The Roundup -

A Fascinating Part Of Yesteryear


This second story outhouse sits a block from my house in Virginia City. Originally a short walkway connected this second story building to the main house, so a person didn't have to put on his or her boots and tramp through the snow to answer nature's call.

I love looking at the old barns and outhouses that I see scattered around the country. On the surface it appears that these nostalgic structures have nothing in common, but on reflection, both of these icons of yesteryear represent an earlier life, a time before we thought we had to own a three bedroom two bath house or larger in order to count ourselves a success; a time when people knew how to entertain themselves without the use of computers and smart phones; a time when youngsters could take any object at hand and turn it into a toy to amuse themselves; a time when everyone could write longhand and didn't have to hold a cell phone against their ears or text someone else every minute and a half in order to feel connected.

Barns will go the way of the brontosaurus. Farmers and ranchers no longer require lofts to hold loose hay, they don't need tie stalls to stable their work animals, they need no shelter to house the family milk cow, nor do they need a place to raise the pig they intend to butcher in the fall. Barns as our grandparents knew them have become obsolete, replaced by pole barns and other outbuildings that house tractors and other farm machinery.

Outhouses, on the other hand in one form or another will remain part of the human condition for as long as people walk this earth. They may change size and shape, a lot of them have become 'inhouses' rather than outhouses, but humans will always need the services an outhouse or its equivalent provides.

Outhouses come in many shapes, many sizes, and have many names. No other room inside or outside a home can claim that distinction. Regardless of whether we call it a loo, a latrine, a privy, a commode, a potty closet, water closet, can, crapper, Mrs. Murphy, reading room, toilet, biffy, house of relief, house out back, John or Johnnie, powder room, chamber pot, throne or throne room, or a thunder room, everyone knows precisely which room a person has in mind when he or she mentions one of the above words. What other room has so many aliases?

Besides having so many names, outhouses also have many shapes. I've seen A-frames, peaked roof, slanted roof, two story outhouses (originally designed so when the snow got too deep, a person merely had to run up the stairs to find relief), and outhouses built several feet above ground so a person merely walks out a door on the second floor, strides across a short walkway and enters the house of relief.

Then there is the economy one holer, the standard two holer, and the deluxe three holer models. George Washington erected exquisitely designed three holer outhouses still preserved today at Mount Vernon. He built them with bricks and made them spacious enough that when tourists visit Mount Vernon they could mistake these structures for tool sheds or seed houses if they neglected to take a peek inside the buildings.

Many outhouses sport the signature crescent moon carved in the door. This symbol originally meant 'ladies only'. The Greek goddess Diana wore a crescent moon ornament in her hair, so early outhouses adopted this symbol to designate a ladies' room. Men's outhouses used a sun, circle, or star emblem on the door but these emblems went the way of the pterodactyl. The crescent moon, however, remains with us today and adorns many outhouse doors.

The Greenies ought to embrace outhouses with open arms. If constructed properly, outhouses prove the ultimate as environmentally friendly structures. Outhouses require no electricity, no water, no pipes or wiring, they never need plunging, they don't freeze up, they don't pollute, they are naturally air conditioned, and a person gets exercise traipsing to and from the building when nature calls.

Also, one need not worry about purchasing proper accessories that match the décor, nor do they have to worry about repainting or redecorating. If an outhouse needs a new roof, it only takes a few hours to accomplish the job. I speak from experience here.

Today's youngsters have missed all the fun. They may look upon outhouses as quaint relics of the past, but they have no idea of the vital services these broken down structures gave to earlier generations, nor will they likely experience the pleasure of answering nature's call by sitting on an air conditioned seat at midnight listening to the owls hoot and the coyotes wail. Nor have they had the pleasure of pulling some terrific pranks on Halloween night that involve outhouses.

My sister gave me this mechanical bank for Christmas. Place a coin on the tree stump, pull the owl's head forward, and the coin drops to the bank below, the door of the outhouse pops opens and the occupant swings out. The picture may not show it clearly, but there is a bear inside the outhouse hiding behind the throne seat. What fun. I love this bank.

I'm not the only one who appreciates outhouses and the past they represent. All sorts of outhouse memorabilia exist today. I have accumulated a very nice collection of assorted outhouse trinkets through the years. My friends tell me that when they see an outhouse they think of me. I take that as a compliment, because in the process, they have gifted me with a huge assortment of outhouse gadgets that include desk ornaments, birdhouses, towels, calendars, tree ornaments, desk organizers, wall hangings, and a mechanical outhouse bank with working parts. I even made an outhouse quilt. My sister designed several different outhouse patterns, supplied me with a variety of material, and I set to work making enough squares to put a quilt together. I'm no seamstress, I don't quilt, but I enjoyed making this fine blanket and I love the results.

I also have unique tree ornaments, most of them cross-stitched or painted by my sister. My friends and family have given me a huge variety of outhouse related objects and I love each and every one of them.

Now that I've moved to Virginia City, I discover I have moved to Outhouse Heaven. Less than a block from my house sits a dilapidated two story structure, a rundown one holer, a decrepit two holer, and three blocks from the house down by the depot rests a two hole relic from a previous era, an era we will never see again.

The next time you see an outhouse sitting abandoned, remember the role it played, the people who built it, the hopes and dreams they had when they moved west, and how times and circumstances have changed beyond comprehension in a very short period of time.

Scottish proverb regarding outhouses and chamber pots: "Scrub me bright and keep me clean, And I'll not tell what I have seen"


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