For those of you too young or refined to know what an outhouse is let me explain. Also referred to as a “johnnyhouse”, it is a small structure situated some distance from the house used to cover an earthen latrine and protect the user from the elements. Typically it has one opening for one user but sometimes it has two. Such structures were quite common back in the days when there was no indoor plumbing. These toilets were not heated and during inclement weather or in the dark of night folks often used a chamber pot indoors, which was emptied outside when conditions were more favorable. I have read that some people had fancy two story outhouses although I’ve never seen one. Most were square and made of wood but I read that Thomas Jefferson built two octagonal brick structures. However, brick structures were permanent and immovable which made them relatively impractical for modest folks and I have to wonder if it is somehow connected to the expression “built like a brick $#& house”? Nowadays outhouses are mostly found at national parks or on mountain peaks. OR at public events where we find folks lined up to use the ever popular (mostly disgusting) plastic portable toilet sometimes referred to as “porta-johns” – which are absolutely no comparison to the outhouses of my childhood memory.
All that said, what I know about outhouses comes from personal experience. Although all the houses that I remember living in had indoor toilets my grandparent’s home in North Carolina did not. As a child, I didn’t wonder about this nor did I consider it strange. It’s just the way things were. And kudos to my mama for never pointing this out as she was a city girl who grew up in a big house with indoor plumbing. I suppose in her day these differences were not as stark as they would be considered today. It is only as an adult looking back I realized how differently my two sets of grandparents lived. I enjoyed being with either one equally. The only differences to me were that one lived in Virginia; the other in North Carolina and one in the city; the other in the country. Otherwise? Who cared? There was always something fun, delightful, or delicious happening at either place. Besides, back then there were lots of folks around who had outdoor toilets so it was just no big deal really. Of course, most of those people had “one seaters” which I considered rather lonely and sad. My grandparents had a very comfortable “two seater” in which I enjoyed many fine conversations with Mama, Gramma or one of my many girl cousins as we swung our legs and did our business.
Some years after my North Carolina grandfather died it was decided that my grandmother needed an indoor bathroom. I am fairly sure her children made this decision because I happened to know that Gramma thought it was a foolish waste of time and money. Despite her initial protests, the point was pressed and eventually Daddy and my uncles installed a small bathroom into a corner of my grandmother’s bedroom. The new addition contained a toilet and a sink. Period. It seemed that Gramma drew a line when it came to something as frivolous as a tub or shower. When I asked her why there was no tub she snorted, clenched her jaw, and declared she didn’t need one. The rest of the family shook their heads at her stubbornness and whispered fearfully among themselves that she might never use the lovely convenience. That first cold winter I’m sure she was silently grateful for being moved into the modern world but I know for sure that it was her absolute practical nature that drove her indoors rather than her lust for luxury. By then I was a teenager and having an indoor toilet was nearly a necessity. I had become privileged. Having gained some perspective today I can see that having a bathroom is indeed a luxury. Sixty percent of the world’s population does not have safe or indoor toilets. And as unbelievable as it sounds there are a half million Americans who do not have indoor plumbing which includes (more understandably) rural and indigenous communities as well as (surprisingly) some urban communities according to the Plumbing Poverty Project. (Who even knew such an organization existed?!?) Personally, I am very grateful for the comfort and convenience of an indoor toilet and realize that there are people in the world who would consider my bathroom an extravagance. And yet when I think of myself swinging my little legs in my grandparents comfy two seater outhouse chatting with one of my cousins I am pretty sure that I was as happy as any queen on her throne. The end.