. The standard outhouse was the scene for many family dramas. Farm kids would try to avoid work by hanging out around the outhouse. Teenagers would sneak a forbidden cigarette in the back of the outhouse. Parents could stop in for a quick nip in those days of legal temperance. The outhouse was also the place to get rid of unwanted evidence. It is not surprising that the ax that was used to murder Lizzie Borden's parents was found in the privy pit. Less notorious crimes where hidden in the pit as well. The broken remnants of grandma's favorite tea cup, the empty bottle of medicine, the shattered head of someone's doll. Today these old pits are gold mines for historic archaeologist who happily dig away to discover the secrets of the past.
But before you get nostalgic about those simpler times, let's talk about the health risks involved in out sturdy little outhouse. Nightly visits to the outhouse were rare. Most people utilized an indoor chamber pot. Each morning the chamber pot had to be emptied and unfortunately that was done after washing up. Breakfast was then served with a healthy dose of potentially lethal Typhoid bacteria. As late as the 1880's there were still a few cases of typhoid deaths each year. The number of recovered cases is unknown, but even one bout with this disease could be debilitating or deadly. Typhoid is passed only through people and requires direct contact with excrement. The outhouses and the chamber pots were perfect vectors to aid in the transmission of typhoid and other bacteria. The close proximity of the outhouses to the creeks, rivers and wells has not missed anyone's notice either. It is no wonder some creeks could not be used for recreational swimming and fouling one's drinking water was a way of life in the good old days, as quant as it was, it is probably a good thing that the outhouse vanished from the landscape.
There was once a hotel in Montana that had a 12 seat outhouse.
There was a store and a few other locations that had two story outhouses..... Now you might wonder how that worked. Well, the upstairs facility were situated a little further back so the "material" released from the second floor would fall behind the wall of the first floor...... I am sure it did not smell very good.
You can still find some of these old outhouses ... but they will soon be gone and we are glad that we were able to preserve at least one of these old relics from the past.