History of the Outhouse: The Poo Papers, Part 1

Barbara Bamberger-Scott
23 Min Read

Okay, raise your hand if you have ever used a privy.

My guess is that many over a certain age will have their hands waving in the air right now. While those people under that certain age will be using their hands either to scratch their heads or to tap their smartphones. Some of you young whippersnappers may not know what a privy is, or may not think you do. But many national parks in dry areas of the U.S. favor the privy for deposit of, well, you know—pee and poop. On a recent trip out West, my husband Donnie and I noted privies in Big Bend National Park in Texas, and at a stunning overlook along the highway near Silver City, New Mexico. In places where indoor restrooms (oh, what a silly euphemism, who ever rested in a restroom?) are impractical or impossible, the privy—aka outhouse, earth-closet, backhouse, khazi, donniker, bog, or KYBO (for “keep our bowels open”)—still reigns supreme.

history of outhouses

There are not very many private homes that utilize outhouses nowadays, but Donnie was raised mostly without indoor water or toilet, and though I took those amenities for granted as a child, I can recall using privies, and not very nice ones, when we traveled to visit our relatives, before the age of the ubiquitous “sanitary restroom.” You will still see this sanitation intervention (doesn’t that sound better than “s***house”?) in Alaska and elsewhere, places where water supplies are iffy and privies—home-dug, home-constructed—are not just preferable, they are essential.

Okay, so it would be cold in there… or hot, or a little cramped, or a little malodorous. But compare that discomfort to simply doing without the little house with its cute crescent moon cut-out, just completely exposed to the elements, being watched by philosophical squirrels, curious birds or even a host of human neighbors. Hold that thought and pause to consider: that awkward and potentially embarrassing experience comprises what a great-many people in the world today are forced to undertake when the urge hits.

Indoor plumbing is one luxury most of us, if we are honest, would not wish to do without. Yet in the history of humankind, it is a relative latecomer.

history of outhouses

Romans are often credited with having, and exporting, the first organized public sanitation system (rows of stone slabs with holes in them, suspended over the famed aqueducts). The basic idea of most water-based waste collection is a seat of some kind suspended over a flowing stream. Directing the streams to flow where you want them to involves canals, and the resulting set-up is not so different from the modern sewage systems still used today in most (so-called) civilized nations. This, my friends, is not rocket science. But it is science, even when it takes its simplest form: the “aha” moment when a lone camper in the wilderness realizes that his or her campsite will be more pleasant for longer if he/she uses the fast flowing river for, ahem, waste management, rather than the nearest shrubbery.

From our animal friends, even our pets, we learn that burying our personal garbage is a great idea, and luckily we have shovels for the task rather than mere feet. But there’s something triumphant in the way a cat or dog kicks up the sand after depositing its product, that makes burying, especially in a dry climate, seem like fun. Earth is a reasonable covering, and the sun a fast acting drying agent, so on the lone prairie, such treatment seems quite rational; since it’s just you and Ol’ Paint out there—an’ Ol’ Paint don’t care—privacy is not an issue.

history of outhouses

However, as the term “privy” implies, privacy is indeed an issue with humans living in proximity to one another. Two personal elements are intertwined, certainly for us (so-called) moderns: modesty and odor. The first is a learned, or acculturated, complex of behaviors that have to do with protecting our most private property from harm, even from sight. The second is a reality, also learned from babyhood onward. As any kindergartner can tell you, poop smells yucky, and pee is just pee-yew. We assume that Mother Nature set it up that way so that we would avoid, rather than embrace, this body product, and give it wide berth. Human feces and urine are not, in their raw form, considered healthful. (I am treading carefully here so as not to step on the sensitivities of certain people who believe in drinking one’s urine as a health intervention, or collecting humanure for their gardens—this will be covered later.)

Both Native Americans and the settlers who elbowed in on their territory considered the great outdoors to be one big waste management system. Native American tribes did not care for the idea of a shared poop place; nor Romans. I found this same reluctance among Africans, both in Botswana and in Kenya. The Maasai were especially fastidious, believing it tantamount to incest to share elimination space with opposite-sex family members. The Africans we knew told us that they considered our gleaming clean white special poop-and-pee parlor an abomination. Luckily for both the Batswana and the Maasai, they had plenty of wide open, very dry spaces in which to do what was necessary.

But though the humble earth-closet is widely associated in our country with Appalachia and hillbillies, city life brings its own necessities, and privies, water closets, “necessary rooms” and other such niceties became both a blessing and a curse of American town life from earliest settlement. In the late 1600s, an observer in one of our northern cities noted that, “Privy houses set against ye Strete which spoiling people’s apparill should they happen to be nare when ye filth comes out… Especially in ye Night when people can not see to shun them.”

“Night soil” is the term for such “filth”—the collection of which would have been an unenviable task, leaving the collectors with the problem of redistribution. As I wrote in “The Little Cabin at Sinking Spring”, “Thomas Jefferson, advanced for his time, had a pulley system for his chamber pots (guess who emptied them?).”

The first sanitation engineers on the frontier were pigs. In fact, pigs are noted for their gusto in consuming our waste products. The Chinese built sit-down facilities that nestled beside and emptied right into their pigsties. Knowing what we now do about germs, and specifically, trichinosis, we (so-called) advanced people would doubtless shun this practice. But think about it: here is something you want to get rid of, and here is a great big animal with a hearty appetite, quite willing to assist you. However, my mind always leaps ahead to the next step in this happy picture, that is, the step you do not want to take, into a sea of what is often considered the most odorous of all waste products, created by pigs. And really, knowing what pigs are willing to eat, is it any surprise that the greatly venerated Yahweh forbade the consumption of pork?

So it is 1870, say, and you are building your happy homestead in the woods, or maybe on some cleared land on the outskirts of a trading center, somewhere in the mostly under-populated regions of the new American midsection. What will you do with your poop? How will you guard the modesty of your womenfolk, and keep your once-a-week bathed self in your swept and whitewashed cottage from the offense of noxious aromas? The privy, strategically located near—but not too near—the family’s eating and sleeping quarters, is the ideal solution. Small, simple, unheated, and uncooled, but proof against the harshest weather; a place allowed to be a bit smelly; a place that each can use in solitude; a little outdoor “closet” requiring nothing more elaborate than a deep hole and a wooden perch, and perhaps some corncobs or leaves for personal tidy-ups—what could be more inviting, for its purpose, than the humble, fabled outhouse?

Outhouses had a good run, as it were, but began to be seen as low-class and potentially dangerous to all in the early part of the twentieth century when science, plodding slowly along for centuries, began to gallop apace, and bacteria were discovered lurking in the poo pile. Gradually, most of the country’s outhouses were abandoned in favor of indoor plumbing, assisted by improvements in city life that included clean water, sewage treatment and disposal (for most). Yet despite the fact that I, and probably most of you, even those hardy homesteaders among us, would not now wish to do without a flush-toilet and a ready supply of fresh water in the house, there were 1.7 million Americans doing without these “necessities” in the year 2000 according to the census, a fair number of them in the eastern part of my home state.

“They passed an ordinance in the town, said we’d have to tear it down

That little brown shack out back so dear to me

Though the Health Department said its day was over and dead

It will live forever in my memory.” ~ Ode to the Little Brown Shack, by Billy Ed Wheeler

It is common in our region (northern Piedmont North Carolina) to see a little white privy still standing, though not necessarily extant, behind “the little white church in the wildwood.”

Outhouses are plainly in view behind or beside the schoolhouses of the Amish, and indeed, nestled near many Amish homes, as an article about Amish religious rights to defend their privies indicated, in 1992:

“The only defense Borntreger, 59, and Yoder, 46, offered was that they believed their religious liberties were being tread upon and that all they really wanted was to be left alone to live their lives simply, as their religious beliefs require.

Yoder said he sees the outhouse issue as a threat to the Amish way of life—one that requires modest dress and a rural life that eschews electricity, most mechanized farm equipment and indoor plumbing, among other things.

‘If they take us across the fence on this, something else could come down the road,’ Yoder said earlier this month. ‘If we give in on this we may as well live our life the way you`re living.’”

The way we’re living. With zoning. Regulations. Sanitation. Safety. Hygiene. Health. Privacy. Rights. All big issues. All inter-connected.

Yet despite these mega-systems designed to make life better, consider the salubrious, possibly harmless, effects of outdoor elimination. After all, privies are good enough for the national parks, good enough for the Amish, even better for those in Africa and Latin America who would have the alternative of nothing if we (so-called) technically savvy folks didn’t show them how to keep all their poop in one place.

So, at least, isn’t it better to have an outhouse than nothing?

A friend told Donnie this story about the intervention of government in his family’s chosen elimination station: it would have been well into the 21st century when the county health inspectors arrived to tell our friend that the privy had to go. By that time, they had indoor plumbing on their small-holding, and most of the family preferred it. But not our friend. He had dug and built his happy house in the backyard some years before, and still enjoyed its true priv-acy, a brief but welcome escape from the noise and clatter of a family of nine… or was it ten?

But according to the inspectors, the privy had to go, and they would be back to ensure that it had been removed, and if not gone by such-and-such a date, the fines would start to mount up.

“Okay,” our friend said, on a sudden whim, “you want it gone?” He grabbed a gasoline can and, as the increasingly nervous inspectors watched, he poured a generous trail of its contents from his poop paradise, about thirty feet away, up to their feet, and before they could say, “Holy crap!”, he dropped a match near their toes. The three of them, two horrified and the third full of the piss and vinegar that only a good case of outrage can engender, had not long to wait before a tremendous sonic boom accompanied the obliteration of the once cozy little refuge, followed by a large, aromatic conflagration.

Our friend swears to the veracity of his account, and I have no way to prove it ain’t so. He liked his outhouse for its nostalgic value, its practicality, and for what he considered his right to live as he pleased on his own land. Most municipalities do not agree with his interpretation of this right. Zoning. Health. Privacy.

By the way, most experts agree you should never light up whatever you light up while you’re in the privy—but Donnie recalls that the outhouse was, for teens of his generation, the best place to sneak a cigarette.

So, if you can have a privy, what is a good privy? Outhouses (with certain regulations) are allowed in many places in the U.S. and Canada, and, in some limited situations, nearly everywhere. The dry-hole non-flush outhouses in desert areas, such as the ones we encountered in Big Bend Park, are a reasonable solution to what otherwise would be an impossible dilemma. Outhouses in the woods can include a drainpipe to a stream, and moving the structure from time to time probably prevents a buildup of poisonous effluents (though re-digging is no fun). Preppers recommend plastic-bag porta-potties for emergencies, but in the (so-called) Third World, the practice of bagging and hurling has become almost as much of a hazard to health as doing nothing. So be sure you have a baggie storage area. And remember, plastic bags are also an ecological plague.


Flies love poop and flies carry disease to your food on their little feet, so the only hygienic outhouse is one that excludes flies. Since flies hate darkness, the Peace Corps and other like-minded organizations have traditionally recommended the construction of a sort of corkscrew privy, entered by going around two corners. The light for performing the “necessary” comes from a vent pipe and skylight carefully covered with screen wire. Flies will hover around the outer door opening but will not go into the darkened area. Donnie reports that wasps are uncommonly fond of nesting in the eaves of outhouses, something to think about as you plan (or as you are using) your facility.

“It was not a castle fair but I could dream my future there

And build castles to the yellow jackets’ drone… ” ~Billy Ed Wheeler

Shallow pit latrines can be dug and moved, with sawdust or wood ash as a highly recommended damper to odor.

But what about the positive uses for humanure? I told you I would get back to this, and now we’re here. Some people believe that human waste, like the animal kind, can be recycled for use on gardens. The Chinese have always followed this principle. Night soil, either feces or a combo of feces and urine, has traditionally been applied to field crops in China and elsewhere.

And then there’s pee. Long ago I read that English actress Sara Miles (Blowup; Ryan’s Daughter) drinks a cup of her own urine every day. She is not the first, nor the only, person to recommend this practice. If this is something in which you decide to indulge, in combination with the outdoor toilet, it will keep you a few steps ahead of the health inspectors, since many people think that it is the mix of urine and feces that causes foul odors. Add urine to the cocktail hour and remove it from the backhouse, and you’re less likely to arouse the ire of the neighbors.

So, if one were going to collect manure and urine, for whatever purpose, one would certainly eschew the modern water-based, porcelain, flushing device to which we have become so attached.

Cost offers another compelling reason for preferring an outhouse to an indoor closet for the necessary. A well-constructed privy can be yours for a lot of sweat and less than $500—and will last for years (kits are available for this, as for most things). That is, if it’s legal to have such a facility where you decide to park yourself. If it’s not, it can be a headache of major proportions, and will probably cost a lot more than $500 in hassles—and fines.

Opinions vary as to what constitutes “well-constructed” when it comes to the little earth-closet down the lane, but a vent pipe is one sine qua non, and the family that has a two-holer may stay together in more than the usual ways. Double-deckers are not unknown for those who want to offer a pleasant surprise for visitors. The legendary “brick s—house” is rare, but was once much favored among the aristocracy, including Thomas Jefferson.

outhouse, brick shithouse

I don’t know why an outhouse shouldn’t have a bookrack and some flowers in a vase and pictures on the wall just like its indoor cousin. And of course we have graduated from corncobs to paper, and not just the Sears catalog, which did provide both reading material and wipes for a former generation:

“It was not too long ago that I went tripping through the snow

Out to that house behind my old hound dog

Where I’d sit me down to rest like a snowbird on her nest

And read the Sears and Roebuck catalog.” ~(B.E.W.)

For those who cannot tap into a local water supply or who live in places where the water table is too high for a pit privy, there are composting toilets. Expensive incinerating models produce what one owner referred to as “brownies,” considered safe for gardens. Lehman’s, the Amish Wal-Mart, sells a variety of simple, self-contained toilets that are not too pricey and would look quite normal inside a woodsy cabin or outhouse. Eliminating the eliminations would still be an issue, but not every day. These would be my choice if I decided to totally geek the backwoods; saving all that tedious digging.

One last burning mystery of old-time privies: why the “moon” (I know, I know, but let’s keep this serious) on the door of the traditional American outhouse? Best explanation I have come up with in my researches: it was just a handle and, secondarily, a light source. Any other conjecture is just—in my opinion—pure poop.

Read “How the Outhouse Went In: Part Two of The Poo Papers

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