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  • Writer's pictureNotes From The Frontier


Updated: May 11, 2023

Gems of American Architecture

Outhouses have been part of human civilization since ancient times. In fact, the King of England, Edmund Ironside, was killed in 1016 whilst sitting on the privy when he was stabbed in the anus by a Viking hiding below in the pit!

The little wooden outhouse as we know it has been an architectural fixture of America since the 1700s, when it began to replace chamber pots. Thomas Jefferson did devise an indoor privy at Monticello, but it was not based on modern plumbing but chamber pots in a wooden closet that were removed with pulleys by servants.

In the 1800s, outhouses were built discreetly behind homes, as the old joke goes: "too close in the summer, too far in the winter." Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs served double duty in the outhouse, as both reading material and toilet paper. Humorous outhouse vernacular became popular: the throne, head, office, library, loo, privy, latrine, WC, shithouse, reading room, can, john, crapper, lavatory, toilet, pisser, potty, jakes, tollhouse.

Outhouse construction was fairly simple. A 3' X 3' by 3'-6" deep pit was dug for a one-holer, 3' x 6" for a two holer. A wooden structure was built over the pit with a door and a roof. Inside a wooden box with a hole or two was placed over the pit. Later in the 1800s, a complete outhouse could be ordered from the Sears and Roebuck catalog.

Two-hole privies were built generally with one large hole for adults and one smaller one for children. A major phobia of children in the 1800s was fear of falling into the dark hole, which must have seemed like a portal to horror with rodents, snakes and spiders. Truth be told, outhouses sometimes did conceal horrific secrets: murder weapons, bottles of poison, axes, guns, knives, sometimes even victims themselves. (But, that's another story.)

Hotels, factories, schools and other institutions had much larger outhouses with numerous holes over large pits sometimes 12-15'-deep called "vaults." These vaults sometimes became scenes of tragedy. In St Louis on July 30, 1875, the proprietor of a boarding house near the Vulcan Iron Works fell into the boarding house vault and drowned. Three men crawled down into the vault to recover his body and were overcome by toxic fumes and also died.

But the Cincinnati Privy Disaster of 1904 was the nation's worst toilet tragedy. Students at the Pleasant Ridge School were out for recess when a threatening storm suddenly descended. About 30 girls rushed to the nearby outhouse, a 10-foot-square whitewashed building with a 12-foot deep stone pit underneath. The floor had just been repaired over some rotting joists. The girls, aged 7-16, crowded into the outhouse, squirming and giggling. No sooner had all the girls squeezed inside than the floor collapsed into the vault below, filled with about 6 feet of fetid waste. The pit was too deep for the girls to escape and many were crushed beneath the water. Nine girls died.

The 1800s brought new toilet technologies. The first plunger waste "closet" was patented in the U.S. in 1857. A flushing closet was invented in 1870 and a "jet syphon" closet in 1876. But, in 1900, a bowl, pitcher and chamber pot kept in a cabinet called a "commode," were still standard issue.

Scientific developments at the end of the 1800s had associated unsanitary conditions with cholera, typhoid fever, and bacteria. Women's magazines like House Beautiful and Better Homes and Gardens began promoting indoor toilets and plumbing, not only for convenience but for health reasons. By 1910, most new house plans included an indoor bathroom and plumbing. But indoor plumbing did not become commonly retrofitted in existing city homes until the 1920s. Rural areas lagged way behind, and didn't get indoor toilets until the 1930s to as late as the 1950s or 1960s.

Even then, outhouses remained in back yards until they fell apart, were damaged by mischief-making boys, or were removed. The vestigial sidewalk that once led to the outhouse remained, however, and simply stopped where the privy had once stood, a reminder of how hard the simplest daily tasks were for our forebears.

PHOTOS - THE DIRTY DOZEN: 1. A well-ventilated, open-air outhouse in Alaska, near Wood River, submerged in snow and decorated with moose antlers and snow-shoes. Or…wait a minute… there's someone reading inside! Photo by Dennis Roe of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. 2. Outhouse preserved from Elvis Presley's childhood home in Tupelo, Mississippi. 3. Double-decker privy in Nevada City, Montana. (Using upper level was recommended.) The top privy hole was situated so waste dropped down a shaft behind the privy below. Photo by Kathy Weiser. 4. Dilapidated outhouse with "Out of Order" sign near Tortilla Flats Superstition Saloon. AZ. 5. No one knows for sure how the crescent moon cutout became the iconic marking of outhouses. One theory is that a moon marked women's privies, a star for men. But, most households didn't have the luxury of two privies, and outhouses became unisex. 6. Outhouse at Miners Delight in Wyoming. The mine produced more than $5 million in gold ore and inhabited until 1960. Wonder how many gold nuggets fell into the privy hole? Photo by Jack E. Boucher. 7. Deluxe two-holer in Embarrass, Minnesota. No kidding! 8. Old outhouse in Yellowstone National Park, billed as the most remote privy in the lower 48 states. 9. Pioneer privy in Bannack, Montana. 10. Sears & Roebuck "Modern Homes" mail order outhouse. 1908. 11. The Johnson & Nettetlon Deodorizing Excavator was an invention featured first in Scientific American Magazine in 1875. Basically a high-falutin' "honey wagon." 12. The English inventor, Thomas Crapper, did not really invent the modern flush toilet but he did invent many water closet improvements. Nonetheless, his name holds the dubious honor of being most associated with toilets today.

You might also enjoy these related posts:

-How Log Cabins Were Built

-How to Build a Tipi

"Outhouses: Gems of American Architecture" was originally posted

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Deborah Hufford

Author, Notes from the Frontier

Deborah Hufford is an award-winning author and magazine editor with a passion for history. Her popular blog with 100,000+ readers has led to an upcoming novel! Growing up as an Iowa farmgirl, rodeo queen and voracious reader, her love of land, lore and literature fired her writing muse. With a Bachelor's in English and Master's in Journalism from the University of Iowa, she taught students of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, then at Northwestern University, Marquette and Mount Mary. Her extensive publishing career began at Better Homes & Gardens, includes credits in New York Times Magazine, New York Times, Connoisseur, many other titles, and serving as publisher of The Writer's Handbook


Deeply devoted to social justice, especially for veterans, women, and Native Americans, she has served on boards and donated her fundraising skills to Chief Joseph Foundation, Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), Homeless Veterans Initiative, Humane Society, and other nonprofits.  


Deborah's soon-to-be released historical novel, BLOOD TO RUBIES weaves indigenous and pioneer history, strong women and clashing worlds into a sweeping saga praised by NYT bestselling authors as "crushing," "rhapsodic," "gritty," and "sensuous." Purchase BLOOD TO RUBIES online beginning June 9. Connect with Deborah on, Facebook, and Instagram.

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