The Outhouse

What is that little building out back?” “Why, that is the old bathroom.”

An outhouse is a small structure that would fit into some of the closets of today’s homes. Usually there are no inside walls, insulation or decoration. The seat was a bench with a hole in it and the whole building was set over a pit in the ground. When the pit was full, instead of cleaning it out, the owners would dig a new hole and the outhouse would be pushed, shoved and positioned over the new hole. Dirt from the newly dug hole was spread over the full pit and boards were usually laid on top so no one would forget and step into it.

Luna, the ancient crescent shaped figure was a universal symbol for womankind. A moon sawed into the privy door served as the “ladies room” sign of early inn keeping days. Sol, a sunburst pattern was cut into the “men’s room” side of the privy. These symbols were necessary because in colonial times only a fraction of our population could read or write. As time passed, gentlemen’s outhouses fell into disrepair but the ladies were better maintained. That is why we still see so many disrepair but the ladies were better maintained. That is why we still see so many of the crescent moon shapes even today. The original meaning, however, was lost sometime in the mid 1800’s.

Outhouses are not just your McCoy's and Hatfield’s hillbilly era. Today more than 4 million privies are doing business from Maine to California. In the 1950 census 50 million were reported.

The subject of outhouses has been verboten since the post Victorian era. Many well-meaning preservationists often demolished outhouses on historical sites before any architectural surveys could be undertaken. Many children often asked “but where did all the people who lived here go to the bathroom?”

Things have changed today. Privies or biffys which were once burned or torn down are now sold to the highest bidder. Landscapers are now moving these quaint folk art building to the back yards of their wealthiest clients. Even good reproductions can run up to $2,500. They are used for poolside cabanas, playhouses, potting sheds, garden tool sheds, school bus stops, roadside vegetable stands and yes, even deluxe doghouses.

Placement of the outhouse was quite important; near the woodpile, hidden in trees, door toward the sun, and often behind trellises or hedges. There seems to be no architectural style: rooflines varied, constructed of wood or brick, windows or not, set over a hole or with a removable pot, but ventilation was a necessity and was the source of most decoration.

For children, there may have been an extra step up or a shorter seat. There was usually a smaller hole too. The number of holes also varied from 1 to 6 depending on family size.

George Washington’s privy at Mount Vernon had beautifully polished mahogany seats and the White House had a privy before it had a telephone. Wealthy families might have had solid walnut seats of assorted sizes while their servants used the back door of the privy that led to a more humble pine plank with holes.

Outhouses came with assorted accessories such as cobs and catalogues, as toilet paper was not invented until much later. Other items included insect spray; step stool for little ones, carpeting and some actually had wallpaper.

During the Great Depression, the WPA, “Works Projects Administration” offered jobs to build and install outhouses. Not only was there a need for jobs but this also promoted rural sanitation. For $17 a farm family could have a new outhouse. This cost was for materials which included cast cement floors and ventilation...labor was free. This project was offered under the administration of Franklin Roosevelt and many felt this was a wasteful project and nicknamed the privies “Eleanor’s” or “Roosevelt Monuments”. 

Outhouses received many nicknames such as the library, backhouse, private place, necessary house or nessy. Chapel of ease or comfort station, loo, the woodpile or rosebush, latrine, Uncle John or Aunt Sue were also popular, also Sears booth because of the Sears catalog and the reading room or throne room.

While the New Deal programs supplied outhouses across the nation, the WPA concrete foundation and base provided a substantial change for rural American communities. These simple buildings are readily recognized due to their standardized plans.

They were a 4’ 3” X 4’ 3” square wood frame building that was set on a concrete foundation. The height of the building was 7’ 6” in the front and 6’ 4” in the back creating a sloped roof overhanging shed roof with 7” trim boards on all four sides of the roof.

A concrete foundation was poured including the raised rectangular base for the wooden toilet seat and lid to sit on. A wooden keeper arm attached to side of the building was used to hold to lid up.

The building was made of wooden boards on the exterior; usually a tongue and groove was used to build them, with a braced board door with a “Z” design on the interior and the front of the building divided in half with the door on the right half.