The Little House Out Back



When I was a child, there was a well-traveled path behind our house.  If you were to follow that path, you would find yourself at the doorstep of the little house out back.  There aren’t very many of these little houses anymore but they used to be quite common and necessary, especially in rural areas where very few people had indoor plumbing.


Where I grew up, the path led from the back door, past the cellar, the smokehouse, then on through the gate near the old apple tree.   The little house out back stood about halfway between the house and the barn next to the chicken house.  Maybe that was planned so that any offensive odor could be blamed on the chickens. 


These little houses were called by different names, such as: outhouses, toilets, or privies.  They were usually built close enough to the main house to be convenient, yet far enough away to be inconspicuous; sometimes they were hidden behind a grape arbor or board fence.  If guests were shy about asking to use the facilities, they would often just slip outside unnoticed.  Others would simply announce they were going out to “visit Mrs. Jones”.  Mrs. Jones was quite popular and probably the most visited lady in our neighborhood.


Most of these little houses were equipped with a bench inside with holes cut in various sizes to accommodate both adults and small children.  I heard it was once said that a man must be pretty well off if he had more than a two holer and two catalogs.  If someone had “store bought” toilet paper in their outhouse then they surely must be putting on airs or else they had more money than good sense. 


The majority of outhouses were very simple but some people did extra things to keep them fixed up and clean.  My mother used wallpaper scraps to paper the walls of our outhouse and sometimes on washday a little bleach would be added to leftover wash water and the outhouse would be scrubbed.  In one corner of our outhouse was a bucket of lime or lye to be tossed down the toilet to keep odors away and speed decomposition.  In the other corner was an old Montgomery Ward catalog along with some other papers and magazines and they weren’t just for reading if you know what I mean.  We’d have to get a new supply whenever only the heavy shiny pages were left.


Since privacy was a concern, there was a hook to latch the door on the inside but normally the dog sitting on the outside step was a dead giveaway that the place was occupied. 


Many outhouses had the familiar crescent moon opening carved through the front door.  I thought it was to allow some light inside and also to help with ventilation but I wondered why that particular design was used so often.  Upon research, I discovered that the moon, or Luna, is an ancient symbol for women, while a sunburst (sometimes looked like a star) stood for men.  This was probably necessary many years ago when few people knew how to read.


Over the years I’ve heard a lot of stories and jokes about outhouses that could fill a book.  There was one story that my mother told when she and her cousins were staying with their Grandmother.  It seems that one cousin hatched up a scheme that he thought would be funny.  Now, it just so happened that the old outhouse faced a gravel road.  Mom’s cousin put on Grandma’s apron and bonnet and went to the outhouse.  He went inside, sat down, and closed the door.  He listened carefully until he heard someone coming down the old gravel road.  As the sound of the vehicle approached, he would hurriedly open the outhouse door and while sitting there, he gave a great big wave to the passerby.  This went on for a while and he thought this was quite funny until the last vehicle happened by and he waved at the wrong man.  The man in that particular vehicle was his own father!  I’m not sure what the punishment was for that little escapade but I’m sure he didn’t have any extra time on his hands for quite awhile.


There was another story about a man who got caught inside his outhouse when a violent storm came up.  The little house was swaying back and forth so badly that he was afraid it would tip over so he would jump back and forth from seat to seat in the small two holer in an attempt to keep it standing. Unfortunately, it tipped over anyway and he had to crawl out on his hands and knees. 


Of course, no outhouse story would be complete without mentioning Halloween night.  It seems it was common practice in many small towns for Pranksters to push over outhouses.  During my childhood, Mr. Kimble was our school superintendent.  (All Mr. Kimble had to do was clear his throat and we kids would stop breathing.)  Tipping over toilets ceased to be as much fun when Mr. Kimble sent the boys who did it out to set them back up the next morning.  He saw that they were put back exactly the way they were before they were pushed over.


These days we don’t see very many of the old outhouses and not many people “go out to visit Mrs. Jones” anymore.  The old outhouses might be nostalgic but I can’t say as I miss them because they often harbored spiders, flies, splinters, and even snakes.  The heat of summer, frigid temperatures of winter, and the darkness of night, all made the jaunt down that well-worn path a speedy trip.  The little house out back is one part of the good old days that I don’t miss and I was very happy when Mrs. Jones gave up her little house out back and moved indoors.




Pamela Perry Blaine

© 2004