Outhouse focuses country life to favorite hang out
The little shanty has a proper place in family history !
The little one-door shack with a half moon out back charmed the pants
off of many farm families!
Yep, this prim and proper shanty was a welcome sight and a great
friend in the time of need. It was the object of many hurried journeys
in the days before plumbing found its way into farm houses.
Many an old farmer still walking the sod today can revive vivid
memories of these charming shacks out back. Why, very important functions were performed day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year.
Plus, they were performed in thunderstorms, blizzards, zero weather,
and in the hottest heat of August. The only air conditioning was the
fresh breeze allowed by those half moons and an open door if only
family were around. Hot and cold breezes weren't the only concerns: in
the heat of summer, those will creatures buzzing about weren't butterflies!
From the homesteading of Hamilton County in the 1860s to the 1950s,
the outhouse could be counted among the buildings on the farm: the
house, the barn, hen house, brooder house, silo, wash house and summer
kitchen combo, hog house, machine shed, shop, corncrib, granary, garage,
wood shed, ice house, and the faithful dirt cellar lines with bricks.
The No. 1 rule for placement of outhouses and barnyards: they had to
either be down hill or a certain distant from the windmill if you
didn't cotton to flavored water from your well.
Before outhouses were invented, what was there? We read about the
many sod houses in Hamilton County in the 1870s when the county was
homesteaded, but did you ever see or hear of a sod outhouse? Me neither,
so we'll leave that story to your imagination.
I guess "toilet" was a given name for The Necessary a title deemed
proper if you raised your little finger while sipping hot tea in bone
china. Some also called it a privy, but for my family, it was the
outhouse! Whatever the title, if the mission got accomplished, who cared?
The front of the outhouse faced away from the dirt road whizzing past
the farm house. That way, by leaving the door open in nice weather, the
occupant would have some light to read.
Read? Read what? Toilet paper for most farmers came in the mail,
printed with designs, photos, and words and prices. Pretty fancy, eh?
Back on the farm when I was a young lad in the 1940s there weren't
enough coins to jingle to buy that fancy soft-rolled fluff.
So, last year's thick Sears & Roebuck catalog was put to proper use
in last rites for that great steak supper. Or if you were a Monkey Wards
shopper, it would be the choice of your reading material . . . and its
pages would be properly put to use. It was years before I figured out
that Monkey Wards and Montgomery Wards were the same store.
Which pages of the catalog would be selected first for the task at
hand? Well, the women wouldn't be ripping out the household, clothing,
and shoe pages first. Those were the pages they read. The men wouldn't
be ripping out the pages with farm equipment, harnesses, tools, and
Somehow, it all evened out and there would be a need for another
catalog next year. But, if you found an item you particularly liked, you
had better tear the page out to take with you or it might become a
prized offering for the pit before you returned.
Back to the half moons: Somehow, outhouses and half moons went
together. As a young farmer, I could never figure out the significance
of the moon shape under the eves. I guess if it were a full moon, it
would only look like a round hole up there. So, somehow the half moon
was commonly used. Maybe the half moon was more romantic, but how
romantic could the atmosphere be around the outhouse? Sometimes the
half-moon would be sawed out on the door.
Ventilation comes to mind as a reason for the designer holes in the
walls, not to mention the seats. Oh yes, cracks in the wall boards of
old outhouses also contributed to freshness of breath. But these
ventilation factors also abetted the chill factor when the winter wind
howled and the breezes came from below and exited the half moons. Guess
what was sitting in the path of the rushing freezing breeze?
In the winter time, the outhouse was not used much as a library.
Little reading was done. It was full concentration. It was into the
outhouse and out as fast as possible. At minus 10 degrees, you don't
want anything frost bitten!
Farmers during the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s and 40s
learned to get along without a lot of things, but the outhouse was not
one of 'em. They sure weren't fancy, in fact, some were constructed from
lumber salvaged from old buildings that great grandpa built in the last
century. The weathered boards came with splinters, knots, built-in
pinchers, and you name it.
Most shanties were home-grown shacks with wooden floors, but some
farmers had professionally built privies -- complete with concrete
floors, and a little glass window about five feet up.
Richer farmers ordered 'em from a catalog. I have no idea how they
arrived on the farm, but I do know that farmers could even order their
house from the Sears & Roebuck catalog. The lumber came all cut to size,
so the farmer only had to follow directions and connect A to A, B to B,
and so forth. Some of these nicer privies had two larger seats and one
small one, but most important of all, they were beveled and sanded for a
perfect fit. There was no pinching from these fancy store-bought
varnished seats even complete with hinges.
Some farms were fortunate to have workers from the Works Project
Administration pour concrete foundations for their outhouses, and even
provide hinged seat covers. WPA was a Depression Era project of the
1930s and 40s to get millions of jobless people working again in the
Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration. WPA also built bridges,
theaters, sports arenas, and public buildings, to name a few.
The outhouse would zigzag in your back yard. It didn't remain in one
spot for years and years, because it had to be relocated when the
objects being dispensed came too close to the dispenser.
The farmer would have to dig another pit about 5 feet deep and a short
distance from the pit that the family and its guests successfully
filled. The new hole had to be dug smaller than the dimensions for the
outhouse, or it would be down house . . . down in the pit.
OK, so the pit is dug, now what? The outhouse had to be dragged over
the top of the new pit? Think horsepower. Besides burning hay in the
winter and pulling equipment in the field, that's why horses were
invented -- only one horsepower was required for this job. Harness Ol'
Dobbin and attach the singletree to the skid on the outhouse and gently
slide it over the new pit. Half of the job was done.
Then, the pile of dirt from the fresh pit was used to top off the
old pit, making sure to heap it up because soil settled. The rest of the
dirt went into the garden or maybe it was used to fill a washout along
the wire fence at the pig pen. In the spring when weeds popped up
around the farm, the ones growing over the old toilet pit were always
the greenest, the tallest, and the fastest growing weeds. Hollyhocks
the old farm favorite flower -- liked the pit, also. Somehow the
6-foot-tall hollyhock produced blossoms which were darn right purtty,
despite where their feet were stuck.
Speaking of the pig pen, the animals on the farm naturally didn't
require an outhouse. In the barn, the animals expended used provender
without any thought to ethics or cleanliness. Nature just took care of
itself. It was the farmer who had to pitch the fresh pancakes and road
apples into a heap out the barn door.
When the stack got high enough, the farmer got enough incentive to
remove the stack. He would load it into his faithful manure spreader and
then direct his team of horses to a hungry field seeking nutrients to
grow another crop.
It was a sight to see the byproduct flying through the air. The wagon
was called a spreader and it did just that. Its gears would drag the
manure to the rear and then a wide circular spiked paddle would toss the
manure maybe 15 feet up and out across the field. It was a job for days
not windy because showers were possible when that stuff was flying and
wind returns the favor.
That's enough said about barnyard leftovers. Let's get back to the
little house out back.
Every farm had a worn path in the weeds leading from the back door of
the house to the only door on the outhouse. It was a path well trodden
by young and old and by day and night. Any time you saw someone on the
path, they had that look of determination and intent to take care of
their pressing concern.
But sometimes when they pulled on the door knob, they discovered
someone beat them to the seat of relief. There'd be some jumping and
hollering about hurrying up. It was a time of frustration piled upon
expectation without execution.
Most farmers had an outhouse with two seats, one for the little
tyke's bottom and the other for more mature behinds. For the small tots,
they had to be held up in the sitting position to make sure they didn't
fall through. The larger crafted hole in the shanty's plank seat was a
one-size-fits-all for customers. Or would it be more correct to say
client, or patient? By the way, what is the term for one using the
outhouse? Attender? User? Ocuppier? Seater? Producer? Maybe occupant is
Using the outhouse could be a social affair if you knew each other
well enough and didn't mind company and conversation while you were
doing your business.
In the village of Giltner like many other towns in our rural nation,
each house had a little two-seater out by the alley. It wasn't until
around 1960 that a sewer line was installed and residents were able to
build a bathroom somewhere in their house. It might be on an enlarged
back porch or else a big closet was adapted.
My grandmother, Lizzie Hannah Detamore Miller Salmon, lived in Giltner
and had a wash house by her outhouse. Neighbor could keep track of her
goings and comings even while rocking on their porch if they were so
inclined. Or sometimes, neighbors passed the time of day as they passed
in their comings and goings to their out backs.
At Halloween, the outhouse became a favorite object of affection, so
to speak. The wood floor models were an easy mark. Most weren't fastened
down with steel stakes, but just resting over an open pit.
Sometimes, the culprits would wait until they saw someone enter the
outhouse and then tip it over backwards. Four or five boys in their
mid-teens were strong enough to give the outhouse a heave-ho. Then
they'd split the scene to a safe distance behind trees to watch the
victim push the door up and see a head pop up looking around. I was
never involved in any tipping. It never entered my mind to do anything
destructive on the farm, unless it was tearing down sparrow nests where
I thought they weren't appropriate.
Some called their outhouse The Library, or I mentioned earlier,
The Necessary Room. On the farm in the winter time, it was necessary to
have a portable outhouse: the Honey Bucket. It was a 5-gallon bucket
placed in the hall near the bedrooms of the children. Oh, what a relief
it was having not to venture out back during a blizzard, or subzero
howling winds. A bucket was often available even in the summer because
youngsters were afraid the boogeyman might get 'em outside in the dark.
We got electricity on the farm in 1950, but didn't get a comfy white
throne until 1952 when we moved into Aurora at 1219 8th Street. My dad
started working at the Farmers Union Co-Op Creamery and he rented a
house from a great old gent named John Schaffert. (His granddaughter
Myrna was my classmate at Aurora Hi and sat in front of me for 4 years
in the study hall.) The rent was $60 I think -- for the 4-bedroom
house equipped with a tub on legs and a white throne in the bathroom.
Indoor outhouses? As a young farm lad, I'd seen them in the Hamilton
County Courthouse on the basement floor, but trying to configure an
indoor privy in our farm house was beyond my imagination.
Houses were not designed for something called a toilet room. Really
now, where would it go? Into a corner of the big country kitchen, the
living room, the parlor, in a bedroom, or on an enclosed back porch?
Later in my young life, I found the little rooms were designed to fit
into the house from the get-go and they were called bathrooms . . . and
included the white throne.
Today, in public places they're called "Rest Rooms," which I chuckle
over rather then calling a spade a spade, it's a toilet. Tell me, does
anyone go into those little rooms and just rest? Just a fancy, smancy
polite term in "restroom?" It's like people pretend they don't know what
other people do in those little rooms. OK, I'm tired, so I think I shall
just rest a little bit in there.
Oh, yeah, many years later in the Marines at Camp Pendleton I cleaned
heads (toilet rooms) at the Staff Non-Commissioned Officers Club. It was
a job for extra cash that I did on weekend nights. To my surprise there
was a foyer in the women's room with several easy chairs and couches,
along with pretty pictures and flowers. So, I do have to agree that the
Women's Room can be a Rest Room. Anywhere else in civilian life, I don't
OK, kids, it's back to the farm.
If we didn't have a "bathroom" on the farm, where did we take baths?
Good question. Why, baths were taken in the kitchen, of course.
What? In the kitchen in the sink? No, no, we didn't have a sink, a
faucet, running water, or a drain. The bathtub was the wash tub which
Mom used for rinsing clothes in on wash day which was always Mondays.
On Saturday evenings, Dad would bring the tub in from the wash house,
along with a 15-gallon copper boiler and fill it with water pumped from
the well. The cook stove would be stoked first with cobs for a fast
start, then with chopped wood to bring the water to a boil in about 25
minutes. More wood would be added to keep the water hot for 8 baths. A
pan was used to transfer the hot water to the wash tub. Another bucket
of cold water was standing by to adjust the water to the correct
So far, so good. Where was the wash tub placed? And did everyone look
on? Please, we were civilized! Chairs circled the tub in a corner of
the kitchen. Blankets were tossed over chair backs to provide privacy
if you were old enough to need it-- and to reduce chilly breezes.
One tub of water was good for all baths. Usually the cleanest went
first, which meant the youngest. Additional hot water was added for each
bather, but there was no problem of the tub overflowing. The youngest
sat in the tub with about 10 inches of water, while older kids and
parents sat on a wooden kitchen chair. Only their feet would be in the
water. They would stand up to rinse by squeezing the water from the wash
rag over their heads.
In the winter time, the tub was right next to the hot stove.
Sometimes the tub would be placed in the living room near the fire place
or the heating stove. The blankets again on chairs stopped the winter
winds whipping in under the doors and in around the windows.
On the farm in 1950, there were 6 of us kids and my parents who took
baths in the same water. Was it healthy? Who knows? We all lived to be
adults. I do know that I haven't taken a bath for many years because I
prefer showers. I don't want to sit in a tub even filled with fresher water!
So, before I flush this story on the outhouse, I have to ask myself if
I miss the shack out back? I prefer the white throne with the little
magic handle that makes it all disappear.
Today, 50 years later, I still love to check out the features of
outhouses. They're rustic and provide lingering symbols of years past.
Oh, one more thought: handwriting on the wall.
In 1979 I visited one of Dr. J. M. Woodard's farms where we lived in
1944-45. The only building standing was the outhouse. Oh, once again I
would have loved to walk again through that barn, where the cows were
milked on the north side and horses had stalls on the south side. Barns
served about three generations of Nebraska farmers, then horses lost out
to tractors which had hundreds of horsepowers. The barns were left to
fall down among themselves. Today, it's rare to see a barn, especially a
functioning barn on any farm. There's also no chicken house, pig pen, or
milking cows. Chores have been eliminated from the farm.
In the Woodward farm haymow I would climb up as high as I could get
by clinging to the wall and tip-toeing along the 2x4 framing. Then I'd
turn and jump into the straw pile, which we used for bedding for the
animals. This one time I jumped and my lower lip was covering my teeth.
My jaw hit my knee and my teeth cut a gash below my lower lip. I'm
living with this scar to remind me that I was once a dare devil when
spurred on by neighbor kids.
I was 6 then and one of my jobs was to hunt in the mangers and around
the barn to find where hens were laying their eggs. It was important to
find as many eggs as possible because eggs were a cash crop. Mom would
take them to Shaneyfelt Produce in Aurora on Saturdays to sell. She got
maybe only 9 or 10 cents a dozen, but that would buy a pound of navy
beans at Safeway. The chickens were free to roam the farm, and while
most of the hens laid their eggs in the nests in the chicken house,
there were several who liked to play hide and go-seek.
Rex, you mentioned handwriting on the wall. Yes, well, as I was
walking toward the outhouse, I was wondering if there would be any
evidence that I was ever in this outhouse 30 years earlier. I opened the
door slowly. No animals jumped out at me.
Of course the door opened to the south away from the road view so
there was plenty of sunshine lighting it. I walked in and sat down (No,
I didn't need to!) and looked around at the walls at eye-level. Sure
enough. I saw Rex, Steve, and Pauline, plus Kenneth and Janis written
very plainly on the white walls.
It was a WPA toilet, so it was well built with a concrete floor.
Steve and Pauline are my siblings. Kenneth is the boy who would one day
become Mayor Kenneth Harter of Aurora. So now you know the rest of the
story about the handwriting on the wall.
And this is all I know about outhouses. You're probably flushed from
reading all of this, but thanks for sitting through the memories with me!
©: Rex L. Salmon 2009