The Outhouse: A Brief History


Editorial & Photography By: Dr. Christopher Cooper


Outhouses are, after all, a very large part of our history. They have in the past, been the BUTT of all jokes and continue to be so. But, realistically, they were as necessary as the common toilet is today.

Outhouses of the past were double holed. One large hole for adults, and one smaller hole for children. Therefore, the kiddies would not have to sit on the larger one and risk the consequences.

The average outhouse was approximately 3 to 4 feet square by 7 feet high. It was built with a 2 foot high box on the inside and this ran along the back from wall to wall. Oblong holes, approximately 12 inches by 10 inches, were created on the top of the box. The box was set over a hole that had been dug, usually about 5 feet deep.

Once these holes were full, another hole was dug, usually right beside the existing one and the dirt from one hole was used to fill the used hole. It was a dirty job, but somebody had to do it.

Above: The business end, (excuse the pun) of a standard outhouse was little more than a raised box with a hole in it.

There was no heat or electric light so the outhouses were not very comfortable. The “fragrance” they omitted was covered up by dumping a can of lime or even kerosene directly into the hole. A bag or box of lime was sometimes kept in the corner of the outhouse for this use.

Imagine the secondary use of old magazines and newspapers. There was no toilet paper so people had to make due with what they had. They survived.

Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, an outhouse for men was symbolized with a star while the women’s were labelled with a crescent moon. In Europe, a circular symbol was used for the men, this represented the sun which symbolized masculinity. The more subdued and submissive moon represented femininity. Symbols were used rather than words, due to the widespread illiteracy of the times. Gradually, the adoption of the crescent moon was used for both men and women because the men would always use the cleaner facility that the women would maintain. Boys were still boys even back then.

Today, outhouses are still used in parks, construction sites and some out of the way cottages. They have been modified to hold toilet paper rolls, installed with toilet seats, sinks, ventilated, and chemicals are added to breakdown waste and mask odours. These are mobile units, different from the days of old, but still similar in design. And the moon, in most cases, is still imprinted or cut out as a window opening. A universal symbol, who knew!


One Comment Add yours

  1. Dr. Robert J Carley says:

    An outhouse is still on my ‘to do’ list for our old farmhouse – not functional, of course – but as a fun curiousity.

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