Remembering the Outhouse

Fond, and not so fond, memories of the outhouse on the farm.

Outhouse with crescent moon

A typical outhouse on a farm in Douglas County, Kan.

Photo by Leonard Lee Rue III

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The farm my family bought during the Depression had a house that had eight rooms and the proverbial path. We had no electricity, which meant we had no running water, which meant we had no bathroom, which is why we had the path, which was 27 steps to the outhouse. Coming from the city, where we had all of the amenities, the outhouse was an adventure to me and a cultural shock to my sisters.

The path to our outhouse sloped slightly to the east. In fact, everything on our farm sloped in some direction; there was no such thing as level. The outhouse was situated on the edge of a bank, which really was a good idea as it allowed for about a 6-foot holding pit and a clean-out door at the bottom. I wouldn’t say the outhouse was a sturdy structure, but it was built as solidly as any of the outhouses of those days. It was a standard two-holer, but the two holes were seldom used unless there was an emergency and someone “just couldn’t wait.” The females in the family often used both seats after dark because there is strength in numbers and it made them less afraid of whatever they imagined to be out there in the dark. And, without electricity, the nights were definitely darker. Some outhouses were three-holers, but I think that was carrying “togetherness” just a bit too far.

The door to our outhouse had the mandatory crescent moon cut into it. Why a crescent moon? Probably because a moon was easier to cut than a star. There were no windows, although some light did come through the many cracks. The idea of keeping outhouses dark was that it helped to keep the flies out. Flies don’t like darkness; they are attracted to light. That’s why we also kept the seat lids down when the holes were not occupied.

Complete with accessories

In the corner of the outhouse, we always kept a bag of lime and a small scoop. Several times a week we would shovel some lime down the holes to discourage the flies and to mute the odors. In the warmer months, I always left the door partially open while cogitating. That also helped keep the odors down and made for easier breathing.

Sitting next to the lime was a bag of corncobs. The corn had been shelled from the cobs to be used as feed for our chickens and the clean cobs were re-bagged and used in the place of toilet paper. Talk about being ergonomically designed; those cobs were neatly rounded to fit any contour, although I always preferred the white cobs to the red ones because they had a softer exterior. The white cobs were just as efficient as the red ones without leaving the wire-brushed effect. Even though toilet paper was selling in the Sears catalog at 7 cents a roll, the dollar-a-day wages of that time had to be used for something more important.

Of course, we also used the Sears catalog (the previous year’s Sears catalog — we surely couldn’t part with the current year’s catalog). As each page was torn off, it was thoroughly crumpled to soften it somewhat and increase its efficiency. I always tore off the pages from the front of the catalog first. There was nothing there I wanted to read; that section usually had the women’s clothing, furniture and household items. I always saved the sections on guns, traps and tools until last.

I want to state here and now that it was strictly slander, without a kernel of truth, to claim that using pages of a Sears catalog as toilet paper would give a person “catalog seat.” The ink never did smear or come off the page when the page was used. Some folks say the darndest things, and how would they know if they had “catalog seat” unless they used a mirror to check out the situation?

Seasonal challenges

I mentioned reading the old Sears catalog when I wasn’t cogitating, but I forgot to mention that all of my reading was restricted to the warmer months of the year. There was no way that any reading could be done when the temperature dropped below freezing. In fact, when the temperature plummeted below freezing, everyone prayed for constipation. That was why chamber pots (or “enameled combinets,” as they were called) were invented and used. Sears sold a dandy combinet, with a little side handle to facilitate dumping, for 88 cents. I also want to say that I never used the contraption; even as a boy I thought I was too much of a man to use such sissy stuff.

In the winter, everyone held off “going outside” as long as was humanly possible; no one wanted to make the effort for a false alarm. Then, after the first person weakened and went out, there would be a general run by all the other members in the family to get out in as quick a succession as possible while the seat was still warm. More than 30 years later I saw what I think is the greatest invention to ever come out of Alaska. I helped Charlie Travers dig and build an outhouse in the Alaskan bush and he installed a Styrofoam seat on each hole. The Styrofoam instantly reflected the body heat and made survival in the Alaskan bush possible in winter. There are folks who claim that Alaska’s permanent population skyrocketed after the discovery of oil on the North Slope. Not true; it was the invention of the Styrofoam toilet seat that made the settling of our 49th state possible.

Rules of engagement

The door on our outhouse opened inward, with the pull handle on the left. It was held shut from the outside with a hook and eye and kept shut on the inside with a wooden crosspiece fastened to the door jamb. Occasionally, as a prank, as kids are wont to do, somebody would lock somebody inside, but not too often or for too long because, sooner or later, somebody else would let the other somebody out and then there would be hell to pay.

What was also a near disaster was if somebody, in the middle of winter in hurrying to thaw out in the house, didn’t hook the door properly on their way out. When that occurred, the wind would blow the door open and pile the floor and seats with “the silence deep and white.” And, in those years, there was never a shortage of snow just waiting to blow inside. Deep and white.

It must be the result of some obscure law of physics, and it must be some obscure law because I consider myself well versed in all the others, that if the outhouse door was open, the wind always blew in. If the outhouse door was closed, the wind always blew up, straight up. In March, it actually whistled. Remember those movies in the late 1940s and ’50s about the Dead End Kids? They were city kids. There were a lot of us dead end kids in the country in the 1930s.

Disaster waiting to happen

I well remember the time that Uncle Tom and I emptied the contents of the outhouse pit. Professionals who did that kind of work were called “honey dippers” but I sure don’t know how they got that name. Uncle Tom volunteered for the job and I don’t know why. I was appointed and I do know why; they couldn’t get anyone else to help Uncle Tom and it wasn’t even his outhouse.

We didn’t have a mechanical manure spreader at the time; we just loaded everything we could shovel out of the clean-out hole onto our farm wagon. We loaded it manually and we had to unload it the same way. In fact, that was how we did everything at that time, manually. Well, we finally got the pit empty and the wagon loaded and we started down the back lane, planning to haul the load as far from the house as was possible.

Well, as my good friend Bobbie Burns would say, “The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley.” And ours agleyed with a vengeance! The axle holding the back wheels to the wagon tore loose somehow and rolled out behind, dumping half the load in the lane. I mean it slid off as slick as if the wagon itself had diarrhea. The half of the load that didn’t slide off had to be shoveled off because, without doing so, we would not have been able to lift the weight and jack up the wagon to get the wheels back on. What we had been handling and keeping at arm’s length, or at least a shovel’s length, now became really personal. You know, a really “close encounter.”

Hours later we finally got the wagon raised up, the wheels re-bolted in place and the load shoveled on again. I still don’t know why they called those professionals “honey dippers” because we knew, and anyone who got near us knew, that we hadn’t been dipping honey. We finally got the wagon unloaded and drove down to the creek where we spent considerable time throwing buckets of water on the wagon to wash it out. After all visible signs of the load were removed, the odor remained. After we got to the house and scrubbed up and had our clothes washed, the odor remained. It was weeks before even the vultures would fly over our farm again. That was just one of the times when the “good old days” were not all that good. FC

Leonard Lee Rue III is an acclaimed wildlife photographer and author of some 30 books, including The Deer of North America and The Encyclopedia of Deer.