Going camping today comes with many conveniences which the early settlers did not have. Many people like the adventure of popping a tent in the wilderness as they hike a trail, or pulling a camper into a parking spot, or pitching a pre-made tent not far from a camp store, shower and bathroom. That seems to be the norm for “roughing it.”
What if there were no restrooms? You gotta go when you gotta go, right? Taking a shovel with you as you scour the forest for a recessed secluded area, and hoping you are the first to find it, can be a daunting task at times.
When the early settlers came to the new world, there was no plumbing or public restrooms. Outhouses were built not only for privacy but for dealing with sanitation problems. Not being able to properly deal with this necessity of life could be a life-or-death situation, as diseases such as cholera, hepatitis and typhoid are linked to this issue.
It is not known if there was a single inventor or if many people came up with the same idea; most likely the latter.
Outhouses were typically built about 50 to 100 yards away from the house and were called “necessaries.” Quite often, they were built near the woodshed so that every time someone went to the “facility,” they could bring back an armload of firewood. At night, settlers commonly used camber pots which were emptied into the outhouse the following morning.
The first outhouses had buckets that sat down inside a small hole in the ground which would need to be emptied daily. As they developed, large holes or pits were dug, and the building would be constructed over the pit, so emptying the bucket as a daily chore was no longer necessary.
In a tireless effort to battle the stench – especially during the summer months – lye or lime would be sprinkled in the pit.
In addition to the times when nature called, outhouses were commonly used to dispose of household waste, such as broken bottles, cans, etc. since there were no landfills or public trash drop-off locations. Because of this, archaeologists are often excited to come across old outhouses. Digging through the remnants can reveal a lot information about the everyday lives of the people of the past. Even their excrement could give insight into their diets.
Before toilet paper became commercialized, items such as newspaper, corn cobs and Lamb’s ear were used. Until Sears Roebuck catalogs went to using the glossy paper in the 1930s, this yearly mailing was a favorite in the outhouse. The hole in the Farmer’s Almanac has become a tradition to its design, but it began in 1919 as it was hung on a nail on the outhouse – for reading and then finishing up business.
In a time when the separation of men and women was culturally correct, “necessaries” were no exception. Outhouses built for public use in towns usually had either a moon or a sun cut into the front. Although there are many different thoughts about this subject, many records point to the same meaning regarding these symbols. A moon, for the Roman goddess Luna, symbolized the outhouse was dedicated for women. For the men’s outhouse, a sun or star, representing the Greek god Apollo, was displayed. Due to the high rate of illiteracy, using symbols ensured the right toilet would be selected. Over the years, the moon shape has become the more prevalent symbol for the outhouse. One theory is that it may be because the outhouses used by males were not as well-maintained and fell into disrepair.
Outhouses continued to be used in the country much longer than in the cities – and some are still in use today.
Some outhouses were built out of bricks but most of them were constructed of wood and designed so they could be moved. The wood was often painted or treated to add durability and longevity. If a gong farmer was not hired to empty the pit when it filled up, then it would be covered with dirt and the structure moved over another hole.
Gong farmers had a job that was not only dangerous but also offensive to society. They could only work at night and were sometimes called “nightmen;” they were also only allowed to live in certain areas. Being a gong worker could result in illness or death due to asphyxiation from the fumes produced by human waste. Fortunately, the stigma of their job has dissipated over the years. Machinery, called vacuum trucks, now aid the modern-day gong workers, allowing them to perform their important job in a cleaner and safer manner.
“Necessaries” had several different names, such as privy, water closet, latrine, dunny (in Australia), little house and back house, but because of the Work Projects Administration (WPA), the following were eventually added to the list: Roosevelt Room, the White House, the Relief Office, Roosevelt toilets, or simply “The Eleanor.”
During Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, in an effort to improve outhouses, the WPA was created and passionately pursued by the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Improved privacy, ventilation, toilet lids to prevent fly infestations, and even concrete flooring, were incorporated into the more than two million new outhouses built during the project’s run at a cost of $5 to $17 each.
The saying “I’m going to visit Miss Perkins” derived from the reference of FDR’s secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins.
Multi-holed outhouses, – one reported to have as many as 12 holes – and two-story outhouses also existed. Two-story outhouses, also called double-deckers or “sky-crappers,” were built near the side of stores, which had a second floor as the storekeeper’s home. This made it easier to access for store employees and owners alike. The top section of the outhouse sat back slightly to allow the flow to drain behind the wall of the bottom level.
Detached two-level outhouses built near multi-level homes, especially apartments and boarding houses, had a footbridge reaching to the top level for easy passage. Occasionally, the outhouse was attached to the main house so people would not have to endure the harsh winter weather when needing to go. During the heavy winter snows, this second level could be utilized if the first level was buried under the snow.
One account about the use of the multilevel outhouse was the desire to provide a landowner’s wife and daughters privacy from the male workers, who were only allowed to use the lower level.
Two-story outhouses could be constructed to separate classes, as well. For instance, at some coal mines, the bottom level could be used by the miners while the top level was used by the boss.
In Bryant Pond, Maine, a three-story outhouse attached to a Masonic lodge had the lower level updated to a flush toilet in the year 2000. The lower level displayed a sign which read “Maw and Paw” and “Upstairs closed ‘til we figure out plummin.”
Elk Falls, Kansas, calls itself the outhouse capital and holds outhouse tours on the Friday and Saturday before Thanksgiving each year. Visitors can also enjoy live music, food, crafts and more.
I had the honor of meeting a very bright and determined 97-year-old lady who still had an active outhouse and I thought “you’re so much stronger than me.”
As much as I like doing things the old-fashioned way, I am happy to know that I am privileged to have an indoor bathroom, especially during the icy cold winter months. For now, I just need to be sure my husband doesn’t try to bring another outhouse home with him – but they do make nice chicken coops.