It is funny how some images stay with you a long time and for many different reasons. My husband and I recently revisited an area in northern Minnesota where his family once owned a cabin. I enjoyed seeing the lake and cabin but it was the outhouse that brought back a flood of memories for me and not necessarily good ones.
Now I know some people are nostalgic for outhouses so much they decorate their bathrooms in outhouse themes. Some even erect fake outhouses in their yards to be used as a garden or a tool shed. Others are inventive coming up with new ideas like designing the privy as a sauna, ticket booth and even a little playhouse.
The first time I visited the family cabin was some 40 years ago. I was young, from the suburbs and used to indoor plumbing. It was shocking to find out the cabin did not have indoor running water. Unfortunately, I had committed to stay at the cabin for five whole days! My fears were heightened even more when I saw the outhouse. It was this weathered little building precariously erected covered in tar paper. But my anxiety level was raised when I saw bear claw marks all over the outside. And I did not find the family stories amusing about nightly treks outside with bear and raccoon encounters. To me it took courage just to go inside and survive to tell. Yes, I really wanted to leave. But in the end I was persuaded to stick it out. This is the photo of the privy which has remained unchanged for decades.
And now I find myself years later living in the north woods and loving every minute of it. But we are are lucky. We have indoor plumbing!
From ancient times the ‘sun” had been the symbol of something masculine and the “moon” something feminine. The crescent moon and star cutouts on the door of many outhouses goes back to Colonial times. Since most people at that time were illiterate the cutout signs were an easy way to identify which outhouse to use. The cutout served a purpose to let light into the outhouses to provide ventilation. The average outhouse was 3 to 4 feet square by 7 feet high with no windows, heat or electric light. Due to the odor, most were built 59 to 150 feet away from the main house, and often facing away from the house.
Some little known privy facts:
At Mount Vernon there were four outhouses called “necessaries” by their users. Inside there were beautiful mahogany seats with lids.
The White House had a telephone before they had indoor plumbing.
There actually exists The Outhouse Preservation Society founded in 1996. It is located in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Online there are websites devoted entirely to outhouse photos.
Privy poetry and songs have been penned evoking nostalgia adding a bit of humor.
When we visited Texas last winter we saw photographs of The Thunderbox Road Art Exhibit in several art galleries. The traveling exhibit included 12 full size thunderboxes or outhouses painted and decorated in true Texas style. The exhibit went on the road to several cities to be a part of local art festivals. The exhibit began in 2008 and ended in 2009. At that time the outhouses were auctioned off. Here are some of the photos from the exhibit.