NOVEMBER 15, 1814
200 years ago in Washington County, Indiana Territory, the toilet habits of its residents were more a matter of practicality rather than of public health. John DePauw made no plans for a dedicated lot for a public toilet in his plat of Salem as the northern European ancestors of the Washington County settlers had a more private view of bodily functions than did the classical cultures of Rome and Greece and their southern European descendants. Therefore, each home included an outdoor toilet—outhouse—as part of its curtilage.
There were no building codes on the 19th century American frontier but human experience was a guide as to how toilet appurtenances to a cabin or a more permanent house were constructed. The first consideration was where the outhouse should be located. Although pioneer knowledge of public sanitation was not well developed, most freeholders tried to place the outhouse about 70 paces away from any source of water such as a spring, creek or well. As water tables were higher in Washington County 200 years ago, this was an important protection against contagious disease. The outhouse should not be under a tree but should be near trees so as to be shaded from the afternoon sun as heat caused more odor to emanate from the toilet vault. The outhouse also needed to be placed northeast of the cabin if possible so as to be downwind from the odor resulting from the decomposition processes in the privy pit. The privy also needed to be placed so that the rain runoff from the cabin roof did not flow toward it. Finally, a location that was on the same elevation as the home was also desirable so as to minimize physical exertion in attending to nature’s call and so as to avoid slipping and falling in cold or wet weather. The woodpile was often placed between the outhouse and the cabin so that each visitor to the latrine could bring firewood into the house while out in the cold winter air.
Once the site for the outhouse had been determined, the pit had to be dug. The size of the pit depended upon the size of the family. An outhouse with two holes would obviously require a larger pit than one with one hole. Typically a dimension of 4 feet by 4 feet was sufficient. The depth of the hole was usually about 4 feet although limestone was occasionally encountered before that depth was reached. The flooring, seating and building were made of sawed lumber that was cut from timber harvested from the farm or lot neighborhood. If the family couldn't afford the services of a sawmill, the structure may have been made out of logs like the main cabin. The door needed to be kept closed to keep out varmints and the sun. A small rope with a stone counterweight on the other end was run through a wooden pulley and attached to the door.
Once the outhouse was in use, various domestic strategies were needed to facilitate its function. The abatement of the odor wafting from the decaying bodily byproducts required continuing attention. Yeast was used to speed up the decomposition process thereby reducing the odor. Yeast was produced by saving the parings from fruit and potatoes and placing them in a bowl of water. The bowl was then set out in the sun for a few days. This produced a yeast bearing froth which was then poured into the pit about every 6 to 8 weeks. In addition to olfactory discomfort, raccoons, snakes and wasps were common visitors to outhouses and caused many surprises to those in vulnerable positions. A long stick or prod was kept by the door of the outhouse for use in discouraging such intruders from seeking shelter inside. The prod also was used in times of extreme cold to break any ice that might form on the surface of the deposited human detritus thereby slowing the process of decay.
Finally, the matter of cleaning one’s fundament after alimentary relief had to be managed. Newspapers were rare on the Indiana frontier and were often passed from person to person for reading until they literally disintegrated. The popular Sears and Roebuck catalog was not available for end use until the late 1880s. Corn shucks were the most common material available for toilet matters. After the shucks ran out, the corn cob was next used. Some dried leaves and grasses were adaptable for personal purposes. The pawpaw leaf was particularly suited for hygienic application in the outhouse. Moss was often used also but was harder to gather than leaves and grass. The heads of a mature cattail plants were especially prized for this purpose but were an inconvenience to forage and store. There is no record to indicate that the early settlers of Washington County were familiar with Gargantua and Pantagruel which was a famous comic writing by the French satirist Francois Rabelais. Therefore, it is unlikely that the necks of dead geese were used in the outhouses of the Washington County, Indiana Territory frontier.
The former locations of outhouses have become unintended archaeological time capsules. Besides human residue, many broken and discarded household items were thrown or dropped into privy vaults. When archaeological digs are done of historic sites, privy vaults are selected for excavation as they are often the best location for finding the material culture of the site. My grandfather, William Bruce Wright, died when I was 4 1/2 years old. I remember his appearance and voice, his walking with a cane and his trips to the outhouse. My grandparents had indoor plumbing but, I remember Grandpa often used the outhouse anyway. Years later, I wondered why he continued to use the outhouse. I've always wanted to dig the site of this outhouse to find what types of things my progenitors may have discarded or lost there. One day in the 1970s, I was visiting my parents who lived in this same house that my grandfather built in 1903 and suddenly realized why my grandfather favored the privy at times. My father was sitting on the enclosed side porch smoking as my mother no longer wanted him smoking in the house. Watching him relaxing and enjoying his Winston, an image of my grandfather seated on his outhouse throne smoking flashed from the recesses of my memory. He went to the outhouse to smoke and have time away from Grandma.
ARCHAEOLOGICAL EXCAVATION OF AN OUTHOUSE PIT