Dusting off the Outhouse Trivia

After a lazy weekend of what Hubby calls “fiddlin’ around,” I did manage to get some reading done, plus I baked some brownies he could take to the board meeting of the “Forum for Questioning Minds” he had to attend while I stayed home writing this, the kind of things “questioning minds” really want to know. Friday when I was dusting I found this old book about American outhouses I’d bought  several years ago at the Spring Mountain Ranch State Park in Las Vegas with plans to read it . . . someday. 

The glossy cover of The Vanishing American Outhouse, by Ronald S. Barlow would catch not just mine, but the eye of anyone who enjoys weird and unconventional reading material, especially anyone who has ever had to actually use one in his/her lifetime, and those folks are dwindling in number each year. In addition to the photographs, many in full color, it contains privy plans outlined with full particulars and issued by the U.S. Surgeon General of 1928.  

I learned quite a bit poring through its pages, even without much said about Thomas Crapper, whom every trivia buff recognizes. For instance, Lem Putts, who specialized in the early 1900’s at building outhouses in rural America offered the following reasoning in answer to the question of should the door open inward or outward? on page 24 of The Specialist.

“It should open in! This is  the way it works: Place yourself in there. The door openin’ in, say about forty-five degrees. This gives you air and lets the sun beat in. Now, if you hear anybody comin’, you can give it a quick shove with your foot and there you are. But if she swings out, where are you? You can’t run the risk of havin’ her open for air or sun, because if anyone comes, you can’t get up off the seat, reach way around and grab ‘er without gettin’ caught, now can you? “

Another thing to think about from the old days: When people traveled by automobile before modern highways and roadsides proliferated with McDonald’s and other fast food and rest stops, where did people do it when they had to go? People like my father who found themselves driving to Jacksonville with four children in the car to visit the aunts were known to park the car on the side of the road. Then whoever couldn’t hold it ’til we got there hightailed it to the wire fences between the highway and woods, hoisted him or herself over and squatted behind the biggest tree or fattest palmetto bush he or she could find.

But that was on the backroads in rural Florida. In the big world of busier highways, there were actually outhouses to accommodate larger numbers, as many as six at a time, shown in a picture in the book. MEN or WOMEN were painted on the front doors by sign painters who made their living traveling with their paint cans and brushes. These public service toilets were sometimes equipped corn cobs, which could be arguably dubbed the original “colored” toilet paper by virtue of their natural–not dyed–colors of red, white or green. They sound scratchy, but if they were freshly dried, corncobs were relatively soft, and slightly preferable to the second choice of old catalogs. The black and white pages worked better than the slick, colored pages. 

And what about  prisoners in jails? Where did they go? Well, when a prisoner had to go, he would call out “take me to de potty,” and then special sheriffs assistants would take them to the outhouse and wait while they did their duty, and then bring them back. Naturally these assistants soon became known as “De Potty Sheriffs” which, according to Privy, Outhouse, Backhouse, John by Wellington Durst evolved into the “Deputy Sheriffs” of today.

There! Now that I’ve told you more than you probably ever wanted to know about outhouses in general, don’t you feel smart? In fact, as one fairly bursting with random and unnecessary trivia about all kinds of subjects, I propose some television producer, an up-and-coming Merv Griffin of tomorrow, come up with a new game show that might use all these useless bits of knowledge.

Let’s say the winning $128,000 question ($64,000 adjusted for inflation–I’m not greedy) is How many  baths did Queen Isabella of Spain have before she died? You’d watch me on a show like that, wouldn’t you? Maybe I’ll be back with the answer after another weekend of reading, or another google search. Or you could just look here and find out for yourself. There’s so much more stuff out there just waiting for me. Or perhaps another book in my personal library. But It will just have to wait, I guess, until I dust again!

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4 thoughts on “Dusting off the Outhouse Trivia

  1. Pingback: Grandma Henke » Our Out House By The Shore

  2. amazing the fascination toilets have for all of us. My first experience with an outhouse is a long story I’m not ready to talk about. I encountered the second one in 1955, in Colorado, on a roadtrip. We stopped at one of those long gone general stores where they had electric lights and an electric cooler. When I asked for the toilet they sent me out back to an outhouse. Electricity, but no plumbing; this city girl couldn’t understand it.

    • What amazes me, Ruthe, is that it was 1955! Even we had an indoor toilet by around 1950 (!) and my area of the south stayed depressed much longer than I’d
      imagine other parts of the U.S. Nice to hear from you!

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