A Privy Conversation
So what DID you do when nature called? How have bathroom habits, and bathrooms themselves, changed through history? Let’s talk about the privy, improvements made, and what you could expect whether you lived in a city apartment or a rural farm. We will also talk a little about that moon carving and the folklore that accompanies it. Thankfully we no longer have to complete long walks to the privy so let’s talk a little about what early Americans did when they had to go.
“Outhouse”, “privy”, “necessaries”; chances are you’ve heard various names for a building where one would retreat to conduct their business. Previously in history we have known these buildings as communal latrines - seen in ancient Greece and Rome as a very public way to relieve oneself. Transcending forward in time, perhaps you’ve heard of garderobes, located in castles throughout Europe. Lest we forget chamber pots, which were a widely used household item well into the twentieth century. Most notably, Thomas Jefferson had his chamber pot rigged to a pulley system for additional discretion (for him at least). So to begin our journey on the history of the privy let us first set the scene: The privy was a household staple, a small, utilitarian, building usually located behind and away from the house on the property. It’s dominance in America ranged from the seventeenth to the early-to-mid twenty-first century. The privy was usually situated on a pit three-to-six feet deep. The interior accommodations were meager, you wouldn’t be finding any collections of old magazines to pass the time, instead there was usually a bench with a single hole cut into it. Depending on the number in the household there could be more than one hole. It was common for there to be a smaller cut-out for the children to utilize, to prevent any unfortunate falls.
The earliest notation we have of a privy in America occurred in the late seventeenth century when one New England civilian who was incredibly appalled to witness some privy action wrote: “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.”
If you are from rural America chances are you’d have a privy per household. If you were an urban dweller the chances you’d have a shared, multi-door privy located behind an apartment building, often tucked within an alleyway were unfortunately common. The shared privy created a heap, pun intended, of sanitation and public health issues and is one of the big reasons that cities did away with privies before county folk did. But more on that later, for now let's look at a typical privy located on a farm as seen in the below photograph, provided by the Nebraska State Historical Society.
In the foreground we see the family seated in front of their sod and frame house and windmill. In the background, behind the home and outbuilding, is the privy. Notice it is set far enough away from the home that it won’t contaminate a water source and won’t be nasally disruptive to the house occupants, but close enough for easy access. Sometimes if the family lived on a farm, a further privy would be located near the barn for ease of access while working.
A notable aspect of the history of the privy is the folklore that accompanies it. Folklore exists in every aspect of our history and the privy has not been omitted from that. If you visualize a privy in your mind you probably picture the traditional one bay wide wood building, perhaps with a moon carved out higher up on the door.
That moon engraving would be useful for both light and ventilation. But most don’t know that the moon is a point of contention. Late twentieth century publications and internet lore proclaim that the moon symbol was utilized to specifically designate a privy for female use, as the moon visually represented womanhood.
In contrast, men would use a privy with the sun engraved on the door. The argument was that the men’s sun engraved privy fell into disuse and the moon remained, eventually being used by both sexes.
Other historians have balked at this. Surely, the difficulties of the American frontier, and the lack of resources during the Great Depression would suggest that gender specific restrooms were not common to most American households. Moreover, languages such as French, Russian, and German reverse the gender specific symbolism, with the sun being feminine and the moon, masculine.
So it seems that the idea of celestial cutouts determining the gender assignment of the privy is a little far fetched, and instead possibly originates from the product of a fictitious retelling of history from our modern view.
Leaving moon engraved folklore behind we meet the privy in the twentieth century! Modernization to the classic American privy came with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. He initiated the Works Progress Administration (WPA) which was a program that employed millions of job-seeking Americans who carried out public works projects. These projects ranged from public art to the construction of roads, libraries, parks, municipal swimming pools, and schools. Projects the WPA constructed, beautified, or sponsored still touch many aspects of our twenty-first century lives. And when we say many aspects we mean many aspects. Enter our privy. The modernization of the privy was more than just a tactic to employ jobless Americans - it was also a public health issue.
Agriculture secretary James Wilson said in 1911:
“Nothing is more important to the farmer than good health. Good health cannot be preserved if the sanitary conditions of the farm are bad”.
Though these words were spoken two decades before Roosevelt's WPA privy building and yet the same premise held true. In 1930s America an estimated one-third of Americans used a privy. Diseases such as dysentery and typhoid fever were prevalent, and could be deadly. Poorly functioning outhouses could also lead to soil pollution and contamination. FDR’s plan was to create a mass-produced privy that would cut down on these sanitation issues and hopefully prevent disease. To the left is a poster depicting the health benefits of a WPA built privy.
Materials for the WPA’s privy were picked up by the homeowner while the WPA itself provided the construction. The privy’s started out with wood floors, however, after recognizing that the wood floors rotted and were difficult to effectively clean a poured concrete tank was constructed to aid as both the receptacle and the foundation.
However, by the early- to-mid twentieth century the prevalence of the privy slowly died out as interior bathrooms became more the norm. As previously mentioned this change occurred first in the cities, where the tight, cramped spaces where shared privies were located was often at much higher risk for vermin, and diseases. But soon, even in the country the privy was seen as unsanitary and "unkooth" when compared to modern, interior bathrooms. Flushing toilets had existed in America as early as 1880. However, they often could only be afforded by the rich, and were much more prevalent in Gilded Age mansions than the average American home. Technological advancements also meant that cities developed things such as sewer and water lines, as well as sewage and water sanitation. Improvements to city planning, the advancement of science, and the modernization to the interior bathroom meant that bathrooms were becoming commonplace amongst average Americans. Suddenly, the porcelain palace became more and more affordable, and it had some obvious perks compared to the privy.
You and I probably consider ourselves mighty lucky to have our comfortable indoor bathroom. However, in 2014 an estimated 1.6 million Americans were still using a privy. We might think these are relics of the past, sitting lonely and unused in the backyard, but for a small minority the privy remains useful and utilized. So let us end our privy conversation on a nostalgic high, with some song lyrics by Billy Edd Wheeler:
“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.
N.d. History of the Outhouse: The Poo Papers, Part 1. https://www.homestead.org/homesteading-history/history-of-outhouses-part1/
2015 Pondering the Privy: A History of Outhouses. Lancaster Farming, November 12, 2015. https://www.lancasterfarming.com/pondering-the-privy-a-history-of-outhouses/article_3f416eae-d0df-5d7f-9e70-3fcfb72a110a.html
1940 Outwitted by community sanitation Community sanitation planning keeps flies away from deadly disease germs... / / Buczak. Illinois, 1940. [Illinois: Federal Art Proj] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/98509668/.
Butcher, S. D.
1903 RG2608.PH:000000-003267, Nebraska State Historical Society, P.O. Box 82554, 1500 R Street, Lincoln, NE 68501 Found at: http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/h?ammem/psbib:@field(DOCID+@lit(p14228))\
Digital Antiques Journal
2020 FDR’s Outhouse. Digital Antiques Journal, October 31, 2020. https://antiquesjournal.com/index.php/2020/10/31/fdrs-outhouse/
The Sanitary Privy, The Friday Footnote. Focusing on the History of Agricultural Education and Rural America. https://footnote.wordpress.ncsu.edu/
July 3, 2020
Missouri Folklore Society
N.d. Missouri Outhouses. The Missouri Folklore Society. http://missourifolkloresociety.truman.edu/outhouses.html
Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission
2021. Photograph of a privy, North Annville Township, Lebanon County, c. 1945. http://www.phmc.state.pa.us/portal/communities/agriculture/field-guide/privy.html
2021 The History of the Lavatory, Old House Online, June 17, 2021. https://www.oldhouseonline.com/kitchens-and-baths-articles/the-history-of-the-toilet/
Tisdale, E. S. & Atkins, C. H.
1943 The Sanitary Privy and Its Relation to Public Health. American Journal of Public Health, 1943, November. https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/pdf/10.2105/AJPH.33.11.1319