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Remembering the Outhouse

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

| May 2014

  • A typical outhouse on a farm in Douglas County, Kan.
    Photo by Leonard Lee Rue III
  • Outhouse building plans.
    Sketches courtesy Leonard Lee Rue III
  • Two-seater style outhouse.
    Photo courtesy Library of Congress

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.


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