Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick



A beautiful old brick home with shutters and a wrought iron fence stands elegantly on a corner lot in Salem with a nice flower garden in the back yard. My mind floods with memories and I smile as I pass by, because in the center of the back yard is a small brick building used to store garden equipment, that was formerly the family’s emergency room whenever nature called.

Ralph Arnold once wrote an article about this family necessity in the back yard that was referred to by various names: the toilet, the privy, the backhouse, the outhouse, the out building, or cruder terms that cannot be repeated. There were jokes or humorous remarks made about those little buildings, particularly ones made of brick like the one in Salem.

Before 1950, electricity and indoor plumbing was rare in rural areas, particularly on the farm. Small towns and hamlets were just beginning to modernize with deep wells and their own water systems. Although a few farmers were using a Delco battery system to generate their own electricity, the landscape was still dotted with the funky, disgusting but necessary little buildings.

It became a popular prank of young men to go through the neighborhoods at Halloween time, upsetting as many toilets as possible. Thus, many people went to great length to anchor their outhouses down with posts and chains. There were always stories of old men being caught inside the outhouse when it was upset, and likewise stories of those who sat on their porch steps all night with a shotgun in hand in case the boys stopped for a visit.

Ralph mentions that very few writers have commented on this part of American folklore, because of public embarrassment. As soon as indoor plumbing of any kind was available, people added bathrooms to their homes, even before they modernized their kitchens! Before then, some attempted to use chemical toilets within the home, but they were not very successful. As soon as sewer pipes were installed, the outhouse disappeared from the yard, and people proudly showed off their new, sparkling clean bathrooms.

Some people attempted to make their outhouses as comfortable as possible. Occasionally the walls would be papered or covered with linoleum, a fly paper ribbon would hang from a rafter, and often lids were hinged to the seats, only to be lifted when used. These people were likely to add alum or lime daily to keep down odors.

At construction sites, in parks, or at outdoor functions, we find a reminder of what the old privy was like. Here we find rows of green, blue, or white plastic "comfort stations" that you can usually smell from twenty feet, and are even more disgusting inside because people often miss their mark when using them. But none of them offer corn cobs, Sears catalogs, or Christmas gift tissue for human use like the old privies sometimes provided.

We had one of the old fashioned units when we lived at Pittsburg. One day when my mother stepped inside to use it, the old rotten floor gave way and she ended up waist deep in rotten, human waste material! She couldn’t get out without help and then much to her chagrin, we used buckets of cold well water to rinse her off before she could go inside to change clothing. For some unknown reason, my father demolished the old structure and built a brand new out building that day!

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Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick