The moon signified a ladies room
Who 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 as 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).
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 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 yards of wealthy clients who use them for poolside cabanas or quaint garden tool sheds.
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.
The least expensive outhouse collectibles are those corny, but loveable, color postcards from the 1930s and 1940s. These artistic renderings often depict city slickers in awkward situations, which a bearded farmer ingeniously solves - usually with a keyhole saw. The most prolific publisher of comic postcards was the Curtis Technical Co., who printed a 10-card series called 'Rural Relief.' The average price range today for such cards is $1 to $5 each.
A comparative rarity would be a vintage real-photo postcard showing someone emerging from a Dooley (a two-holer), or posing with such an immodest structure in the background. Victorian-and depression-era photographers took great pains to avoid outhouses in their compositions - apparently, they just couldn't sell a family photo that featured outdoor plumbing. In all my years of photograph collecting, I've only been able to purchase three such explicit images.
Other outhouse-related paper collectibles range from illustrated copies of the classic poem 'The Old Backhouse' by James Whitcomb Riley (about $5 unframed), to at least 50 different books on privies, including a tiny 31-pager entitled The Specialist by Charles 'Chic' Sale, that sold over a million copies at a buck a piece between 1929-1934. The current value of that book ranges from $5 to $15.
The Specialist's main character, Lem Putt, was a rural carpenter from Urbana, Ill., who specialized in building outhouses - usually two-holers, painted white with red trim, or his deluxe model, an eye-popping green-and-yellow, two-story privy with four seats and double-drop shafts.
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, fer instance - out she goes. On the way back from 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. But you take a timid woman - especially a new hired girl - if she sees any men folk around, she's too bashful to go direct out, so she'll go to the wood pile, pick up the wood, go back to the house and watch for her next chance. I've knowed em' to make as many as 10 trips to the woodpile before they goes in, regardless. On a good day you will have your wood box filled by noon.
Other outhouse titles to seek out - try www.bookfinder.com or a good, local used book dealer -include Muddled Meanderings in an Outhouse by Bob Ross, published in the 1970s, and Old Friends is Always Best by Paul Webb, who was the creator of those well-known hillbilly Esquire magazine cartoons of the 1940s.
A couple of more-recent best sellers in Great Britain were Lucinda Lambton's Chambers of Delights, an illustrated history of chamber pots, and Temples of Convenience, a similar essay on 'lavatories.' Canadian privy collectors may want to own Sherman Hines' Outhouses of the East, a coffee table book first published in 1978. Hines also operates Canada's only outhouse museum and gift shop, located in Liverpool, Nova Scotia, Canada.
Other outhouse collectibles range from saltshakers that sell for $3 to $10, to fine bisque figurines made in Japan and Germany around 1920, which sell for $20 to $40. Wooden outhouse items that date from the 1930s to the present include napkin holders, chess sets, carved figures and scale model privies, complete with all accessories (see eBay for the most current auction prices, www.ebay.com).
Other than a complete vintage Johnnie, Dooley, Pokey, Loo or Biffy (all regional names for the humble outhouse), the most valuable part of an antique outhouse is the seat board. The thicker the better, and the more coats and colors of old paint, the more valuable it may be to the discriminating collector or decorator. Of course, a two- or three-hole seat will cost at least three times more than a single-oval seat, and hand-carved hardwood always brings more money than splintery, rough-sawn southern pine. Serious collectors will gladly pay $150 to $595 for the real McCoy.
At the top of this heap (or the bottom, as the case may be) of unconventional collectibles are the most fragile and pricey - antiques: vintage bottles. Think of privy pits as archeological time capsules. Every foot of compressed refuse equals up to two years of elapsed time. Rare, old bottles sell from $8 to $8,000.
The most common privy vault finds are broken dishes, tea pots, discarded medicine, snuff, beer, wine and whiskey bottles, false teeth, bone-handled tooth brushes, paint brushes, tin cans, car parts, chamber pots, salt cellars, china doll heads, marbles, broken toys, rusty pistols and the skeletons of deceased pets. One lucky privy-digger even found a fruit jar full of gold teeth. FC
- Ron Barlow is the author of several books on farm collectibles, including The Vanishing American Outhouse, published by Viking Studio, 2000. Out of print, it's still available from www.Amazon.com
Wood has always been the preferred medium of outhouse construction. Many rural American privies, however, were made of brick, bark, bamboo, clay, canvas, cornstalks, palm fronds, oil drums, sheet metal, tarpaper, discarded tin signs or even obsolete telephone booths.
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.
Flimsy, open-backed privies in the Deep South were hastily erected over shallow depressions, or more often, over no hole at all. These open-air outhouses depended on pigs, chickens, rats, birds and dung beetles to perform perfunctory clean-up chores.
Experienced sitters were careful to scare off any sitting hens that might be lurking under the seats of these primitive privies. Many naive visitors interpreted unexpected pecks on the posterior as fatal snakebites!
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.
Many farms had a well or spring located downhill from the privy or cesspool, which caused many illnesses and deaths in America before World War I. In 1903, for example, the average life expectancy in the United States was 47, and amoebic dysentery -caused by rotting organic matter in drinking water - was the third leading cause of death. As late as 1920, 25 percent of all U.S. farms still relied upon contaminated water supplies.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture finally recognized these widespread health hazards, and from 1933 to 1945 the WPA trained and paid thousands of carpenters to construct 2,309,239 'sanitary privies' across the countryside. The standard retail price of these government-designed, 'fly-proof' outhouses was $5 (the actual cost of materials and labor). Poor families, of which there was no shortage, got new Biffies free of charge.
The main difference between the old-style homemade outhouse and the new sanitary privy was its one-piece cast-concrete floor and throne base. An airtight, folding-seat lid and carefully screened vents and windows completed this 'modern' fly-proof edifice.
In the late 1880s, flush toilets began to appear in domestic mail-order catalogs, and gradually made their way into the homes, factories, office buildings, saloons, stores and hotels of the country at large about that time. By 1903, about 14 percent of all U.S. homes had a bathtub. By 1918, a standard 5-by-7-foot 'modern' bathroom could be found in most middle-class dwellings.
The South, however, was slow to modernize. In 1999, North Carolina residents reportedly still used an estimated 200,000 outhouses. As late as July 15, 2002, our government reported that 670,000 homes in the U.S. still had no indoor plumbing, hot water, bathtubs, toilets or showers. Perhaps the outhouse still has a use in 21st century America.