Growing up in a small island fishing village in the 1950s , we lacked many modern day amenities.
We got our first refrigerator when I turned 14, the year my baby sister was born. Before that, there was an icebox…literally a box with a block of ice inside it…on the side of the house and the old bucket down the well trick where the cool waters from our spring fed dug well kept perishables at a temperature just above food poisoning levels.
Looking back, we were poor, as were many families, but, at the time, we didn’t think we were poor.
Indoor plumbing was a luxury back then, and many people had outhouses. My grandmother was one of them.
Chamber pots, likely unheard of in today’s ‘polite society’, were a necessity, and each bed held one discreetly stashed underneath.Some looked like huge porcelain teacups…which often would have a lid. Others were lidded metal pails. Both were meant to be used at night when it was too dark, cold or inconvenient to run outside to the outhouse.
Outhouses themselves varied, depending on the builders and the users. Some were quite rustic and basic…nothing more than a small cramped building with a simple bench into which was cut a hole on which to sit and ‘do your business’.
Others were a tad fancier, with reading material such as Readers Digest, and more often than not The T. Eaton and Sears Roebuck catalogues…which often served double purpose.
A few had a small window, more often than not a hole covered with metal screen, with a hand sewn curtain tacked up, or hung on a piece of string, meant to provide a sense of decorum during one’s performance.
Still others would have the oft seen crescent moon cut in the door. There are many stories concerning the meaning behind the use of this particular cutout shape, but I expect the main reason was to provide light and ventilation while still providing a modicum of privacy.
My grandmother’s outhouse was a two seater. There were a few reasons for this….but I find it doubtful that one of them was for a shared experience with a friend or partner! Some things just are not meant to be shared!!
In this case, one seat was smaller than the other…for children I imagine, as she’d had six children and dozens of grandchildren long before she had indoor plumbing.
Alternating the seat being used would also provide a longer life for the depository, as it meant a larger pit…and less frequent shovelling out…as unpleasant a task as one can imagine, and perhaps the reason they were often just moved.
Many people in the village had outhouses and there were a few that were often the fodder for Hallowe’en pranksters. Decorated with of all sorts of items and trims, ropes tying doors shut, and alas…the toppled outhouse. Ah, the havoc that caused…particularly if pranksters were fortunate to find one in use at the time of said toppling. Of course I have no first hand knowledge of such antics, but …if I did, the stories would go with me to the grave.
The largest, but certainly not the most pleasant, of all the outhouses i grew up being intimately familiar with, was the one at our school.
A three classroom school that housed kindergarten (primary in Nova Scotia) through Grade 12, those outhouses were the things of childhood nightmares…and serious sinus problems.
At the back of the school, with a corridor like hallway separating them were two ‘lean tos’ …one for boys and the other for girls. I don’t recall exactly how many seats were housed in each 8, 12? I imagine it was closer to 5 or 6…I never was in there long enough to count. In the winter the seats were crusted with ice crystals and you could see your breath it was so cold in there. Then, in summer, before school let out, there wasn’t enough lime, ashes or sawdust to keep the smell at bay. A dab of Noxema® on the tip of your nose helped, but the stench was nauseating. There were the days when I ran all the way home at recess or lunchtime rather than risk my senses in that horrid place.
Another thing that all of these little shack’s out back had in common was that they were cold and drafty…the worst of which was the updraft. Oh my word!!! Those were the things from which kidney infections were born and hinnies frost bitten if you sat too long!
Outhouse is a common surname where I originate from….seriously. Some of the lineage have changed their surname over the years, others have embraced the family name and allowed it to be more of a motivator than an obstacle. I have a friend with the surname who happens to be a lawyer. The sign for his law practice is one of the most photographed signs in that area of the country….he is as proud of his name and heritage as he is of the QC (Queen’s Counsel) after that name.
My husband and I have an off grid cabin that happens to be my favourite place on earth. A few years ago we installed a propane toilet, but we also built ourselves a new outhouse to replace the small aged one that was there when we bought the place. It is quite palatial as outhouses go. It has a hand washing station, two small windows, one at each end, proper venting, a 160+ year old stained glass window, and we even built a Dutch door so that you can sit and enjoy the “Loo with a View”.
We have many names for our ‘shack out back’, and a few years ago a friend made a sign with a few of those names. It hangs proudly on the end of the “privy.”
So, whether you call it a “Poop Palace”, “Dunny”, “Biffy”, “Backhouse”, or “Shithouse”, long before indoor plumbing, even kings and queens made good use of the humble chamber pot and outhouse.
Poems, books and even songs have been written in it’s honour. It has been a place of quiet contemplation and brilliant eureka moments. Problems have been solved, plots hatched and proposals practiced….. all in a small, unassuming and humble building.
It was not beneath your ancestors who used it….well actually it was….but you know what I mean….so the next time you turn your nose up at the idea of using one, consider this: Is it the thought, or the smell, that caused that upturned nose?….because my outhouse…and what it holds, definitely does not stink .