Backroads: Outdoor Privies

Old privy in Beech Grove

My introduction to outdoor privies came as a young girl visiting relatives who had a cottage on Lake Erie. The cottage had no indoor plumbing, so we had to use the wooden facility located up a well-worn path to the rear of the property. I found it strangely freeing to sit quietly while the birds and crickets chirped around me. My older brother always ruined my last excursion before bedtime by whispering, “Don’t let the bears get you!”

Many years later, when coming to the mountains on weekends, I introduced my own young daughter to the quiet solitude of a “two-holer” at the hunting camp where we stayed. One particular morning we were sitting side by side in the privy and I gave instructions to “remember to flush” as I exited the wooden structure and then stood outside trying not to laugh. She emerged in a few minutes sheepishly announcing, “I couldn’t find the flusher.”

I ended up renting the same camp after the permanent move was made to Love in 1980, but by then it had been upgraded to include a working bathroom. But the old privy was used when the electricity went off, which was frequent here on the mountain. Gracing one wall was a humorous painting I had purchased years earlier. It showed an outhouse with a light in the window and a television antenna on the roof. The title? “Affluence.”

Since the years at the camp, all our homes have had indoor plumbing, but I am still always on the lookout for those distinctive wooden buildings located to the rear of older homes. It’s surprising how many are still in existence and probably still being used for their intended purpose, especially at camps where people come to rough it.

His & hers privy in Coffeytown

Some privies, outhouses, Johnny houses, or outdoor toilets as they are sometimes called, are basic in structure, having one opening on which to sit. Others can accommodate two, three and even four bottoms at a time, especially those belonging to families with a lot of children.

Every household was equipped with a chamber pot or two, also known as a “thunder jug” or “slop jar.” These portable potties were made of enamel or stoneware and were usually kept under the bed in times of emergencies, sickness, inclement weather or at night when a trek down the path was not desired. But it was understood that whoever used the chamber pot, emptied and cleaned it as well.

By far the grandest privy I’ve ever visited is located in Coffeytown, on the Macedonia Church property. The outside of the building is well maintained, but it is the inside that captures your attention. With electric lights, a ceramic tile floor, beadboard walls, pictures gracing the walls and a basket of personal toiletries to choose from, the double outhouse (his and hers) is a marvel to behold. Best of all, there are no spiders or creepy crawlies to be seen anywhere!

Modern day affluence

The dictionary defines a privy or outhouse as a type of toilet in a small structure separate from the main building, which does not have a flush and is not attached to a sewer or septic tank. The building itself was usually constructed of wooden boards but some people built more permanent ones of brick or natural stone to compliment a home made from the same materials. Privies were situated over an excavation hole from three to six feet in depth and a bucket filled with lime was often placed on the floor within reach so a scoop could be thrown down to hole as needed to reduce odors. A ventilator pipe that resembled a smokestack rose from seat level and extended out the roof to help rid methane gas buildup.

We associate a “moon” cut into a privy door as kind of a standard ornamentation. I always assumed it was simply to let in sunlight or air but in doing research, I found out that these vents often doubled as symbols for gender identification. The crescent shape was the universal symbol of womankind.  Thus a moon carved into a privy door served to let folks know this was the “Ladies Room.” In earlier times, a sunburst pattern was cut into the door of a men’s privy, which indicated “Old Sol,” the sun. These symbols were necessary, since during colonial times only a small part of the population could read. But I have seen stars and diamond shapes cut into doors as well. 

Humorous Buick hood entrance cover

Before the advent of paper products, folks relied on the standard Sears and Roebuck catalogs for taking care of personal hygiene inside the privy.  These catalogs were thick and ripped-out pages could be used for a long time. Before that, country people who had access to large gardens used the cobs from shelled corn for the task. For those not well acquainted with the texture of fresh shelled corn cobs and wince at the thought of scraping delicate flesh with husks associated with the term “rough as a cob,” the old timers say that fresh ones are quite soft to the touch. And since red cobs outnumbered white ones two to one, the trick was to use a red cob first, a white one next, and another red one if needed. 

Most photos used for this article were taken within a short distance from our cabin here in Love, where privies continue to be used or just allowed to stand as a nostalgic remembrance of yesteryear. 




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