Thursday, July 11, 2013

Outhouses in the Old West by Jacquie Rogers #western @JacquieRogers

Outhouses in the Old West
by Moriah McCormick 

Have you ever wondered about outhouses? Growing up, my family and I did a lot of camping and at most camping sights there were outhouses available for use. My grandpa even had one on his farm. To me, outhouses were just a part of life. Nothing else.

It wasn’t until I moved to “The Big City” that I realized that not everyone thought that outhouses were commonplace structures. My friends would look at me strangely when I mentioned my grandpa’s outhouse and they’d tease me about how I was living in the wrong era, but invariably they’d start asking questions about them. I didn’t know how to answer these queries because an outhouse was a place to do your business and that was that.

When I was seventeen I went on a week long camping trip to Silver City, Idaho, where I saw a two-story outhouse. It triggered every question that my friends had ever asked me and a few of my own as well. For instance, what about that poor fellow on the ground floor? It was time to find some answers.

Crescent Moon
In modern day, there are men’s and women’s restrooms, but in all the pictures you see only one outhouse. Why? Also why was there a crescent moon on all of the outhouses? Conveniently for me those two questions can be answered at the same time.

An outhouse was made for privacy, but without a window how would light get in? Cutting a shape above eye level let in light but still allowed the users their modesty. In public places, a person could usually find two outhouses next to each other: one would have a carving of the crescent moon the sign for women, the men's would have a star.

Apparently the sanitation and maintenance of the men’s outhouses were not always on par with the women’s, and sometime in the early to mid 19th century, men began using the women’s outhouses and leaving the star behind.

But wait!  What about toilet paper?  Corncobs or paper (from whatever magazine or catalog available) had to suffice in the first half of the 19th century.  

Toilet Paper

In 1857, Joseph C. Gayetty introduced the first paper specifically for this purpose, Gayetty's Medicated Papers, also called therapeutic papers.  Rolled toilet paper wasn't invented until 25 years later, and wasn't commercially available to the mass market until the 1890s.

How did you keep down the inevitable foul smell of an outhouse so that a person could use it without throwing up? And what happens when it fills up?

Controlling the odor of an outhouse was a full time job. A bag of lime with a scoop was usually placed in the corner.  After every use you sprinkle a scoop of lime in the hole as a chaser to keep down the smell.  As for what happens when the outhouse gets full, easy—you simply dig a new hole, move the outhouse over it, and fill the old hole with dirt. This is a good place to plant a flowerbed or a tree.

Two-story outhouse in Silver City, Idaho
The two-story outhouse perplexed me the most. How in the world would you use the top without making a mess on the person below? It turns out that the seats were staggered and the top seat was placed farther back than the one on the bottom.  In the lower outhouse there was a wall placed behind the seat so that the occupants wouldn’t be defiled by the contents falling from above (thankfully).

Apparently I’m not the only person who thinks about outhouses. I Googled “outhouse” and was slammed with thousands of sights.

Do you like music?  Here's an outhouse song:

Anything you want to know about outhouses, you'll probably find on the Outhouses of America Tour website. Don't overlook the trivia and FAQ pages.

You just know Legends of America will have something to say on this topic. Take a look at their Outhouses of the American West pages (five of them).

A fun site to visit (and to send your outhouse photos and anecdotes) is They refer to the Legends of America site for the history, but this site offers photos, stories, and "misc. crap" (which has nothing to do with anything, but fun if you like disgusting humor).

Outhouses have long been a convenient source of good old American humor, the most often used is privy-tipping.  Outhouse scenarios are frequent in shoot-outs because they lend a little comic relief to an otherwise very tense "sit"-uation.  Yes, there's outhouse humor in nearly all my books--didn't realize that until now!

Here’s a snippet from
Much Ado About Madams
by Jacquie Rogers

Reese took aim, but lowered his rifle when he realized Buster was stabled just the other side of the wall. The .54 caliber bullet would go right though the man and the barn wall. Desperately, he searched for another way to take out the gunman. He ran to the outhouse and threw himself to the ground.

Gunfire stopped, and Reese’s skin crawled. Maybe his men had been shot. Maybe they were reloading. Praying for the latter, he positioned himself into a crouch, ready to spring. Seconds passed. The odor of the privy didn’t help his patience a bit. He made a note to tell Sadie to use more lime. Lots more lime.
♥ ♥ ♥
Hearts of Owyhee
Where the Old West really happened!
Much Ado About Marshals
Much Ado About Madams
Much Ado About Mavericks


Unknown said...

All right, Jacquie -- I suppose I'm going to have to admit stalking you all over the web. Your blog posts never fail to amuse and enlighten. Who else would write about outhouses, for heaven's sake? :-D


Anonymous said...

Loved it, Jacquie.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Jacquie, what a great post. My grandparents had an outhouse until they moved to town when I was six. My mom was full of cautionary tales and told me of a kid who fell through the outhouse hole and drowned in poop. I refused to use the outhouse after that and did my business in the open behind the outhouse or in a chamber pot in the house. Yes, I was a wuss as a kid--probably still am.

mesadallas said...

The Romans used to have public outhouses. If you went in to urinate you went in a large jar that was later collected by tanners who used the urine to tan animal hides. To clean yourself there was a container of vinegar in which you would find a stick with a sponge stuck on the end. Not a bad idea except everyone used the same sponge.

mesadallas said...

Also, when I went to Mount Vernon the tour included the outhouse. Instead of digging a hole George Washington had the waste go into separate containers which were then disposed of away from the house. I think I remember hearing that the feces was used as fertilizer in the fields but I may be wrong about that.

Jacquie Rogers said...

Tex, when you gotta go, you gotta go. Since outhouses seem to find their way into my books, I figured I might as well blog about them. :)

Thanks for stopping by, Charlene!

Caroline, I was always afraid of falling in, too. Also, I was afraid there'd be snakes under the seat. Makes it kind of hard to do your business when you're all tense. LOL

Mesadallas, blech on sharing the same sponge!!! GW was on to something there--get the stinky stuff away from the house. I just wouldn't want to be the poor sap who had to haul it.

HurricaneReads said...

great blog and I wish I still in play the use of lime at the campground outhouses

Ellen O'Connell said...

The poor sap who had to haul it would have been a slave and not entitled to an opinion on the subject.

I don't remember outhouses with any fondness but do remember taking a deep breath and running, trying to get in and out before having to breathe again (without success). Can't remember seeing lime around or being told to use it. Can remember the stink. Of course today's porta-potties at a lot of outdoor events are just as disgusting.

Jacquie Rogers said...

Mercedes, thanks for stopping by!

Ellen, 'tis true--no choice.

And I also remember a few outhouses that had a real stench, especially the ones that weren't properly maintained. Ick.

mesadallas said...

The tour guide at Mount Vernon told us the outhouse waste was collected everyday so it wouldn't have been any worse than emptying a chamber pot which most everyone had indoors. I've often wondered why most people didn't make their outhouses the way they did at Mount Vernon. It certainly makes more sense to have the waste go into a container and then dispose of it away from the house. You not only remove the horrendous odor, but the unsightly view is eliminated. It was obviously a much better hygienic system than just digging a hole behind the house and waiting for it to fill up. Plus, it wasn't all that clever to think up- you'd think a lot of people would have had the same idea.

Jacquie Rogers said...

The only reason I could think of would be that it's more labor-intensive. With a traditional outhouse, all you have to do is dig a new hole once a year. But GW's method certainly does make more sense.

Anonymous said...

Loved this post, Jacquie---very informative for writers of historical novels! It does remind me, however, that when I moved to Britain way back when, they still had outside toilets (although flush of course by then; I'm not that old!) Anyway, the joke always was, "I'm not having that dirty thing in my house!"

Meg said...

LOL!!! you're always great at picking out the funniest topics. I was such a rube, I had no idea what that skinny building with the crescent moon on it was for... until someone told me. I was an adult before necessity forced me to use one at a Girl Scout camp. Ugh. No lime bucket there.

Jacquie Rogers said...

Andrea, we have a funny story in our family about that. My dad and grandpa wanted to surprise my great-grandmother with an indoor bathroom. They bought all the supplies, and on Mother's Day, took the truckload of building materials, the toilet, bathtub, and sink, plus plumbing materials. When they told her what they planned to do, she ran them off with a broom. She said no one was going to do their business in her house, and made it very clear that she thought the whole notion was downright nasty. They finally built an outbuilding and installed the bathroom there, and she was okay with that. But not in her house!

Jacquie Rogers said...

Meg, a lot of people don't know what those little buildings are for. If you've always had the use of indoor facilities, there's no reason to know--unless you write Westerns. :) Just like I had no idea what a traffic light was until I was in jr. high. Had never seen one except on TV, and I thought that was made up. LOL

Lauri said...

Loved this! I always wondered about those two story ones! I just finished an Alaskan gold rush story where the heroine finds gold beneath the outhouse. :)

Jacquie Rogers said...

Haha! What a fun story, Laurie. :) I'll definitely want to read that one. Let us know when it comes out.

Lyn Horner said...

Fun post, Jacquie! I remember using an outhouse once or twice as a kid, but I can't recall where it was. Maybe somewhere in Minnesota where my mom's family lived and where I grew up. But my relatives up there all lived in town and had the modern conveniences. The only other possibility I can think of was our trip to Texas when I was about six or seven years old. My grandmother lived in town, so I doubt it was at her place. But we stopped to visit my dad's brother in Missouri on our way back north. I think he and his family lived in the country, so they might have had an outhouse. Wish I could remember!

Jacquie Rogers said...

Lyn, maybe it's your subconscious defense mechanisms preventing you from remembering. LOL. Glad you stopped by!