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Fun Outhouse Trivia

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Fun Outhouse Trivia

It’s hard to imagine having to grab a lantern and head outside, no matter what the season, temperature or weather conditions, to “take care of business.”  But that’s exactly what many folks in Colonial times had to do. While outhouses are still in existence today, we thankfully rely on the comforts of indoor plumbing.

Here are some fun facts and trivia about outhouses.

Why Are There Holes In Outhouse Doors?

There are many theories on why holes were cut in outhouse doors and the significance of their shape.

One theory is that the holes in the doors of outhouses were designed to let light from a lantern shine out at night. This would alert everyone that the outhouse was occupied.

It was believed the reason for the hole was to differentiate which outhouse was for the men and which was for the women, although this is disputed. Supposedly, the women’s had a crescent Moon cut into its door and the men’s had a star. If there were both shapes? It was to be used by the whole family.

The more popular belief is that the crescent shape was simply a way to open and close the door from the inside, as it seemed using expensive latching hardware would be waste on such a humble structure. Even when latches were added, the crescent Moon tradition lived on and is now a signature decoration for this piece of Americana.

What Size Were Outhouses?

Outhouses were usually 3 to 4 feet square by 7 feet high with no window or heat. A well-built outhouse usually had a vent along the roof to vent out the chamber and a pipe from the box through the ceiling to vent out the gases. To avoid the odor reaching the home, most outhouses were built between 50 and 150 feet from the main house, often facing away from the house. They had either one or two chamber holes inside  — one for the adults and a smaller one for the children.

WC Builders?

Teams of outhouse builders built most of the outhouses in rural areas during Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration – the WPA — which employed millions of out of work men. This project was not without its controversy, however, as its critics complained of wasteful government spending. Others praised the program for helping to create better standards of hygiene in these rural areas.

“Out Back”

Did you know: Outhouses were often referred to “backhouses” because they were located “out back” from the main house.

53 comments

1 Susan Higgins { 05.06.19 at 4:14 pm }

Betty, Oh my goodness! Thank you for sharing.

2 Betty { 05.04.19 at 8:27 pm }

We had a one-holer until the mid 50s with the usual catalogs for TP. I can remember it being moved to various places around the yard. Years later a lilac bush grew huge and tall like a tree and we realized the roots must have grown into an old pit which fertilized it. The following story however took place at a friend’s cabin with an outhouse. During a picnic where much beer was imbibed someone hollered that there was a snake down the hole. One fellow grabbed his shotgun. One blast killed the snake but caused an eruption of the contents of the pit. Took a while to get the outhouse and the guy cleaned up with much laughter. He never did live that down.

3 Ruth { 05.04.19 at 2:40 pm }

My family…mother, father, and eight kids, used the outhouse on our farm until October, 1954 when Hurricane Hazel blew it down. It was then that my Dad had an indoor toilet installed in our basement…and a shower. But there was no full bathroom upstairs until the 1960s. My mother provided a chamber pot to use at night if necessary. And yes, our toilet paper was catalogs, newspaper, magazines in the outhouse! Lots of reading material, but what kid sat long enough to read!!

4 Judy { 08.19.18 at 9:50 am }

I grew up with out houses most of my life we also pumped water when we got electricity we also acquired a gadget called an electric donut you filled your tub with water put the donut into water plugged it in pull it up drain it check your water temp when hot enough unplug drain set in sink yo dry we thought we were rich lol

5 Susan Higgins { 08.10.18 at 9:00 am }

Hi Jeff, that story is the BEST we’ve heard! Thank you for sharing, and thanks for the laugh!

6 Jeff S. { 08.08.18 at 2:17 pm }

My mother in law tells a story about her grandmother that used to use a neighborhood outhouse. One night she went out without a light and sat right down on someone’s lap. She nervously said “Henry is that you?” (hoping it was her husband), but there was no reply. She pulled up her drawers and dashed out. When she returned home, she found Henry in bed asleep. She never found out who the mystery occupant was. I imagine it might have been difficult for her to look her neighbors in the eye after that.

7 M14Bull { 06.01.18 at 7:31 am }

The “4-holer” or the “1-2-3” trench from the days of USMC and Viet Nam. The days when you “wrote” your name in the snow or heavy frost. The story of my aunt being trapped in the outhouse by a snake. But the least appreciated task was cleaning the “honey-buckets” a duty reserved for punishment!

8 Andrew Joseph Guba, Sr. { 05.06.18 at 8:43 am }

When I was in college I was apart of a research team that had gone to Halliburton Forest and Wildlife Reserve in Ontario, Canada for the summer. While there we were in a remote camp and we had two outhouses one for the guys and one for the girls. Additionally, we had to draw water from a well on the other side of the forest and haul it in. Our baths were taken by heating up some water in a metal tub, rinsing, lathering up, and then usually jumping in the lake to rinse off. It wasn’t that bad and many of us didn’t mind the simple way of living; but this isn’t for everyone as they prefer their modern creature comforts.

9 Chester { 05.02.18 at 3:56 pm }

Grab a lantern and head outside? At night we used bedpans when I was a kid and stayed at camp where there was an outhouse.

10 Betty { 05.02.18 at 11:19 am }

I am 36 and I used an outhouse until I was 15 and we drew water from a well and I didn’t have cable, we had antenna and our TV was black and white. When I was 15 we finally moved into a trailer that had indoor plumbing. It was definitely a luxury. Where I had lived before the city only ran water to the bottom of the mountain but not up the mountain. Then when we moved we still lived in the country but the city did run water up there. We still had antenna though. We did get a colored tv when our black and white one broke

11 Walt { 01.22.18 at 3:22 pm }

I am in my late 70’s and only used them when we went camping at a state park in the mountains. A friend told me that his family went to visit a part of their family that lived in their home “with chickens and other livestock” in Arkansas whom they had never visited before the trip and he (aged 16) needed to “use the facilities”. He could’nt find the ‘bathroom’ and discreetly asked his aunt where it was, was told “out back” and after searching outside and not finding “it” returned to the house and after enquiring further “where ?” was told by his aunt “ANYWHERE”! Later, when his family was invited to stay overnight, his parents cordially declined the offer which did not offend his younger siblings!????????????????????????????????????. I believe an ‘outhouse’ would have been a step up ????

12 PERNRIDER43 { 01.04.18 at 10:21 pm }

Being in my mid 70’s, I have seen and used several out houses during my life. Some were at Scout or other Camps, in the country, at cabins, in foreign countries, even looked at a book that had all kinds of them in it – single story and two story types(2 story one for when the snow got too high to use the bottom part.), single, two, three, four hole ones. I guess that just about anything that was needed in a facility was made to do the job. Usually there was TP available to use after doing your business. Saw a lot of different ones where they were needed. I remember the one in the Elvis movie “Follow That Dream” from 1962 and the Kwimper Family had a unusual one with a tank to flush the JOHN but the pressure just wasn’t right (funny things happened when used). Well that is enough from this old man, that is older then dirt. God Bless everyone. Don’t remember what they said in the book for the reason for the holes in the door, oh well.

13 Tammy { 12.13.17 at 7:32 am }

We had an outhouse when I was a kid back in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Matter of fact, we didn’t have indoor plumbing until I was 12! We used a ‘chamber pot” during the night and winter. I hated emptying that thing. The worst part of an outhouse was the “critters and varmints” that lived under the floor. I always had to look and make sure there weren’t spiders and snakes in there before going in. One thing I have to say, growing up without indoor plumbing made me appreciate the porcelain god when we finally got one! Now I feel rich because I have two! Most people wouldn’t understand this and take such a simple thing as running water and a flushable toilet for granted. So glad I had the opportunity to experience this as it has made me a lot more humble.

14 Brenda Franklin { 11.22.17 at 10:36 am }

Remember that everyone received a Sears or Aldens catalog twice a year – Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter. When thru with the old one, we took that catalog to the outhouse – crumpled up several pages to ‘soften’ and used that for TP. Later years, we used 3 lb coffee tins to keep rolls of TP safe and clean in case of rain blowing in or whatever. What a nostalgic memory. And when folks speak of the ‘good ol’ day’, I do appreciate indoor plumbing rather than cold wind blowing around my rear.

15 Susan Higgins { 09.16.17 at 11:07 am }

Hi Stephen: We got a chuckle out of “Ms. Murphy” — very clever. A friend also felt the same way, in fact, when they built their home with indoor plumbing, they put a “working” outhouse out back. They provide unlimited privacy, that’s for sure.

16 Stephen Rowland { 09.13.17 at 6:42 am }

I lived on my grandparents farm in N.W. Missouri. My grandfather was disabled so my dad ran the farm. We had a 2 holer until the mid 60’s when indoor plumbing made it into the house. There was no precut hole in the door but there was a knot hole. Much time was spent setting up the outhouse with a 6′ hole lined with cinder blocks. Several blocks were laid with the openings exposed to allow some drainage on the bottom row. We always kept a bale or two of straw just outside and would shake a sheave of it down the holes every week. I kinda miss the winter trips to Ms. Murphy (my grandmother’s name for it) but approaching 70 years of age I’ve noticed one thing. Most times your memories are better left as memories!

17 robert { 10.21.16 at 9:14 pm }

it was always nice to have that flap in the back side of long jons when using the out house lol

18 dan { 10.21.16 at 9:00 pm }

We had a pot upstairs in a little room. Using the pot at night then empty it in the morning. A lot eaiser then going out in the middle of the night.

19 Judith A Seward { 09.03.16 at 6:14 pm }

Our outhouse was in the barn. It had two large holes and one small with a step to climb up. We used it ’til we added running water in the house. I used to clean the bench with bleach and hot water daily. I did not find this a hardship.

20 Ken { 09.03.16 at 5:10 pm }

When I was a couple of years old, I would take some toilet paper back to the house for my mother to help me out and I would hold my trousers up. Unfortunately, we had a rooster who would meet me outside on the walk and he would flog me- my mother would hear me crying and would come to the rescue. I hated that rooster!

21 wilyspike { 05.15.16 at 9:14 am }

One of the PA state parks had metal seats in them. No one wanted to be first in the morning to use them!!!!

22 Ed { 05.05.16 at 6:51 pm }

Does no one remember the “latch string”

23 Royetta { 05.05.16 at 12:50 pm }

When I was very young, I was locked into an outhouse by some older kids. It had bees in it and I was terrified. I cried and begged to be let out, but they had run away. Finally, an adult found me huddled on the floor. I would never, and still won’t, go into one of those old-time outhouses! I have a hard time today using the modern ones!!

24 Phyllis { 05.05.16 at 10:25 am }

My dad kept ours even though we had a bathroom…I can still remember though using our outhouse[before the bathroom was installed] in the cold weather…BRRRRR…plus bees and spiders. Never mined using my Aunts outhouse. She kept it clean and bee/spider free…she white washed it inside and out……BUT she had a hateful old goose in the yard….chased us kids every time we went outside…Jake was his name…UGH!!!

25 Ramon Myers { 05.05.16 at 9:54 am }

I remember visiting a state park in Arkansas back in the 1950’s. There was this “toilet facility” with four or five holes. Talk about togetherness. Probably enough “sounds” for a symphony when fully occupied. 🙂

26 Janet { 05.05.16 at 7:36 am }

We still have our outhouse and it still comes in handy when we plumbing issues which thankfully do not happen very often! People might make fun of them, but I have a feeling that someday everyone is going to wish they had one! Just sayin’………!

27 liberalsaremoronsand youproveit { 05.05.16 at 12:01 am }

the holes are to prevent explosions due to gas buildup just like vent pipes of today

28 Charles { 05.04.16 at 10:37 pm }

Naaaahhh . . . the holes in the doors were for ventilation. I figured everyone knew that.

29 andy { 05.04.16 at 8:18 pm }

A cabin built in the 1960’s and was purchased 30 years later and came with no water and a “privy” in the front yard. It had no door but there was a TV antenna on the roof – however there was no electricity within 1/2 mile!! We kept the seat in the cabin by the wood stove in order to keep it warm in the winter. The cabin was replaced in 2010 but the privy remains, as does one in the woods where the sugar shack is located. We preserved the comments left by the occupants on the walls as they part of our history. Crazy in NH, you bet!

30 Susan { 05.04.16 at 8:11 pm }

we grew up with outhouses also. I finally got indoor plumbing when I got married but my parents didn’t have indoor plumbing until 2004 when they finally moved to my aunt’s house. I remember one day some cousins were over for a visit and one of them ask to go the bathroom The other cousin took her to the outhouse. After taking care of “business” she asked how do you flushed this-I don’t see the handle.

31 Pam { 05.04.16 at 7:50 pm }

We had an outhouse when I was a child. It was only a one-seater, but my grandparents lived just down the road from us and they had a 2-seater. We thought they were rich because they had a 2-seater…..lol. I remember using catalogs and corncobs as our “toilet paper”. In 1963 my parents built a new home with indoor plumbing. Thank goodness!

32 Richard Parker { 05.04.16 at 6:01 pm }

my grand mother had a 2 hole, she had to tell the carpenter how to make it . a shed with 2 sides , one for her shells from around the world and the other for sitting . it had a phone , small light and a heater . they lived in alton bay , new hampshire and ran the alton taxi

33 Bobbie Branau { 05.04.16 at 5:27 pm }

Remember them well. My girlfriends house still had an outhouse that was used 50 years ago. When I was under 10 I used to go to a camp that had outhouses. I was always the buddy on the buddy system when we had to go to the bathroom at night. The counsellor said the holes were for ventilation. I thought it was great when the camp got plumbing.

34 Ann { 05.04.16 at 4:01 pm }

I lived in the Midwest and we had an out house as did all our neighbors. We used it later on when the wells would get low with water to ensure we had enough water for the livestock.
Of course after we had plumbing in the house it was much nicer. We did not have to brush snow off the hole area before we sat down.
The hired men in the summer, used it and left all sorts of jokes and graffiti carved into the wood with their pocket knives. Everyone had pocket knives in those days, as it was often used during daily chores, or other activities.

The outhouses were positioned so that the doors did not open to the harsh cold winds that came down from Canada.
They were often painted same as the house.
My mother used to scrub them out with disinfectant them with a bucket of Clorox or Lysol and rinsed with the garden hose.
When the level of waste became too smelly or too high, my dad would put lime down the holes.
The hole in the door was to let out odors, and to let light in to read by.
Usually it was a newspaper or the Sears & Roebuck Catalog.
The latter was also used as TP… especially the yellow pages, as they were softer.
The between the roof and the top of the walls were screens to keep out flies and other insects.
Fancy ones it covered holes in the door. the door holes were creative cut outs. Many holes were moons, stars, or some family creative item.
The number of holes depended the size of the family.
We had neighbors with 12 children; large and medium sized for mom and pop. Smaller size for children, at a lower level, and little baby sized holes for toddlers.
Being creative was a way of having fun in the simpler life of the past.

35 Fran { 05.04.16 at 3:59 pm }

Does that article bring back memories….or should I say nightmares. When I was a kid, we had an outhouse at our lake cottage and at my Aunt and Uncle’s farmhouse. How I hated it! Always feared there were bugs down that seat! I used to think the holes in the door were for ventilation!

36 Carl { 05.04.16 at 3:59 pm }

As a kid, was the where you would go to go. Door had holes at the top of the door large enough for light and venting. Was built according to past owner in the 1800. Was unique in that it had a opening in the rear to clean it out and the waste was used spread in the spring with the barn manure. It was built where the yard dropped of quickly. It was built by a poor family or a early recycling family, but it worked and never need to be moved. Paper was catalogs or the leaf of the grape arbor you passed on the way there.
Windy cold night were always the bas times, I could get past the hot August aroma by not lingering.
But it did the job, and we never paid water and sanitation and the streams had fish.

37 Gwen { 05.04.16 at 3:35 pm }

When we first acquired our cottage it came with an outhouse. Even though we now have indoor plumbing we kept the outhouse, moved it to a better location and designated its use to emergency trips from the sandy lakeside. It was also between the cottage and the two guest cabins, therefore was used by them so they didn’t have to trek up to the main cottage in the middle of the night. As we often lent the cottage to friends we decided it was an excellent place to put the spare cottage key. It hung on a hook to one side and inside the hole. They were warned – you will only ever drop it once! LOL

38 Donnie Johnson { 05.04.16 at 12:52 pm }

I grew up using out houses. Even burned one down one time , when I dropped a match down the hole that I thought was out. Didn’t take long for it to burn either. Of course my rear end burned just as hot when my GrandFather got a hold on me.

39 Sandi Duncan { 05.04.16 at 3:18 pm }

Steve thanks for sharing your firsthand experience with outhouses! Wow is all we have to say, we can’t quite imagine. Thanks for taking the time to share this with us!

40 Steve { 05.04.16 at 12:50 pm }

I am one of the last pioneer children in the U.S. We got a farm on the Homestead act in 1962. We struggled greatly to hang onto the farm and money was short. Farmers are optimists-“next year will be better”…. I finally got indoor plumbing in 1980. The outhouse door was about 8 inches short on both ends to allow for venting-odors and heat in central Washington. In the winter the cat would sit on your lap and provide welcomed heat if it’s feet weren’t wet. The outhouse was about 100 yards from the house-close to a barn and calf shed that had hot water. We had an outdoor shower that had garden hoses from the shed. Plywood walls, no insulation, 2x4s for a floor and a door that was set in place and held by a stick. We turned the water on very hot and turned almost constantly to keep the back side warm and the side under the water from burning. The hoses had to be put away quickly during winter after use or they would freeze solid. A few nights my hair was frozen when I got back to the “house”.

41 Beth Leliefeld { 05.04.16 at 12:41 pm }

I lived in a home with plumbing and you can tell it was added after the home was built. Nearby was a 1-1/2 story shed. The lower level contained a two-seater, all walled in within an area of the shed.

42 Jeff { 05.04.16 at 11:54 am }

I built my own for a cabin I have in old desert mining camp in S. Nevada. No running water so the outhouses in town are still in service. I have venting, and an old door handle. I did put a crescent moon on mine, but added a piece of blue stained glass into it. It has an oil lamp inside for night, and so I call it the “Blue Moon”.

43 Linda in Iowa { 05.04.16 at 10:38 am }

I forgot to say that a hole in the outhouse door is also a way to vent the gases and to let in some fresh air.

44 Linda in Iowa { 05.04.16 at 10:35 am }

I remember our family’s outhouse in backyard (1940s-1950s) but I cannot remember if the door had a hole of any sort cut out of it; it seems like there wasn’t a hole in the door, but perhaps I am remembering incorrectly. A hole in door would make it less private, but it would definitely let some light into the outhouse, and I think that would be the priority–to see what one is doing, to be less afraid, to be more careful (don’t fall in seat hole or sit on someone’s excrement, etc), make sure no snakes, spiders, animals are in there with you, and for safety (so human or animal couldn’t sneak up on you as easily)–very practical to have that hole in the door. I do not know why historians would think it was there for frivolity, but a designed hole certainly would be an emotional plus: to lift your spirits about using such a smelly place to get half-naked.

45 Mary { 05.04.16 at 10:10 am }

I remember using pages from the catalogs as TP. Lime was sprinkled down in the hole after you did your ‘business’. My one Granny had a three hole one. I am 81 years old and we never had indoor plumbing until I we moved from Tennessee to Arizona in 1942.

46 Sandi Duncan { 05.04.16 at 3:19 pm }

And the Farmers’ Almanac Donna! So we’ve heard :)!

47 Donna Wilson { 05.04.16 at 9:26 am }

I read somewhere that either the Greeks or the Romans would carry around books of prose so they could tear out the pages after having been read.

48 Wilma { 05.04.16 at 9:13 am }

Nothing said about TP. The catalogs were used, wrinkle up the pages first before use. At fruit canning season the fruit wrappers were softer. Also after the meal, it was an excuse to get out of doing dishes.

49 Es { 05.04.16 at 8:51 am }

When I was a kid, in the mid 40’s and on, I know of people that went to use the toilet and look up and see a snake overhead. I always looked the place over good before I sat down.

50 Amanda { 05.04.16 at 8:36 am }

The outhouse was built with the “seating” section being over holes in the ground. Therefore making it movable, as and when needed…. (hole full). So there is probably no issue with checking it out, except for maybe wasp nests or other critters…. bats…etc.

51 Danielle { 05.04.16 at 8:31 am }

All I can think of is…. what about the spiders?? Bugs… ewww…

52 Sheila { 05.04.16 at 8:00 am }

I am now 54 years old with plenty of indoor plumbing (thankfully!). I do remember when I was very small, about 3 years old, my Navy father was stationed in Puerto Rico. Before the move we travelled to visit relatives. My Aunt Verna lived in Kentucky and had an outhouse as their ‘restroom’. My mother took me out there, in the dark, to help me. I suspect that’s when I became scared of the dark – and outhouses! 🙂

53 Terry { 05.04.16 at 7:35 am }

We recently moved into a young (100 years old) NH farmhouse which has an old, sealed 2-holer, in the barn. I have no idea whether it was ever emptied, and I am not curious enough to unseal it. It’s existence is undetectable unless someone points it out. Thankfully.

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If you notice a hole in the upper left-hand corner of your Farmers' Almanac, don't return it to the store! That hole isn't a defect; it's a part of history. Starting with the first edition of the Farmers' Almanac in 1818, readers used to nail holes into the corners to hang it up in their homes, barns, and outhouses (to provide both reading material and toilet paper). In 1919, the Almanac's publishers began pre-drilling holes in the corners to make it even easier for readers to keep all of that invaluable information (and paper) handy.

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