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  • Writer's picturekiehart

Privy Please

For starters, an outhouse is not to be confused with an outbuilding. Sheds, garages, and barns are types of outbuildings. Outhouses are toilets located outside of the main living area.

In Calico Lane I write about my grandparents' homes. Both homes included privies or outhouses.

An uncle once told his story of a dark winter night in the 1930s. Wearing just a sleep shirt, his bare feet crunched the snow as he skipped outside to the privy only to find the outhouse occupied. He jumped up and down yelling, "Spiashaisia, spiashaisia!" (Hurry up, hurry up! ). His father's gravelly voice replied, "Cho tam?" (Who's there?) My uncle turned and ran back into the house because he knew he'd be spanked for rushing his father.

Mom's family (Fedorchaks) nearly double the size of Dad's (Kieharts) had a 3 x 3-foot single hole outhouse. Dad's family's outhouse was much larger, probably 7 x 5-foot, and had two holes. One would think it'd be the other way around as the number of Fedorchaks was greater than the number of Kieharts. But dad's childhood home included tenants. When I asked why his outhouse had two holes, Dad replied matter-of-factly, "A large hole for adults, the smaller one for children."

Back in the day, Dad said a bucket of lime was kept in the corner of the privy. Users were reminded to scoop a bit of powdered lime with a can and sprinkle it into the pit. On laundry days, the leftover wash water was poured over the floor and bench area for cleansing, followed with splashes of rinse water. Those outhouses were not comparable to today's composting toilets or chemical toilets.

The early pioneers and cowboys used leaves of the mullein plant and handfuls of straw as paper options. Later, newspaper and magazine pages were used to clean oneself. It's said that during the 17th century, French cabinet makers invented the bidet; they are popular in several countries today (France, Japan, and Italy to name a few) and are slowly becoming popular in the United States. But, I digress.

One and two-hole privies are most common, but there are also three-and-more-hole outhouses; there is reportedly an existing eight-seater somewhere in Pennsylvania.

And there are two-story outhouses as well! These were referred to as "double deckers." They were commonplace on restaurant and apartment properties as early as the mid-1800s. I saw my first two-story outhouse in St. Elmo, Colorado. It was located at the back of a large structure (probably an apartment building) in the rural mountain mining ghost town. In Crested Butte, Colorado, a two-story outhouse has a "Mine Boss" sign on the upper room, and the bottom room is labeled "Miners".

Almost all outhouses are wood, but there are reports of a brick outhouse in Virginia.I have never seen one, but I hear there are 'squat toilet' outhouses--a hole in the ground that one squats over, enclosed by a wooded structure. For some reason, that freaks me out more than sitting on a wooden bench with a sawed-out circle.

A cutout symbol on the door of an outhouse indicated whether it was a ladies' room (moon) or a men's room (star or sun), my guess is that any hole would do in most situations.

In my grandparents' towns, these pit latrines were abandoned when the town's sewer lines were mandated sometime in the 1960s, but dad's family's privy was still in service in the 1990s, according to a cousin who lived in the house.

I've seen some outhouses with porcelain seats and lids affixed to the chamber hole of the wood base. For years, my wife and I took photos of outhouses we'd see on the properties we appraised or when trekking in the mountains. Some had been converted to tool sheds or gardening sheds and were brightly painted and decorated with baskets of dried flowers and wall hangings.

When snowshoeing or hiking in the Colorado mountains, every once in a while we'd come upon a pit latrine. A welcomed site. The issue with these outhouses, especially in the summer heat, is the stench and flies. If the hole has a lid, closing it after use will keep the flys and odors at bay. But not everyone is aware of this courtesy.

Today, outdoor enthusiasts typically carry sanitation kits for keeping with the "pack it in, pack it out" forest service mantra.

And, I'll close by saying, "There's no place like home."

Rear view of a two-story outhouse. An engineering feat where a wall separates the poop chute from the first-floor toilet area. Both privies can be occupied at the same time. St. Elmo Colorado.

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