Monday, July 2, 2012

From Outhouse to Hopper Toilets

Oh yeah, I'm definitely going there - bathrooms old style. Too fun. A question on facebook has prompted this post. The author asked if anyone had any good sights with information on what the toilets might look like on an old train. I just happened to have a photo I'd taken at a train museum in Galveston. For those of you in Texas, this is a wonderplace to get visuals for your train scenes.

Anyway, I thought about it more and did my own bit of research. As I thought, the toilets in early trains were often nothing more than holes in the floor of a closet. And yes, the contents dumped directly onto the tracks while the train was in motion. Later, seats were constructed but waste was still dumped directly onto the tracks. These were called hopper toilets. I think this second image is from a train dated 1882.

Being from a Girl Scout background, we spent campouts at a place that had old fashioned latrines. My favorite was a three-holer. There was a post to set our lanterns on while we did out business. Before entering a latrine, you always kicked the sides to make sure nothing wild and living had made its home underneath. I'll never forget the time 2 of my friends and I were at the three holer. Friend A and I finished first but Friend B was still in the middle stall when we happened to look up and see a snake curled on a shelf right above her head. I'm sure I screaming woke the dead and bless her heart, I've never seen anyone finish their business so quickly. He turned out to be a harmless hognose but still when you're seven, a snake's a snake and something to avoid.

Those of us who write historical westerns, love indulging the reader in a realistic setting, but oft times we have to sugarcoat or brush over the more unpleasant aespects of being a pioneer. Even so, I think we can all imagine how cowboys on the trail or pioneers in covered wagons had to deal with bodily functions. I can just imagine a woman squatting over a self-dug hole only to have a grasshopper climb up her skirts in mid-process. I know what my reaction would be? Do you know how you'd react?

And of course, let's not forget those chamber pots. I'd like to share a scene from Eliza's Copper Penny in which Eliza is forced to care for a patient who suffered buckshot wounds to his backside. It was a difficult scene in that I knew I couldn't go into great detail or we'd have the famous "ewww" factor but I wanted to show the man's vulnerability. He's a ranger, a hard man not used to accepting help. She's a school marm not used to a man's course ways.

He blinked. “You drugged me.”

“Mr. Nolan gave you a little laudanum to help you sleep.”

“I couldn’t make my body move right.” A chagrined expression hinted at a vulnerability she would have never associated with her first image of him.

She set the lantern on the bedside table and studied him closer, puzzled by his comment. Was he trying to escape? In his condition? Escape from what? What was so important it lured him from bed and onto the floor? “You needed the rest. Perhaps I should help you back into bed. Are you in much pain? I can give you more medicine. It’s been several hours since your last dose.”

“Hell, no!”

She stamped her foot. “There’ll be no more of your profanity in this house, and you needn’t yell.”

“I don’t need your infernal drug. I need my guns. Where have you put my things?”

“In your condition, you have no need of anything but rest.”

“Woman, don’t play with me. I have a job to do.”

“A dangerous job, I’d say.”

“Damn it, I don’t need some schoolmarm acting as my conscience.”

His outburst seemed uncharacteristic for the man she’d met earlier, brought on by something more than his desire for his guns. Perhaps fever held him in its grip and he hallucinated. She touched his brow and discovered over-warm skin.

He pulled away from her touch. “Go back to bed and leave me the hell alone. I don’t want any more of your help.”

She reared back. “I expected you to be a difficult patient. Proud men always are. I even expected some childish behavior, but I’m not sure I understand the depth of your anger. Everyone has bent over backwards to help you.”

“Some things you can’t help me with.”

Her gaze swept the room for clues to his surly behavior and discovered the source of the crash. At the foot of the bed, the enamel chamber pot rested on its side, the lid a few feet away. Oh dear. No wonder he was cranky and irritable. She had pulled the container from its chair and set it in the open so he would see it when he felt the need. In his drugged state, he must have tipped it over trying to reach it. The laudanum combined with the wounds and fever made him too weak to walk across the room. He’d crawled from the bed only to collapse on the floor.

She swallowed hard and bit her lower lip. How was she going to deal with this new problem? He’d roar louder if he knew she’d discovered his predicament. He wouldn’t thank her, but he needed help.


Paty Jager said...

We had a two hole outhouse in the backyard when I was growing up. And I can tell you in the 60's(anyway the train I took form Oregon to Idaho) when you did your business it dropped onto the tracks. But the toilet was more like the ones in campers. If you held the handle down with your foot you could see the tracks go by.

I think this was a great topic!

Cheri said...

Great info, Ciara, and enjoyed reading your excerpt. I sure had empathy for Mr. Nolan! I too, had the pleasure of experiencing outhouses as a child at some my "kinfolk's" farms.

Devon Matthews said...

Great information, Ciara! Answering the call of nature in historicals is something you rarely see addressed in either books or the movies. You see people laid up, unconscious even, for days and... nothing. They just lie there as though sleeping and never have to go to the bathroom? I've given this a lot of thought because, like you, I have a hero in a wip who's laid up with gunshot wounds. I want some realism so I have to deal with the issue of him urinating, at the very least. But how descriptive can we get without crossing a reader's ick line?

Thanks for sharing! Love the picture of the train privy!

Meg said...

My grandmother always told her kids to NEVER play on the tracks, and I can imagine they wouldn't want to -- EWWWW! LOL

Good post, thanks!

Ginger Simpson said...

Great post, Ciara. I remember having an outhouse as a kid and it's no wonder so many people my age have Irritable Bowl Syndrome from avoiding making that horrid trek. I always heard horror tales of snakes coming up from the hole, and I'm phobic when it comes to anything that resembles a snake...don't care what kind. :) Aren't we glad now that airplanes have holding tanks...I hear the passenger toilets on early airlines dumped the contents as they flew. Just think,instead of the song "It's Raining Men..." imagine what we could rock out too, except I doubt we'd add the "Hallelujah!"

Caroline Clemmons said...

Ciara, good for you for including this. I hate books where no one ever goes to the bathroom. To pioneers, an outhouse was a hazardous place. My sister-in-law had an incident like yours, but the snake was a rattler and it was on the ground. She wasn't struck, but when she heard the hiss and rattles, she made a hasty retreat. The next morning, the caretaker killed a long (how long depending on her telling) rattlesnake. Women were much more vulnerable. Same with bathing. I hate books where the woman takes a bath every night. Great by today's standards, but stupid if you've worked until you're ready to drop and then have to heat and carry bath water. Not gonna happen very often. Better to use a pan of soapy water and sponge bath. Great post.

Gerri Bowen said...

Great excerpt, Ciara.
Regarding the train toilets, I imagine a woman with heavy, long skirts held in one hand/arm, swaying with the train as she tries to steady herself so she can be about her business. I'd take a hole dug in the ground. Well, I'd take a modern toilet, but you know what I mean.

Alison E. Bruce said...

I was on a train like that in the 70's. I was reminded of it in Sherlock Holmes 2, when the conductor tells Holmes that the lavatories can't be used in the station. I remember being told that too.

Alison E. Bruce said...

We had to deal with the hole in the ground style toilet in Africa. This was a public restroom. Except in hotels, the norm was to squat, not sit.

I was a Girl Guide and it wasn't until the 70's that they started installing septic systems. Upon arrival at camp, there would be work parties to set up the tents and an elite work party to scrub the out houses with Pine Sol, then hang fresh pine boughs to act as air fresheners.

Yes, I said elite. My mother, our Guide Captain, managed to convince us that only the best got privilege of cleaning the johns.

Tabitha Shay said...

Great article and loved the pic..Grew up with outhouses as the norm and I can remember always watching for snakes and red wasps. I always try to include some calls of nature in my's perfectly normal. As for scenes with a sick or wounded patient, the drugs would slow down their bodily functions to a point, plus they wouldn't be taking in much food or fluids...but yeah, a man or woman either one would need help up to a chamber pot and think of the wonderful, embarrassing scenes an author could write...but the characters would simply be too weak to get there on their own...Tabs.

Ciara Gold said...

Oh fun, I loved reading all the comments. Sorry I didn't get here sooner but errands kept me away from the computer. I actually dropped a flashlight down one at one our campouts. Talk about the "ew" factor. It glowed this eerie orange all night. The girls actually wanted to take turns going throughout the night so they could see the glow. Ugh.

Lyn Horner said...

Very informative post, Ciara. Great comments, too. I recall a scene from one of Diana Gabaldon's books that involved a snake in an outhouse. It gave me the creeps! But it was refreshing to see an author deal with a touchy subject. Good for you, Ciara, for tackling it.

mesadallas said...

My grandfather's farm had an outhouse which we had to use the first year he bought the property. What a bother that was in the middle of the night.

A bit of toilet trivia- the first chemical toilets on airplanes were developed during WWII. The soldiers soon began calling them "whizzers" becouse of the whizzing sound the blue chemicals made. Hense the expression"taking a whiz."

Ciara Gold said...

Oh, I love that bit of trivia, Mesadallas. Hmmm, but wouldn't want to be in "bombing" range during previous wars. Ugh.

Ellen O'Connell said...

As I've said before, I come down on the realistic side in my books, so all three of mine mention bodily functions, but it's definitely a slide-by non-detail subject to avoid the eww factor. I remember reading that those wonderful luxury Canadian trains still dumped waste on the tracks in what would have been the 80's I think.

I'm about ready to give up on my apostrophe.

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hi, Ciara,

Trains in southeast Asia still have this sort of toilet...

I find it fascinating that so many of you grew up with outhouses. I first met them at girl scout camp - and didn't think much of them, I can tell you!

Jacquie Rogers said...

I'm still laughing at the glowing poop from the flashlight.

Has no one mentioned the Sears catalogue or fighting over the tissue pages? Not wanting to use the glossy pages? My job was to dump lime in. We had an indoor bathroom but you had to clean up to go in the house and when you're working with animals, that's just not practical. So we used the outhouse. When it's 105 in the shade and there's no shade (or breeze), the smell can get pretty potent. Lime, lime, lime! Also, I learned how to do my business in a hurry, holding my breath the whole time.

Outhouse scenes--I have one in each of the first two Hearts of Owyhee books , but removed the scene in the third one just because I worried that it was too much of a good thing. LOL.

Ellen, you might try a hyphen instead of an apostrophe--I think blogger hates them.

Ciara Gold said...

Yes, and if you didn't have the catalogue handy, or prior to paper of any kind, there was always a big leaf. Just make sure it ain't poison ivy and all is well with the outdoor world. Too funny.