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September 1, 2014, 3:03 pm

One destination of the past isn’t missed

As much as I sing praises about life in the past, there is something I prefer not to experience again. I suspect only a handful of you have experienced the focus of today’s column, something I experienced at least once in my life. Many feel this falls in the category of too much information. Let me alert you that it nearly fits this description.

When I walk from the parking lot to The Tribune offices, I am reminded of it. Plumbing pipes coming out of the walls of the older row homes in the area conjure up unpleasant memories. They are from the era when indoor plumbing became the norm for homes. The most practical way to remove waste material from rooms converted to bathrooms was through pipes going through walls and down the side of the building to the sewer. This was far more practical than running pipes through floors and walls inside.

This brings me to the “something” I referenced at the beginning of this column; the “something” we practiced prior to indoor plumbing. This was used by some of our parents and most of our grandparents. So join me as we visit the outhouse from back in the day.

Many of us think what we have today has always been part of life’s landscape. For many of us, there was no plastic toilet seat where we sat listening to our radios. The simple act of doing “the business” was a highly unpleasant act in the past. I tell you this from personal experience. It was probably 60 years ago, when my father took me to visit his brother in Savannah, Ga. While my uncle’s home was nice, it did not hit me until I had to go to the bathroom, that it was not as nice as I thought. I was told there was a small wood building outside, a few feet from the house, where I had to go to in order to relieve myself. This place I eventually visited on more than one occasion during our stay, was the outhouse. My uncle’s outhouse, like most, was, about the size of a telephone booth, made of rough wood, located behind his home. It was approximately five feet square and six feet high. While we tend to think of the outhouse being a part of a country setting, my uncle’s home was in the city. Some may be surprised, but our senior citizens know there were outhouses right here in our city. In Savannah and in other places for churches and schools a larger outhouse, usually the size of a chicken house, was provided.

Inside my uncle’s outhouse was a bench enclosed on the front, back and sides, constructed over a large hole dug into the ground. The hole was large enough to be covered by a bench that had at least one hole, sometimes two, the openings about the size of a bucket. I have wondered about a family outhouse having two holes, as I cannot imagine two people sharing such an undesirable environment for such a personal act.

While the holes could accommodate adults, they were problematic for younger children, who struggled to avoid slipping partly into the opening. These openings allowed your “business” to go into the hole under the outhouse. There was no light except for the sunlight coming through cracks in the building.

I have read several stories about the relationship between the outhouse and the term, “built like a brick s––house.” Some families had outhouses built of brick. Thus, country boys referred to a well-proportioned country girl this way.

I cannot recall what type of paper I used during my visits to the outhouse in Savannah. Some of my friends, honest enough to admit that they once used an outhouse, have indicated it contained a Sears catalog that served as toilet paper. I was told by others that in place of rolls of toilet paper, they had individual sheets of paper.

Obviously, there was nothing resembling a toilet seat cover in the outhouse. You should also understand that there was nothing like a disposable seat cover to provide protection. You recognize that no one back then was going into an outhouse with a newspaper or magazine for a leisurely visit, as is often the case today. It was much too smelly and far too unsanitary for anyone to stay in the outhouse any longer than necessary. I cannot imagine anyone banging on the door of the outhouse to rush the occupant due to their need to use it. Everyone went in and out as quickly as they could,.

Some of you are wondering what happened to “the stuff” that went through the hole in the bench into the hole in the ground. If you are eating, may I suggest you take a break until you are finished. One person told me that someone in his family shoveled out the waste material and placed it in another hole or large container to let it dry. Can you imagine this mandatory Saturday morning chore for a teenager? But, it does not stop there. After it dried, that waste was used as fertilizer for the family’s garden. Was this effective? According to another friend who grew up in the country and continues to live in the country, a pear fell from a tree near a hole he was cleaning; into all that mess. It was left there for several days. When he finally reached it, he threw it away, even though it was a ripe as it could possibly be from sitting in the waste material. From my friend’s point of view, this accidental experiment was just small evidence of the effectiveness of the remains from an outhouse.

Some families did something as simple as dumping lime into the hole, which effectively decomposed the waste. However, the most effective way to deal with it was to dig another large hole near the existing outhouse, move the existing outhouse over the new hole and use the dirt to fill in the hole of the old outhouse. I know what you are thinking: a great deal of hard work and a stench that would be with one for days.

Questions may arise as you think about your routine bathroom habits and how they relate to the outhouse. What happened when the need arose in the middle of the night? Usually, there was a container of some sort; under the bed or in a corner. It was emptied in the outhouse the next day. In some cases, it was a matter of going outside in the dead of night. A lantern was stored at the door to outside, to light one’s way to and from the outhouse. By the way, there was nowhere to wash your hands. Many families had pumps in their yards to wash their hands.

A friend shared his experience of using an outhouse while living in a five-story apartment building with four to five apartments on each floor. Families went down the hall to a community bathroom on a porch on each floor of the building. He remembered when a representative from the sanitation department came to empty the containers. In other cases, whatever was in the containers was thrown from the porch to a special area in the rear of the building. Another friend told me of his experience when his family arrived to the Philadelphia area from North Carolina. He said he will always remember his first experience sitting on a ceramic toilet seat. It was a huge step from his outhouse in the woods, back in the day.

As messy as an experience with an outhouse was, some people are nostalgic about them. Some collect images of outhouses. Some have salvaged their outhouses or even purchased old ones and display them on their properties, using them for storage. Some have outhouse pictures hanging on their bathroom walls. There are also outhouse diggers, who explore abandoned outhouse locations for treasures. If you go to your computer and search the term, you will find many sites providing information and pictures of outhouses. You will even find a picture of a two-story outhouse. Even with this level of nostalgia, I cannot find anyone expressing fond memories of the outhouse. The next time you go into your bathroom, just think about the challenges that confronted your ancestors when they went into the outhouse back in the day.

 

Alonzo Kittrels can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or The Philadelphia Tribune, Back In The Day, 520 S. 16th St., Philadelphia, PA 19146.