The Noble Outhouse

by Terry Hogan


The outhouse had a practical name and a practical use.  It was cold as the devil in the winter time.  It was smelly and full of bugs and spiders and other creepy crawlers during the summer. If you were unlucky, you might find a choice between the Sears catalog slick pages or corn cobs. The outhouse was often subject to ill-conceived humor on Halloween. You could find it on naughty post cards when looking for something to mail back home.  So what more is there to be said?  A little.


The outhouse served a practical purpose in rural America.  It even worked fairly well in small towns with big lots.  But with increased populations, outhouses, aka privies, became a problem.  One family’s outhouse was often too near another family’s well, or residence.  Disease and odor became a problem. 


The outhouse also was a remarkably unpleasant exercise in the dead of winter, perhaps exceeded only by the same trip made on a hot summer day with no breeze.  For those lucky ones who haven’t had the opportunity to fully experience the outhouse on a hot summer day, think of one of those over-used porta-toilets on a hot day, minus the deodorizers.   


Those resourceful New England farmers had a better idea.  They brought the outhouse indoors.  At least right next to indoors.  Back in the early 1970’s, I worked out of an office near Northfield, Massachusetts.  It was a big old two story farmhouse that was connected on the first floor and the second floor, to the barn. On the second floor, there was a door at the back of the house that opened directly into the hayloft of the barn. On the first floor, there was a door that connected into a hallway that led to the barn so that you could reach the barn without having to step outside.  More interestingly, the hall had a side door that when open, presented you with a single hole outhouse.  Thus you had an outhouse without having to go outside.  The outhouse was a small projection to the hallway that was largely hidden by the house and the barn.  Because it projected out, it presumably could be maintained from the outside when necessary.  Of course it was not in use by the 1970s, but it was quite an innovative solution to the bitter New England cold and snow.     


We are an ingenious species and most of us think we know what an outhouse looks like.  But we might be wrong.  Our government, the Library of Congress to be exact, has some amazing photos of the lowly outhouse. There were outhouses built along the side of the Mississippi so that what was deposited flowed south.   There is also a photo of the old family car, upended and made to good use after its traveling days were over.  Probably it wasn’t a family pleaser to begin with.


But then, how about the double-decker outhouse?  Details are lacking, but I assume, or at least hope, there was an enclosed shaft between the first and second floor.  If not the first floor occupant would have to fear the coming of the full moon. But it is not one of a kind!  I also found that Gays, Illinois has a historic two-story outhouse preserved and restored, complete with a blue “Historic Two-Story Outhouse 1872” below a sign saying “TOURIST ACTIVITIES”. I can’t present the photo in the article as it has a copyright, but I have given the Internet address at the end of the article. Where else but The Zephyr would you find information about the Gay double-decker outhouse?


In a small town in Massachusetts, I saw a similar approach to indoor/outdoor plumbing.  The store was built up against a pretty little river that tumbled across a rocky shelf.  The back of the store was built out over the river.  At the back of the store was the outhouse.  Looking through the hole in the wood seat, one could watch the river flow by below.


One of the next great steps forward from the outhouse was indoor plumbing.  The only problem with the indoor plumbing was that it had to go somewhere.  Early on, that was generally a straight shot to the nearest river, stream, creek or ditch.  Although this was pretty convenient for the household, it was not a good thing for those located downstream.  This was particularly true during floods.


Galesburg is now blessed with a relatively well-behaved Cedar Fork.  It is now just a concrete ditch to expedite flow into, through and out of Galesburg.  It wasn’t always so.  For years, sewage and other items were dumped, spilled, or otherwise conveyed by pipe, ditch or container to Cedar Fork. It was the “out of sight, out of mind” years for waste.  Most of this “stuff” was transported to the innocent landowners downstream.  But such was the way of the day.


However, from time to time, the little Cedar Fork would rebel to the insults and flood its banks bringing the unwanted and unmentionable to float about the low spots of West Main Street in Galesburg. Cars and beasts alike were forced to avoid or travel through it. It was a little like the toilet backing up and overflowing, but on a grander scale.


This brought the problem back to home.  What goes down the pipe doesn’t always travel downstream far enough to be somebody else’s problem. Cedar Fork had become a problem for Galesburg.  The outhouse became the indoor plumbing that became the tributary to Cedar Fork. 


Wastewater treatment was the answer.  Sewage going to Cedar Fork had to be intercepted and routed to a wastewater treatment plant. 


But the outhouse was a source of jokes as well as a source of pollution.  For example, one that I came across:


An Indian chief assembled the young men of his tribe and asked, "Who threw outhouse over cliff?" Nobody spoke up. Again the chief asked. Again there was silence. The chief went on saying, "Many moons ago, George Washington cut down cherry tree." "He confess. He get no whipping." "So tell me - who push outhouse over cliff?" Running Wind, a boy of ten and the chief's son, raised his hand. "I push outhouse over cliff." The chief smacked the kid hard on his rear end. Running Wind said, "George Washington no get hit by father." The chief said, "George Washington's father not in cherry tree when he chop it down."


The outhouse became a part of history and those who had first hand experience with it did not mourn its loss. 


As a part of history, even the lowly outhouse is not allowed to lie in rot. As they say, one man’s dump (no pun intended) is another man’s treasure.  It seems that the outhouse was often used to dispose of old bottles and other unwanted items that are antiques now.  So, if you remember where Grandpa and Grandma’s old outhouse sat, you might want to buy the book “The Secrets of Privy Digging” and you too can dig for gold.  But remember what Grandma always said, wash your hands before eating.


Reference:  (to find information on “The Secrets of Privy Digging”) (Source of Indian Chief joke)  (Gay, Illinois double-decker)