June 10, 2009


by Maggie Brendan

I remember every year as an elementary school age child, visiting my uncle’s farm in Hattiesburg, MS. where my mother was raised as a child. It was always fun to see the turkey, peacocks, chickens and the cows. But I cringed when I had to use the outhouse because it always had that peculiar odor and I was afraid that I’d fall in the hole, no one would hear my cries for help and the maggots would eventually cover me. Just shows you the active mind of a child writer. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the two hole kind; one large hole for adults, and a smaller one for children. I thought it was dark and spooky with very little light from the crescent moon carving on the door. But when nature calls, you’ve got to answer, don’t you? So I grew up hearing the phrase, “I gotta go see a man about a horse,” which meant they need to go visit the privy. Years later, while camping throughout Colorado in some of the more remote areas, I still had to use the dreaded outhouse. Then it was bears or mountain lions that I feared instead of falling in.

The outhouse, or sometimes called a privy, was constructed of wood and was placed at least 50 to 150 feet away from the house because of its unpleasant odor. Many times, in the West, people would leave the door wide open while they were using it. Luckily, my Uncle had toilet paper placed in a coffee can with rice at the bottom to keep the paper from becoming damp. Before toilet paper was invented in the 1880’s, they used corn cobs, newspapers, magazines and paper from catalogs for wiping our delicate areas.

The outhouse was usually about 3 to 4 feet square by 7 feet high with no window, or heat. The pit was dug to about 4’ 11”.The crescent moon, carved into the door which most people thought was for ventilation, wasn’t for light but as a symbol used because many people couldn’t read. The moon or ancient Luna symbol was intended for women and a sun or starburst was carved for the men. However, men’s outhouses were not usually maintained, go figure, so they would use the ladies’ outhouse. Soon everyone used the women’s outhouses, and the men’s sign was forgotten but the crescent sign was kept.

Most owners kept a bag of lime and a scoop handy, and every so often they would sprinkle a scoop over the waste to keep down the stench and kill off the bacteria. The lime decreased the acidity and the smell of the soil. When the pit filled up, the owners would dig a new hole and move the building over to the freshly dug pit, then cover the old hole with a layer of dirt. Worms would eat the waste and as the dirt settled, another layer of dirt was added to cover it.

Outhouses were found across the country into the 20th century and even a late as 1950, millions of American families still used them. The term “Crapper” became a popular term for outhouses, though it was called many other names as well. It’s said the term “crap” came from Thomas Crapper who was a plumber in England who relentlessly promoted sanitary fittings for plumbing. Etymologists are still arguing over whether the term actually came from Thomas Crapper’s name.

You can read more about Thomas Crapper, http://www.thomas-crapper.com/. The pluming company is still in existence. Also check out http://www.thunderboxroad.com/. A traveling exhibit of really interesting painted outhouses can be found on this site.

I am so thankful for indoor plumbing on a cold winter night or a hot summer evening. How about you?

Happy Trails…



CherryBlossomMJ said...

In the summer of 2004, I went to northern Ontario to stay with my Godmother's french speaking family to immerse myself in the French language for two whole weeks. One week I stayed at their lake houses, I say houses, because there were nine siblings and almost all had a lake house right in a line together. Because this was an area of Canada that is almost solidly frozen for more than four month out of the year they have an outhouse. One outhouse was shared between 3 houses, and that is the one we used. My goodness, it was 2004 and I was terrified! Not so much of the outhouse... but of seeing a bear or a moose as I ran to the door!!

Leigh said...

You taught me something new today -- never knew the reason for having crescent cut-outs in outhouse doors!

Linda said...

We lived this on our farms. Never gave it another thought, other than it stunk!

Also, when I received this at my email address, It was garbledygook. Couldn't read it. ?????

bfa73 at hotmail dot com

brendalottakamaggiebrendan said...

Linda,do you mean the garbled format was from Bustle and Spurs or from my blog?

Molly Noble Bull said...

My great grandmother had an out house behind her house with a rock path leading to it. Somehow, the rock path made it not as scary as it might have been otherwise because I kept thinking about the yellow brick road. But in this case, it was a dirt path edged in white stones.