The Old Outhouse by Ron Barlow

Submitted by WGS Member Gayle Stuart

Who would have thought old privies would ever be worth more than their value as firewood? Yet, it’s true.

Those spider web-filled, fly-infested, steamy, uncomfortable, odiferous outdoor toilets of yesteryear are now worth big bucks!

We aren’t talking about bad plywood reproductions or fiberglass port-a-potties, but bona fide “antique” outhouses with moss covered shingles and barn wood siding.

To be collectible, an outhouse should be at least 50 years old, preferably with hand-carved, oval seat openings and a crescent moon cut in the door. The moon signified a ladies room, while a star or a sunburst pattern was for the gents (boys often preferred a secluded corner in the barn).

“The history of the quarter-moon on the door of the outhouse goes way back. Most serious historians who are students of the subject are of the opinion that the custom started in Europe in the 1500s or the 1600s.

It was common practice, back then, to identify which outhouse was which by means of a circular symbol on the door of the men’s’ and a quarter-moon on the ladies’.

The use of the circle and quarter-moon was especially common at inns and houses for lodging. The use of symbols rather than words was necessary due to the widespread illiteracy of the times.

Not only was illiteracy a problem, but also the clientele of such places was more likely to be travelers from another country and another language.

These universal signs were easy to make and easy to “read” so most such places had the little houses out back so designated.” (Taken from Iowa’s Vanishing Outhouse by Bruce Carlso)

Not too long ago, the average farmer demolished his family outhouse soon after his new Sears, Roebuck & Co. chain-pulled flusher was installed. Today, times have changed, and preservationists, decorators and antique dealers from coast to coast are restoring old privies as fast as they find them.

Theme park developers, campground owners and interior designers were among the first people to realize the magnetic appeal of the old outhouses.

Privies that were once routinely burned or recycled are now sold to the highest bidder. Landscape architects are moving many of these quaint folk-art edifices into the back yard of wealthy clients who use them for poolside cabanas or quaint garden tool sheds.

If a building cannot be saved, alert salvagers know that the seat board alone will bring a quick twenty-five bucks. A good three hole plank, made from solid hardwood, could be worth its weight in aluminum cans.

With older privies becoming increasingly scarce, a thriving cottage industry of privy reproductions has developed with prices ranging from $900 for a simple one-holer to $3,500 or more for a fancy Victorian replica complete with cupola and weathervane.

Over the years several collector items have come on the market: postcards, books and paper collectibles (poems).

One book, The Specialist by Charles “Chic” Sales, sold over a million copies at a buck a piece between 1929 -1934.

The main character, Lem Putt, was a rural carpenter from Urbana, IL. who specialized in building outhouses.

Lem had his own practical ideas about the proper location, and he always placed his back houses near a woodpile in order to save the ladies any embarrassment if men happened to be working close by.

Take a woman for instance – out she goes. On the way back form the privy she’ll gather five sticks of wood, and the average woman makes four trips a day. That’s 20 sticks in the wood box with no trouble at all.

The average Midwest farm family’s pre-Depression-era outhouse was constructed over a 2 to 5 foot deep, unlined hole in the ground – preferably at least 200 feet from a well or spring.

Once a year, the hole was filled and the outhouse was moved a few yards upwind to a fresh location.

In the suburbs, a nighttime crew of “honey-dippers,” who discretely traveled up and down alleys removing the waste matter from brick or cement lined privy vaults, performed a weekly pumping or shoveling out function.

Yet, as familiar as outhouses are to most rural folks, they had a terrible downside.

Privy vaults seeped into domestic water supplies and took a terrible toll among children and adults prior to the widespread adoption of indoor plumbing.

Typhoid fever and cholera were a direct result of widespread ignorance of proper waste disposal, and claimed thousands of lives in mass epidemics from the 1830s to the 1860s.

Practical accessories included a bucket of lime, a corn cob box, a fly swatter, and a long willow pole for knocking down wasp’s nest.

Household tools and garden supplies were also stored within.

Old clothes for outdoor work and farmyard chores hung on a convenient hook as did a rag-bag full of cloth scraps and a burlap sack containing last week’s newspapers.

Rat poison, insect spray, nails and hand tools were kept on a high shelf, well out of the reach of curious children.

Back house walls were most often of single thickness construction; although many double wall structures with lathe and plaster interiors, or hardwood paneling, have survived.

The plain pine boards of more humble “offices” were often covered with brightly colored wallpaper patterns or uniformly whitewashed.

No photos really capture an aesthetically decorated outhouse of the Victorian period, but such privies were not rare among the upper middle class.

These small scale edifices were subject to the same weekly cleaning routines of the main house: seats and floors were washed with soapy mop water; walls were swept down with a broom; carpets were removed and beaten; and windows were brightly shined.

Wall decor consisted of advertising calendars from local merchants or colorful prints clipped annually from favorite magazines. Mirrors were often hung as well.