The four-generation family farm of 316 acres was “well-endowed with improvements, not the least of which was the outhouse,” wrote Marie (Middendorf) Muenkel, born in Winnebago Township, about her childhood in 1930s Houston County. Yes, at one time, the outhouse was a modern improvement, especially when considering the options before one was available. By definition, it did not involve indoor plumbing, but it was “indoor” (probably one door) under a roof.
When I moved to Minnesota in 1988, I purchased an outhouse. It came with a 108-year-old dwelling, originally the home of the blacksmith in downtown Wilmington. It had only recently received indoor plumbing, and the outhouse would have a new function.
During rehearsals for Spring Grove summer musicals at the Old Gray Barn (a working horse barn), the cast’s only “facility” was an outhouse, which was also frequented by yellowjackets. There was a stinging incident. A swollen lip does not lend itself to distinct diction onstage. During performances, portable “facilities” (flying insect-free) were brought in for the audience.
“There were no electric appliances, no TV, no warm cars and no indoor bathrooms…,” recalled lifelong Houston County resident Josephine (Lorenz) Gavin about growing up in the late 1930s and early 1940s. “The facility we used frequently had many names. They were backhouse, outhouse, privy and the little houses were the ‘butt’ of many jokes and pranks over the years.
“When nature called, we trotted to the little house, and hopefully, no one was in it at that time. The door had a hook on the inside, so the occupant wasn’t disturbed when there. We did not have the luxury of toilet tissue, but felt fortunate to have an old Sears and Roebuck catalog or the papers that peaches were wrapped in when we bought a crate of them.
“The name backhouse probably refers to the place that the little house was located, usually behind the main residence and outside it,” added Gavin. There could be some consideration to privy privacy when selecting a location. Muenkel remembered the site being in the north end of the pine grove just beyond the lawn, secluded by a small former smokehouse and also by corn cribs. Distance from the dwelling needed to balance ease of access as well as odor. Construction had to permit moving the privy, maybe once a year, after earthen pits filled up. There was a hole in the door for both ventilation and light. There has been much conjecture about the shape and design of those holes. Most recognized is the crescent moon popularized by American cartoonists.
There was usually seating for two; each seat had a hole about eight to 10 inches across. One was often higher than the other, the lower one for children. But Muenkel described her childhood farm’s more expansive “two-roomer.” The accommodations in the west room included an adult-sized seat for the ladies and child-sized seat for “the little ones.” The east room offered seating for one – for the men, family and hired help.
Not to be overlooked was the decor. The interior of the ladies room had cream-colored paint with a gray-painted floor. The men’s room had terra cotta paint.
Like most advances, indoor plumbing came first to town dwellers. Reminiscing about her childhood in the 1920s, Lucille (Clifford) Swing lived in what she described as a “modest little home” in Caledonia. “We did have electricity, indoor plumbing and central heating, which many of the rural homes at that time did not yet have.” She also recalled an electric iron, but not yet a dish washer. “My poor grandmother had to do the washing with the proverbial washboard and tub.”
Meanwhile on the farm, there was no electricity until the New Deal and the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 (REA) brought electricity to the farm, making it possible to pump water into indoor pipes – running water flushing toilets, filling bathtubs, washing clothes and washing dishes.
Before indoor plumbing – in town and in the countryside – the old saying was most folks bathed only once a week, and several members of the family used the same bath water. When electric lines brought power, plumbing soon followed. It was a whole “new deal.”
This article quotes written Houston County reminiscences published at the turn of the century.