Do you know how to reduce the smells coming from an outhouse? What happens when the hole under the outhouse gets full? What does the moon on the door mean?
While no longer common, outhouses are still used in many places in the United States. They can be found in camping areas, Amish farms, older farms, historical sites, and more. I remember going to a Girl Scout’s camp as a kid and not understanding why the other girls were all scared of them, and I was shocked to learn they had never used one before. Had they never been to a farm before? Yeah, I was young.
They were originally invented in the 1500s. An outhouse has four walls with a door, and a bench seat with a hole cut into it. This is placed on over of a large hole, sometimes called a pit. These holes are typically five to six feet deep but could be more or less. I have mostly seen deeper holes because people do not want to dig giant holes more often than they have to. They can be dug by hand as the Amish do, or they can be dug with something like a backhoe.
Sometimes the holes are dug longer, and the outhouse will also be longer. These types will have several holes cut into the outhouse bench so more people can go simultaneously. This is great for potty training kids. I have seen boards cut with smaller holes to go over the hole in the bench so that kids do not fall into the hole when they are small.
Most homes only had one outhouse, but schools, hotels, and general stores would put two outhouses out, with a sun, star, or moon cut out of the door. The sun or star was the sign for the men’s outhouse, and the moon was the sign for the women’s outhouse.
Things your characters will have to think about when placing an outhouse are being downhill of the well, and if humanly possible being downwind of the home or, business and not putting the hole where there is a divot in the ground that indicates it might fill with rainwater. Another thing is that most outhouses are built 50 to 150 feet away from the house. Your character will want to pick somewhere that is a sensible walking distance from the building.
An outhouse understandably smells, more so in the heat and humidity. Some of the things that people use to help cut down the smell are lime, sawdust, wood ash, straw to help make a film to help reduce flies, vegetable waste, but never meat waste. Side note, lime will burn the skin if your character gets it on the seat and then sits on it.
There are some hazards of an outhouse to think about. First are insects and parasites. These include flies, mosquitos, and hookworms. I have seen flies in every outhouse I have ever been in. They are not afraid to land on you. Mosquitoes can also get down in the waste and lay eggs. They will come up the hole when big enough. Never fun! Personally, I have seen wasps in or around most of the outhouses I have used.
Another thing is splinters. No one wants a splinter in the backside!
Sometimes the outhouses will fill up with methane. Sparks, fire, or static electricity could light the fumes on fire. This is why outhouse ventilation is essential. I’ve seen some leave the door open to ventilate them, but most will have a pipe, or a wooden pipe, with a covered top a few inches above to keep the rain out.
The last is groundwater pollution. Outhouses will need to be downhill or 200 feet from a well, stream, or other groundwater source.
Outhouse cleaning was done infrequently but was done. Maybe once a month, they would take soapy used dishwater out and wipe down the seat. The cobwebs would typically be knocked out at this time. The only other time I know they were cleaned was if there was poo on the seat.
Speaking of poo, let’s talk about how people have wiped. Modern outhouses might use toilet paper and throw it down the hole. Things that were used before that include but are not limited to rags, leaves, a bucket of water and a sponge, pulp paper, pages torn from catalogs, corncobs, and other plant materials. There was usually a rag for each individual in the home, but that was not always the case. As for the sponge, it was shared with anyone who used the outhouse. It was uncommon to wipe after urinating at that time, and they practiced what we call here drip drying.
Now I am sure you are wondering what happens when the hole gets full. OK, maybe you weren’t, but now you are. After a time, usually a few years, the hole will fill up. There are two options to deal with this. One, clean it out and use the waste for fertilizer or get rid of it. I have moved the buckets from this before, and it is disgusting! I feel nauseous just thinking about it.
The other way is to pick up the outhouse and fill the hole the rest of the way with dirt. Maybe with dirt you saved from when you dug it, but likely with dirt from the next hole. The reason? Because the outhouse will need to be moved to a new hole, so your character will have a place to go. Digging a hole is a physically demanding process. Your characters must decide between the physically challenging process of digging a deep hole or the gross process of scooping everything out to clean it.
Fun fact: There have been two-story outhouses. They were not common, and the most well-known one is located in Gays, Illinois, and was built by Samuel Gammill. It was built for the apartments on the top floor and the general store on the bottom floor. The outhouse holes are on opposite sides, and an inner wall will separate the two holes so that all drops are shielded from hitting those below.
What could possibly go wrong?
Likely to go wrong: The outhouse reeks! This is always true, and becoming sick from the smell when a woman is pregnant is very common.
Likely to go wrong: Your character left the door to the outhouse open. When they come back, there is an animal inside. Here in tornado alley this could be a racoon, opossum or a skunk. You will need to pick something native to area where your story is taking place.
Likely to go wrong: A fly or mosquito that has been in the hole flies up the hole and lands on your character as they are doing their business. This is gross, and no one wants mosquito bites in their underwear regions.
Possible to go wrong: Some teenager decides to play a prank on your character and knocks the outhouse over while they are inside or blocks the door so they can’t get out. It is never funny for the person inside, and being trapped can cause the person to panic.
Possible to go wrong: Someone comes to visit your character, or your character is the one visiting and has no idea how the outhouse works. They might not know what the rag or sponge is for.
Unlikely to go wrong: Your character placed the outhouse too close to the well and contaminated the well water. This will cause bacterial illness to anyone who drinks the water. Signs could be diarrhea, fever, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, and more, depending on the type of illness they get.
Unlikely to go wrong: Your character cleans out the hole of the outhouse. While taking the waste out, they get hookworms, E. coli, or hepatitis. The era you are writing will determine if antibiotics or other treatments are available.
Improbable and technically still in the realm of possibilities: The outhouse fills with methane gas, and your character walks in carrying a lantern, or maybe smoking a cigarette, and lights the gas on fire, causing an explosion. They could have singed hair, or it could be a full explosion that ends in injury or death.
Improbable but technically still in the realm of possibilities: Your character uses an old outhouse and gets several splinters in their backside. When they stand, it looks like they sit on a wooden cactus. This sounds painful, especially when they go to sit down again.
Helpful links to learn more:
History of the Outhouse:
DIY modern outhouse:
Handing outhouse smells: