By Chet DeLarm
My family just returned from a short vacation to the Tetons and Yellowstone Nat’l Park, where outhouses are actually the most practical ‘restroom’ option available as water and power supplies are limited. You may wrinkle your nose at the thought of using a smelly old s***house, but when the urge hits, odds are you will hold your breath and open that door anyway!
After doing just that in Yellowstone, it made me think about the luxury of indoor plumbing that we take for granted today—and wonder how we evolved to realize that we had to do something about our stinky poo. Well, here’s the scoop on poop!
The Romans suspended a seat over a flowing stream. The Chinese built sit-down ‘facilities’ that dumped into their pigsties. (Yes, pigs apparently love poo, but let’s keep moving on.) In the 1600’s the chamber pots and ‘necessary rooms’ typically dumped their waste into the streets of the town. Around 1870, the frontier outhouse let us have some privacy and contain the smell—and we just relocated the flimsy outhouse when the existing hole got full. Simple! But the wealthy, including Thomas Jefferson, favored the legendary “brick s***house.” Much harder to move.
Even our modern ’poo paper’ was quite the welcome invention. I’m sure it was rough on the butt to wipe with leaves, corncobs and the Sears & Roebuck catalog pages (read then wipe). Joseph Gayetty created the first commercial toilet paper in 1857 and it was advertised as “the greatest necessity of the age.”
Then, the science of the early 20th century discovered the icky stuff in the poo and the outhouse was slowly abandoned in favor of indoor plumbing and municipal systems. British plumbing entrepreneur, Thomas Crapper, opened the world’s first bathroom showroom in 1870, complete with one of the first widely successful flushing toilets and a sink. (Note: As “Thomas Crapper & CO” was printed on every toilet, the soldiers took to calling toilets “The Crapper” and brought that slang term for the toilet back to the US.) Even though flushing toilets have actually been around since 1596, in 2000, 1.7 million Americans were still using outhouses in rural America (including the Amish, Preppers and the extreme poor).
If you want to build an outhouse today, you can probably do so for about $500 IF building codes allow them in your area. You can also purchase a composting toilet from Lehman’s—that’s the geek way —saves all that digging.
Lastly, why the crescent moon or star carved into every outhouse door? The consensus is that it served both as a light source and to distinguish between male/female outhouses (moon for females; star for males). It also simply could have served as a door handle. This was a lot of research, I’m pooped!
Sources: Cottagelife.com; homestead.org;smithsonianmag.com
20+ years of residential experience.