Ins and outs of the outhouse

I was born and raised in a tiny village called Bridgeburg, some five miles north of Kittanning, Pa., along the winding Allegheny River. Our family of four lived in a small, comfy, cottage-type bungalow and had the humblest of all sanitation systems.

Yes, that means an outhouse!

I am sure many of our residents from our Valley can recall the days when an outhouse was their reality.

There was much rejoicing for our small family when our spanking new indoor bathroom was constructed in the mid-1950s. I believe I was 14 or maybe 15 at the time. I still can remember quite well the difference it made as the 50 yard dash became no more.

For those who never experienced this type of reality and way of life, you can be glad that you never did. Spiders spinning their webs within, along with wasps and their nests, and flies by the squadrons seemed always there to greet you in the summer months. Getting stung was part of the visit, and of all places to get stung. Along with that came that distinctive odor.

In the winter months, it was the cold, and the freezing rain, and the ice and the snow. The door, due to the weather, would be frozen shut with ice and required much attention to gain entrance. The seat itself got mighty cold in those wintry nights.

At night, the dark, bleak setting usually required a flashlight. You became quite angry and agitated when you discovered that your flashlight batteries were dead as you stumbled out hastily for your visit.

The outhouse, though, seems always to have an enduring affection as part of rural life in those days. It was all that we had, and we seemed to make the most of it and were really glad to have it. For some, the Sears Roebuck and Co. or Montgomery Wards catalogs usually graced the outhouse, and as page 450 came around, it was simply time for a new catalog. Some people, however, were well-stocked with toilet paper, as we were.

They were one-seaters or two-seaters, or holers as some referred to them. Some had a smaller seat for babies. The holes were usually oblong, approximately 10 by 12 inches. Some had hinged lids on the seats, others had no lids.

The outhouse itself was usually about 7 feet high, and approximately 3 1/2 to 4 feet square and formed a wooden shell with a roof that sometimes had shingles or tar paper. Ours had a tin roof, and when it rained, it produced a sound out of this world! It was like being entertained during your visit.

The inside naturally included a floor plus an entrance door that had some sort of wooden latch on the outside and a hook-type lock in the inside. The hole itself was usually dug about 5 feet into the ground and about 2 feet square, with the outhouse placed on top. Some had a cement box surrounding the hole.

In days of old, when the hole got filled up, they filled in the old hole and dug another and moved the outhouse over the new hole. Later on in history, sanitation or septic service people (we called them “Honey Dippers”) could be called out to completely clean your outhouse. Lye or powdered lime was usually sprinkled on top to keep down the stench and the flies.

Some outhouses were more immaculate and elaborate than others, and some were ventilated. The outhouse also seemed to be a target for Halloween pranksters, who seemed to enjoy tipping them over, especially if someone was in there. This was a nasty trick.

I have heard many stories about the cut-out of the moon on the door that some outhouses had. It seems that some say that in the early days there were two outhouses – one for the ladies, and one for the men. They say that the moon was for the ladies and stars were for the men. The story goes that the men’s were so nasty dirty, that everyone went into the ladies with the moon front. Thus, they all became a moon front, so they say.

The outhouse and its fond memories are in the past now. All that remains are the portable potties that we see and use at public entertainment centers, fairs and parks. As we grow older, we can’t help but think, as we sometimes get up a couple of times during the night, whether we could do this again.

No way!