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The Glory of the Outhouse

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Suppose an invitation for a long weekend at a friend’s remote cottage comes along with the warning that “we don’t have indoor plumbing.” For many the words “eew” and “gross” might spring to mind. But, this presents a good opportunity to channel our pioneer ancestors.

The Commodious Commode

Building a biffy is a matter of planning and skill. You need an expert and, fortunately, there’s one on hand in the form of Lem Putt. He is the fictional creation of Charles “Chic” Sale in his wonderful little 1929 book The Specialist.

Lem is not one for false modesty. He explains that “I’m a carpenter by trade. At one time I could build a house, barn, church or chicken coop. But I seen the need of a specialist in my line, so I studied her. I got her; she’s mine. Gentlemen, you are face to face with the champion Privy builder of Sangamon county.”

From Lem’s vast experience we learn that a lean-to roof is better than a gable roof because there are two fewer corners for wasps to build nests in.

Inwards or outward opening door? With the outward swinging door it’s possible to enjoy additional ventilation on a warm summer day while engaged in a lengthy contemplation. However, should someone come down the path while you have perhaps let go the string, then, in Lem’s words, “There you is catched.”

Nail or box for the catalogue? Lem favoured going high-end and including both, but he took issue for the publishers including some pages with heavier paper; “Something needs to be done about that.”

Location is important. The honeypot should be built on the other side of the wood pile from the house. The reason for this is that folks coming back from a visit will likely pick up wood from the pile so “On a good day, you’ll get your wood box filled by noon with no extra effort.”

Outhouse Word Origins

There are many different words used as synonyms for the outhouse. This being a family-friendly website, several commonly used words have been omitted. You know what they are.

  • Kybo―This comes from the North American scouting movement. A couple of derivations are offered. One is that cans containing Kybo brand coffee did double duty as containers for lye or lime to be sprinkled in the pit to dampen the fragrance. Others say it’s simply an acronym of Keep Your Bowels Open.
  • Donniker―There’s a school of thought that this is a contraction of the German words for thunder and lightning―donner und blitzen. How appropriate. Others say an 18th century English word for toilet, “dunnekin” is the origin and that it’s been corrupted in Australia where “dunny” means the same thing. However, some authorities say dunny refers to the colour dun or brown. No need to delve any deeper here, etymologically speaking.
  • Cludgie―The Scots have a rich vocabulary of words derived from Gaelic. Cludgie is one and it refers to comfort stations whether inside or outside. A Scotsman might be inclined to ask in an attempt at capturing the vernacular, “Where’s yir cludgie, I’m in dire need o a steamer?”
  • Kharzi―This is a relatively new entry into the privy lexicon. It comes from the World War Two period and seems to be a twisting of the Italian and Spanish words for house, “casa.” There are other contenders for the honour of being the foundation of this word, for example, in Swahili the word for latrine is m’khazi.

There are more other terms for outdoor lavatories than you can shake a loo roll at.

The Decline and Fall of the Outhouse

Nostalgia aside, the appeal of the outhouse has declined, for some quite obvious reasons. When indoor plumbing became widely available the fate of the outdoor bog was sealed.

No more trudging through snow to sit on a very frosty seat to offload some freight. Summer was no picnic either. Heat caused a heady bouquet to rise from the below the seat; it was an olfactory assault of epic proportions.

Then, there are the critters. “Something bit my butt right as I sat down . . .” What chomped on Shannon Stevens of Alaska was a bear of the black persuasion. Ms. Stevens told the Associated Press in February 2021 “I’m just going to be better about looking inside the toilet before sitting down, for sure.”

Snakes, possums, rats, and mice are some of the other wildlife to occasionally take up residence in the necessary shed. For mosquitoes, flies, and other airborne insects the occupant is a sitting target.

And, we mustn’t forget porcupines. They have learned that outhouses are a source of a much-needed dietary supplement―sodium. Naturalist Matthew L. Miller tells us that “Urine is high in sodium. Combine this with the notoriously bad aim of boys, and you have porcupine nirvana.” He says the thunderbox in a Scout camp of his acquaintance sometimes looks like it’s been through a wood chipper.

You will have noticed that none of these deficiencies are common to the indoor, flushing toilet. (Okay, there have been instances in which snakes have slithered out of a porcelain bowl, but we don’t need to dwell on that).

But, there are still some holdouts. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 1.6 million Americans still don’t have access to indoor plumbing. There might still be some work for the likes of Lem Putt.

Bonus Factoids

  • The Specialist by Charles Sale is a delightful little book of just 30 pages. It is filled with country wisdom and gentle humour.
  • Chris Owens of Holderness, New Hampshire puts up an outhouse voting booth during each presidential election. It’s a two-holer of course
  • Coopersville, Michigan is just one of several U.S. communities that hold annual outhouse races. Winton, Australia holds a dunny derby. Surely, it can’t be long before this becomes an Olympic event.
  • Elk Falls, Kansas calls itself the Outhouse Capital of the World. Just before Thanksgiving visitors can tour a variety of structures and get to vote on their favourites.
  • Colome, South Dakota is home to the Outhouse Museum. It used to be located in nearby Gregory, but the man who runs the exhibit, Richard Papousek, says he moved to Colome because “Gregory didn’t really want to be known as the dump of the world.”
  • The ubiquitous crescent moon and star cut-outs on the doors of biffies are said to be in place of “Ladies” (moon) and “Gents” (star). Supposedly, they were used at a time when most people couldn’t read, but others doubt that explanation.

Sources

  • The Specialist - by Charles Sale.” Secrets-of-shed-building.com, undated.
  • “The Quirky and Worldly Origins of Common Outhouse Monikers.” Sara Laux, Cottage Life, May 11, 2020
  • “ ‘Something bit My Butt’: Alaska Woman Using Outhouse Attacked by Bear.” Associated Press, February 19, 2021.
  • “The Vanishing Outhouse.” Tom Kovach, backwoodshome.com, January/February 2003.
  • “You Won’t Believe What Porcupines Eat (And No, Not Bigfoot Bones).” Matthew L. Miller, Nature, March 30, 2015.
  • “There Are 1.6 Million Americans Who Still Don’t Have Indoor Plumbing.” Daniel Luzer, governing.com, April 24, 2014.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Rochelle Frank from California Gold Country on April 23, 2021:

Your serious stuff is great, but I think people are more inclined to comment on light subjects. Not to say this is necessarily “light” . It certainly does address a subject commonly shared among humans.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on April 23, 2021:

Okay folks. The reaction to this story tells me what I ought to be writing about, and it ain't serious stuff.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on April 23, 2021:

I love this article, Rupert. I’m not sure what that says about my taste lol. In Australia, yes, we call a toilet a “dunny” but the outhouse is most often known as a “thunder box.”

I have actually built an outhouse. When I bought a vacant 40 acre rural property we first built a shed to live in (off grid) and there was a small hill close by overlooking the dam, so I erected a garden shed on top of it, tunnelled out beneath it and placed a wheelie bin underneath...which could be removed when half full, replaced, and left to turn into compost. So it was an outhouse with composting toilet.

Many of the roadside rest areas around rural Australia have “long-drop” outhouses in fact. Loved the videos too.

Ann Carr from SW England on April 23, 2021:

A charming little article, Rupert!

My maternal Grandma had one attached to the coal house. To a small child it was like climbing Everest to reach a huge wooden seat surrounding a massive hole which I thought I would be engulfed by, never to be seen again. It was just as cold too!

I now insist on creature comforts for the basics in life.

Ann

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on April 23, 2021:

What a cute ode to the good old outhouse. I had a great aunt that still had one at one time. She later had an indoor toilet installed at her summer cottage on the lake. I did go to a girl scout camp once that only had outhouses.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on April 23, 2021:

Thanks Rochelle. I'm quite proud of the fact that I never resorted to the S word.

Rochelle Frank from California Gold Country on April 23, 2021:

Rupert, Your euphanistic epertise is put to good use here. I can imagine the sound of thunderous applause that must be rising from your readers.

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