To give an idea of how firmly placed Outhouses are in American history you just have to
do a Google search for the term, outhouse. There are 3,400,000 entries; all associated
with the history, building, artifacts, drawings, paintings and illustrations of American
outhouses. On our site we are in the process of creating an Outhouse Portal. Here, we
will list the many coffee-table type books, prints, paintings and cartoons of outhouses
and other historical and humorous information.
In our site we are introducing this Outhouse Lore page. We shall continue to add information
from our own research and from input and feedback of the large community of people who share
our interest in Outhouse Lore, including one of the more famous entries, the yearly
Outhouse Race in Virginia City, NV.
The following Outhouse Lore is extracted, with much appreciation, from the coffee-table
book The Vanishing American Outhouse by Ronald s. Barlow and The Outhouses of America
Tour at http://www.jldr.com/faqs.html.
The various names given to Outhouses
Early American colonists called it a Privy, after the Latin Privus, or private place. Two
other transplanted English euphemisms for the necessary edifice was Outhouse and the more
aristocratic sounding House of Office. Possibly the oldest word in western literature for
an outdoor convenience is Jakes, which appears in 16th century prose.
From these four descriptive terms a number of colorful synonyms have evolved over a
comparatively brief span of years. The following words describe an outdoor toilet:
One-Holer, Two-Holer, Backhouse, Post Office, Federal Building, White House et al.
In Canada, the outhouse is referred to as The Back Forty, Auntie or The House of Parliament.
Location, Location and Location
Climate, soil conditions, proximity to domestic water supplies and exposure to public view
were important considerations in properly locating a privy building. Paramount, however,
as the calculation of exactly how many yards a child or an elderly household member could
safely navigate in an emergency situation.
Wood has always been the preferred medium of construction. However, the following goods
were also used by enterprising outhouse builders: brick, bark, stone, mortar, lath and
plaster, adobe, clay, canvas, bamboo, corrugated cardboard, packing crates and obsolete
Lighting & Windows
Most outhouses have been built before electricity. Hence, the need for windows. For
privacy reasons windows or openings were above the line of sight. They were for admitting
sunlight, not air. Portholes and rifle slots were among other variations, although rumor
has it that even wild Indians would not attack an outhouse occupant.
In colder climes there were often no provisions made for ventilation because even the
smallest crack or knot hole could admit a freezing blanket of snow during blizzard
conditions. A frequent summertime precaution was the preseason banking of exterior
walls with evergreen boughs, straw, cornhusks, or other home grown insulation material.
Obviously summertime occupants of thee airtight edifices had to resort to a
foot-in-the-door type posture.
Vents and Symbols Ė The famous Crescent and Star
In those locations where climate permitted, outhouses had vents. Traditionally Vents
often doubled as symbols for gender identification. Luna, the ancient crescent shaped
figure, was a universal symbol for womankind. A moon, sawed into a outhouse door, served
as the Ladies Room sign of early inn keeping days. Sol, a sunburst, or star pattern, was
cut into a door to indicate the menís room side of the outhouse. These symbols were
necessary because in colonial times only a fraction of the population could read or write.
The crescent and star are the most recognizable symbols associated with the traditional
outhouse. Since most male outhouses fell into disrepair rather quickly they seldom
survived; while the female ones were better maintained, and were eventually used by both sexes.
Although the original crescent and star symbols were for gender identification, because
most people could not read, they have remained inextricably associated with the American
Outhouse and a permanent part of Outhouse Lore.