Known by many other names, an outhouse is a small structure, separate from a main building, which covers one or more toilets. Typically they are what is known as a pit latrine, meaning they have a long drop or they can be a bucket toilet or even take other forms. The term “outhouse” may also be used to denote the toilet itself, not just the superstructure.
As early as 15 centuries before Christ, the Old Testament (in Deuteronomy 23:12-13) instructions for relieving oneself were given: “Designate a place outside the camp where you can go to relieve yourself. As part of your encampment, have something to dig with, and when you relieve yourself, dig a hole and cover your excrement.”
Eventually, communities brought about the need for greater privacy. In the Neolithic Scottish settlement of Skara Brae, some Stone Age huts had stone seats with a hole in them and drainage to the outside. Ancient Egypt had similar structures with the rich having seats of limestone; wood for the poor. However, China probably gets credit for the first outhouses. Around 4500 B.C., the first collection system for human excrement was constructed by the Romans, who were among the first to build sewers underneath street level to collect both rain water and sewage. A sponge on a stick being used in lieu of toilet paper.
In Medieval times, “garderobes” were often incorporated into castle walls – toilets that discharged directly into the moat below, creating a open cesspool. Warning cries of “gardez l’eau” (Watch out for the water”) would be shouted by those using the toilets and “L’eau” eventually became the source of today’s reference to a toilet as “the loo.” Here's an interesting, and somewhat disgusting tidbit: Garderobe is the French word for “wardrobe” and clothing was sometimes stored in the toilets because the stench kept moths away.
In the US outhouse doors were commonly marked with either a crescent moon or a circle-star design. If you have ever wondered why, the answer is the crescent moon, symbol for the Roman moon goddess, Luna, indicated a ladies’ outhouse. The circle or star was symbolic of the sun and the Greeks’ male sun god, Apollo was for the men. For some mysterious reason historians have noted that many more female than male outhouses have survived to the present day. At least that's the theory though some have disputed it. One purpose of the hole is for venting and light and there were a wide variety of shapes and placements employed.
City outhouses were typically multi-doored and located in alleys behind the apartment buildings they served. Public health concerns over filthy outhouses led to the demise of urban outhouses. In more rural areas, the outhouse was typically located out of sight of the dwelling it served and away from water sources to avoid contaminating them. On farms, there was sometimes an additional privy attached to the barn to save steps during the working day.
The majority of outhouses were constructed of wood, which was light enough for easy relocation as necessary. Though usually made of wood, wealthy families were made of brick and often had fancy gingerbread trim.
Ever wonder how deep the pit was? Of course you have. It was an open pit 3 to 6 feet deep with the structure measuring 3 by 4 feet and about 7 feet tall. The number of holes depended on the number of family members, as well as their ages. Generally there were one to three holes of varying sizes. Small holes kept children from falling in. There was usually a hinged cover over the hole when not in use.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt got into outhouses. During the Depression under the Work Projects Administration,during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, three-man WPA work teams replaced old outhouses in rural areas. They could build one in 20 hours at a cost of $5 that included concrete floors and screened ventilation. Over 2 million such outhouses were built by the WPA. During that time outhouses were often referred to as Eleanors and the White House.
|Early toilet paper|
Outhouses were often used for the disposal of old bottles, crockery and dishes, so they can yield historic pieces of value to privy diggers as they are called. Sometimes they strike gold by finding fossilized feces (coprolites) which can yield much information about diet and health. In some cases if they survived outhouses have been converted to garden sheds.
As mentioned in the introduction, not all outhouses were pits. The bucket toilet consisted of a seat and a bucket. The buckets were emptied into composting piles or collected by contractors for larger-scale disposal. In some national parks and wilderness areas drums were used. Some parks mandate a "pack it in, pack it out" rule. Many reports document the use of containers for the removal of excrement, which must be packed in and packed out on Mount Everest. Also known as "expedition barrels" or "bog barrels", the cans are weighed to make sure that groups do not dump them along the way. In some cases "Toilet tents" have been erected. California’s Mount Whitney summit once had the highest outhouse in the continental United States, but in 2007, they started requiring climbers to carry their own.
Outhouse design, placement, and maintenance has long been recognized as being important to the public health. Houseflies are attracted and use the contents for food for their offspring and lay eggs in it. In the United States outhouses often had a bucket of powdered lime with a scoop so lime could be sprinkled into the holes to cover the waste as to suppress the odor.
1. Outhouses in the past often had more than one story: High-rise outhouses actually existed, like the preserved two-story “skys-crapper” that still stands in Gays, Illinois. From the upper floor waste from above would fall down a shaft behind the first floor wall. In the Missouri History Museum archives, they have photos of a three story outhouse.
2. There’s an outhouse capital of the world, Elk Falls, Kansas. On the Friday and Saturday before Thanksgiving, they hold outhouse tours.
3. There is an outhouse museum in Liverpool, Nova Scotia filled with collectibles, photos, artifacts, and more. It’s one room and there is an actual outhouse in it and they sell outhouse key chains, outhouse posters, outhouse coffee mugs.
4. There are outhouse races. In Trenary, Michigan they’ve been racing them for more than 20 years. Contestants construct outrageously-themed outhouses then push them across the snow.
5. People steal outhouses: It may seem impossible, but in 2013, there were multiple outhouse thefts across Canada. Alberta’s Randy Nemirsky made headlines when his new outhouse was swiped from his farm near Edmonton. Later that year, a man from New Brunswick’s Charlotte County had his custom-made outhouse stolen from his hunting camp in Clarence Ridge.