Volume VII, No. 3, Spring 1980

Ode to the Commode


Written and illustrated by by Mary Schmalstig

"It used to be that we did everything in the house except go to the toilet. We went outside to do that. Nowadays, seems like with all the barbecuing and outdoor living, we want to do everything outside--except go to the toilet." This comment by an old-timer intrigued us. At Bittersweet we've learned how women cooked, how men farmed, how children dressed and even how people bathed, but no one ever explained how, before indoor plumbing, people handled the fundamental body necessity of elimination. We began to ask questions. People always began answering us by laughing about the outhouse. "I've spent lots of time there." "My sister and I had many private talks there." "Goodness, I hated the smell and the wasps."

After the first few comments, they had lots of information. "When I started high school in Lebanon in 1921, three-fourths of the residences had outhouses. They all set at back of the block."

"It took the government regulations for grade A milk barns to get the first indoor toilets, and they weren't in the house. They were in the milk barn!"

Though some families had outdoor privies as far back as anyone remembers, others had no facilities at all. "We didn't even have an outhouse until the 1930's," one person said.

"The first outhouse we had at home," another said, "was in the 1940's when we moved to another farm. It was always a source of contention between my mother and father that we didn't have one. Dad didn't see the need. At the new farm it was located way up on a hill, and my sister was afraid to go there by herself."

In the rural Ozarks not all of the residents had outhouses, and in the country most schools and churches had no facilities. The boys went over one side of the hill and the girls the other side. There were plenty trees and brush for privacy.

On the farms buildings also gave privacy to those who needed to go behind them. Even the poorest farmstead had a smokehouse to go behind. "Further up the line if people had a henhouse, that was for the ladies and the back of the barn was for the men. When I was a kid, we used behind the chicken house which was at least seventy-five yards away."


We couldn't help but wonder about sanitation. "No problem at all, everyone had chickens that ran loose. They took care of it just as they did the cow piles. There was never any sign."

When the family did build an outhouse, they usually put it where they got used to going, usually northeast or downwind from the house behind the chicken house or garden to avoid the smell from the prevailing southwest wind.

Back when families didn't have outhouses, they had chamber pots for guests, small children, sick or elderly family members or even to avoid running out at night. Under nearly every bed there was a chamber pot. Often made of granite, usually white or gray, chamber pots came in different shapes and sizes. The size was usually eight inches high, flared in the middle, with a rolled edge for seating comfort. Since they had to be emptied each morning they had a lid, and a handle or a bail for easy carrying. Caring for them was usually the chore of the older girls, who carried them behind the henhouse to empty them, and then washed them at the well and replaced them under the bed. Small children had smaller training potties similar in shape to those used today.

Chamber pots had several nicknames, the most common being slop jars. They were also called thunder mugs or thunder jars. The idea was when someone was sitting on one and passed gas, it sounded like thunder. Even during normal use, urinating into one was noisy enough to be heard throughout a quiet house.

Sometimes when a couple got married, they received as a gift a new chamber pot filled with sugar. Though most were plain utilitarian vessels, some were fancy. One lady said, "Way back I remember some of the nicest homes that I've been in when I was a child. They had beautiful ceramic chamber pots. One had a glazed finish with flowers on the side. They had it under the guest bed in the guest room, and they expected you to use it. After you went into your bedroom at night, you didn't have to be running outside to the outhouse."

Since it was a long trip out back for the elderly, the sick and the very young, every home had one or more chamber pots hidden under the bed or behind the door. Most were simple as the one pictured above; some were fancy ceramic vessels.

Just as the people in past generations didn't speak openly about sex, they were also shy about speaking of elimination. Women were especially timid about it, acting as if such a bodily function did not exist. If there were men other than family members around, a woman did not go openly to the outhouse, for her errand would have been too obvious--what else does one do in an outhouse? She would sneak around, maybe pretending to be gathering the eggs, and when no one was looking, literally sneak to the toilet. Before leaving, she would peek out to make sure she wouldn't be seen. Sometimes a woman found herself trapped there, until in desperation she just walked out, pretending she did not see the men.

In the Ozarks the first outhouses were usually built of rough green oak, providing only the barest essentials--privacy, a place to sit and a depository. The small building, usually about four by six, was unmistakable as it stood isolated from the other farm buildings at least fifty feet from the house. The shingled roof sloped toward the back, so rain and snow would fall to the back of the outhouse instead of in front of the door.

As the oak lumber seasoned, it shrank, causing half inch to inch cracks between the boards. Some people stripped the cracks with oak strips to keep out the wind, rain and snow. Others filled the cracks, especially those near the seats on the north and west, with anything that was available--paper or old rags. Many had no stripping whatever, and would be well ventilated in the summer and very airish in the winter.


Tight houses needed some ventilation. A sort of trademark for privies was the small hole--a quarter or half moon or star cut into each side near the top for ventilation. Though no one knew for sure, most people thought the original reason for using astronomical shapes for the openings was a superstitious belief. These shapes may have had something to do with warding off evil spirits. If poorly ventilated, people simply left the door open. Usually out in the country, a person could go in without bothering to shut the door and not worry about anyone passing.

Sometimes the inside walls were papered with newspaper using a paste made of flour to put up the paper. Many times people were delayed by an eye-catching article.

Very few outhouses had windows, and some were made so a door was not needed at all. Most, however, had simple homemade oaken doors hung with barn door hinges or leather straps. They had the simplest of latches, a small piece of wood which slipped up and down. People could open and shut the door from inside or out by putting their fingers through the large crack between two boards and turning the piece of wood. Some had a metal hook on the inside to lock the door.

Though many outhouses were simple and rough built, some people built well constructed houses with purchased doors, hinges and regular door knobs like those used in the main house. These outhouses were kept in good repair and often painted to match the other buildings.

There were different sizes of the little houses depending on the size of the family. Some were two-holers; some had only one hole. But the most conventional were the houses with a big hole, a middle sized hole and a little hole, so one person wouldn't have to wait for another.

The easiest way to cut out the holes using common hand tools was to saw half of the circle from one eight inch board and the other half from another board, and then fit the two boards together to make the seat top. Instead of sawing at right angles to the wood, they sawed at a slant, sloping to fit the buttocks. Then the raw edges were smoothed out with a rasp or file, but as years went by, continual use smoothed the wooden seat.

The part cut out was tacked together with a small board which became the handle. This lid or cover fit perfectly in the hole and because of the slanted cut, would not fall in.


The sanitary toilet (above) with concrete foundations, stool and pit was an improvement over the traditional two-holer {below) with raw earth pit.

At top is a view of two holer with child's seat. Most seats were made of two boards. The part sawed out to form the holes made the lids.
With the advent of grade A milking barns, many sanitary toilets were built with screened-in vents under the roof and a single, vented and covered stool over a concrete walled-in pit.

The wooden seats were the height of a chair--usually eighteen inches from the floor for adults. If there was a child's seat it would be considerably lower--about nine inches.

Most people didn't have toilet paper A catalog or clean corncob took care of that need. Careless people just left the catalog beside the seat, but particular people hung it up. If the catalog was not hung, the chickens might make a nest out of the paper and the presence of eggs might bring snakes, skunks or other animals into the little house.

Hanging the catalog usually involved driving two nails about fourteen inches apart in the wall of the outhouse, tying a string or baling wire to each of the nails and flopping the catalog over the string. The Sears and Roebuck catalog usually hung there, but when the Sears catalog ran low a Wards would soon replace it. Years ago the catalogs didn't have as many glazed colored pages as they do now. Most of the pages were soft, but according to some people, not as soft as the white corncobs usually kept nearby. One story is that there should be two red cobs and one white one. Use the red first, and then use the white to see if you need to use another red one.


Passing of the Backhouse

by James Whitcomb Riley

When memory keeps me company and moves to smile or tears;
A weather-beaten object looms through the mist of years.
Behind the house and barn it stood, a half a mile or more,
And hurrying feet had made a path straight to its swinging door.

Its architecture was a type of simple classic art,
But in the tragedy of years it played a leading part;
And oft the passing traveler drove slow and heaved a sigh,
To see the modest hired girl step out with glances shy.

We had our posey garden that the women loved so well;
I loved it too, but better still I loved the stronger smell,
That filled the evening breezes so full of homely cheer;
And told the night-o'ertaken tramp that human life was near.

On lazy August afternoons, it made a little bower,
Delightful where my grandsire sat and whiled away an hour.
For there the summer mornings its every cares entwined,
And berry bushes reddened in the steaming soil behind.

All day fat spiders spun their webs to catch the buzzing flies,
That flitted to and from the house where Ma was making pies;
And once a swarm of hornets bold built a palace there;
And stung my unsuspecting aunt--I must not tell you where.

Then father took a flaming pole--that was a happy day--
He nearly burned the building up, but the hornets left to stay.
When summer bloom began to fade and winter to carouse;
We banked the little building with a heap of hemlock boughs.

But when the crust was on the snow and the sullen skies were gray,
In sooth the building was no place where one would wish to stay,
We did our duties promptly, there one purpose swayed the mind,
We tarried not, nor lingered long on what we left behind.

The torture of that icy seat would make a Spartan sob;
For needs must scrape the goose flesh with a lacerating cob
That from a frost-encrusted nail was suspended by a string--
My father was a frugal man who wasted not a thing.

When grandpa had to go out back and make his morning call,
We'd bundle up the dear old man with a muffler and a shawl.
I know the seat on which he sat--'twas padded all around,
And once I dared to sit there--'twas all too wide, I found.

My loins were all too little and I jack-knifed there to stay.
They had to come and get me or I'd have passed away.
Then father said ambition was a thing that boys should shun.
And I just used the children's hole till childhood days were done

And still I marvel at the craft that cut those holes so true.
The baby hole--the slender hole that fitted Sister Sue.
That dear old country landmark--I've tramped around a bit--
And in the lap of luxury my lot has been to sit.

But ere I die I'll eat the fruit the trees I robbed of yore;
Then seek the shanty where my name is carved upon the door.
I ween that old familiar smell will soothe my faded soul,
I'm now a man, but none the less I'll try the children's hole.

[This poem was orginally embedded within an image]



An old bucket full of wood ashes or lime sat in the corner to spread periodically over the matter as a disinfectant and to keep down the flies and odor. Since at that time everyone burned wood and had plenty of ashes most people used wood ashes because lime had to be purchased.

Often people laid down boards to make a walkway to the outhouse, for if there was a yard fence, the outhouse was usually beyond it. Chickens that ran everywhere usually kept the grass and weeds down, so these boards laid on top of the ground helped keep feet cleaner when it was muddy. The boards that rotted out were easily replaced. At that time anyone could pick up slabs of wood for free at the sawmills located in most neighborhoods. Fastidious housekeepers swept the path with a buckbrush broom whether it was bare dirt or boards to make it safe for bare feet. During the winter the first snow removed was from the path to the outhouse.

A school outhouse was usually larger and better constructed than one on a farm. They were usually two or three holes, one high place for the tallest person to sit on and a drop off with a small hole for the young children. There were nearly always two outhouses, one for the girls and the other for the boys. The outhouses were usually turned with doors opening toward the woods with the girls' over at one far side of the schoolground and the boys' way to the opposite side. For more privacy the school board often built an L-shaped entrance blind. The outhouse was a popular gathering place--a place for gossip and misinformation. Girls could talk about the boys without danger of being overheard, for the teachers were very strict about boys not going anywhere near the girls' outhouse. The boys' house was their social center--a place to sneak smokes and scare the younger boys.

One of the simplest ways to construct an outhouse was to lay down four flat rocks as a foundation and build a house on top of them. There was a definite disadvantage to this, however, as even though the matter that fell to the ground partially deteriorated, flies and rodents swarmed the outhouse.

Another more sanitary way was to dig a pit under the seat. This pit, with proper use of ashes or lime, could be compared to a septic tank except there was no water but what might seep or drain in. For optimum sanitation a few people poured a concrete wall around the pit. This wall not only served as a foundation for the house but also prevented rodents from getting into the pit.

One of the big improvements in outhouse construction was in the 1930's during the days of the Work Project Administration, a government project to employ people during the Depression. One of the projects was to build sanitary outhouses. Since every outhouse built had to meet special specifications, they were all made the same. The walls were covered so there were no cracks where the boards met. Many people stripped the cracks or used clap boards or lumber cut by the tongue and groove method. The roof of the W. P. A. outhouse was designed so the house would be well ventilated. In the space just under the slanted roof on each side of the building there were two screened-in openings.

There were wooden forms available for loan for builders to use to pour the concrete pit walls and foundation, floor and seat. The seat covers themselves were made of wood for greater comfort with hinged wooden lids so they could be shut for complete fly and rodent control.

Though the outhouses built by W. P. A. specifications were durable, sanitary and required very little maintenance other than an occasional sweeping, many houses were carelessly made, requiring periodic cleaning.

Sometimes the bottom few inches of the back of the outhouse was left open, but if the back was boarded up, it was often a separate board that could be taken off so the matter that built up could be raked out and hauled away like chicken manure. As the matter built up, it would naturally accumulate in one spot. As it reached the seat opening at the top, it had to be pushed aside and covered with ashes or lime.


Gone are the days of the girls' privy on one back corner of the one-room rural school yard and the boys' on the opposite corner, but a few buildings still stand, the L-shaped blind screening the view of the entrance.

Those houses that had dug pits could hardly be cleaned out. After several years' use when the pit filled up, the usual thing was to dig another pit nearby and move the house over. We heard a story of one family moving their house. That night when the father came home, he couldn't find it.

Because of their small size and lack of foundation, outhouses were especially tempting to Halloween trickers. Some of the favorite pranks were to turn one over so it sat on its roof, or to move it straight back several feet. Another was to move it down to Main Street and set it up in the middle of the intersection or just prop it up on top of a building.

There have even been times when the house was turned over with someone in it. One man knew just how to fight back. Each Halloween the kids would turn over all the toilets in the neighborhood and push his off the cliff, so one time he fooled them. He moved the toilet back down the path two feet and sat down inside to wait. When the boys came to turn the toilet over in the dark, he watched them step in the open hole where the outhouse once was.

Almost everyone who has used outhouses regularly can remember incidents of being imprisoned inside by a snake across the door, sitting on the throne and glancing up to see a skunk staring down from a crossboard or getting stung you-know-where by wasps or mud daubers which loved to build their nests in the privies. For night use wise people brought a light to assure all was clear or simply "went on the outside."

Though outdoor privies were an improvement over the commode under the bed, and though people laugh while telling some of the amusing episodes concerning outhouses, no one is nostalgic about their passing. In fact, people experienced a great deal of satisfaction--not to mention comfort--when during the fifties and sixties many rural residents in the Ozarks installed indoor plumbing which outdated the commode and outhouse. The familiar little houses still standing behind older farm houses are usually in disrepair or filled with junk, saved from being torn down by cautious people who want them "just in case the electricity goes off or the water pump breaks down."


Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.

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