Cumberland Times-News

January 25, 2014

Some of us are ‘privy’ to certain information

Maude McDaniel, Columnist
Cumberland Times-News

— Outhouses used to be an object of fascination for me. (and in fact I wrote a column about them in 2007. Since we have all forgotten that, I decided to write another one this week. (Sometimes we get desperate.) But there was a time when outhouses seemed like objects from another world. Maybe not such a pleasant world but fascinating in its own right.

When my father went on pastoral visits to farm families, I always asked to go along and investigate the premises, including pigs and cows and chicken and dogs (definitely dogs). And sometimes they still had outhouses. I grew up in a house with a proper bathroom, but I had certain appreciation for the historical value of the human necessity to, well, relieve oneself, down through the ages. My only problem is how to write about it without being edited out of existence.)

I cannot imagine how people coped with outhouses in zero degree weather! In fact, I don’t even want to imagine it! I was always glad that my own history came along after the human race accepted the eternal human need to come to terms with one’s mortal existence from time to time. (I can tell this article is going to force me to speak very carefully about a human fact of life that humans don’t talk about much, but that they do maybe six to eight times a day. Or more.) This is such a universal experience that there are more than 30 words that express some equivalent of “outhouse” — some of my favorites include “jakes,” “garderobe,” “water closet,” “head,” “throne,” “honey bucket.” and my all time favorite, “pissoir.”

Being a history buff, I decided to check the public record and found out that even Wikipedia has its shy side. They seem to prefer sometimes to talk about the subject from the standpoint of “public baths.” Accordingly, I found out that 3000 BC was known as the “Age of Cleanliness.” (Not by me, but apparently somebody called it that.) We’re talking 5000 years ago, you know.

For some reason no one has addressed, it was at that time toilets and sewers were invented. Mojenjo Daro, now a ruined city in modern Pakistan (dating from about 2800-3000 BC), was among the most advanced in early times, with lavatories built into the outer walls of houses. There were Western-style “toilets built of bricks with wooden seats on top. Vertical chutes drained water away into street drains or cesspits.” and apparently, later, castles may have dealt with the problem the same way. (I did not find how they got water up there.)

It’s worth noting that nearly all of the hundreds of houses excavated in this project had their own bathing rooms. These were usually located on the ground floor and the water drained away through a hole in the floor, down chutes or pottery pipes in the walls, into the municipal drainage system. This was unusual; not even the fastidious Egyptians had special private bathrooms very often in those early days.

The earliest surviving bathtub dates back to 1700 B.C, and hails from the Palace of Knossos in Crete. What is remarkable about this tub is not only its similarity to the bathtubs of today, but also the way in which the plumbing works surrounding it differ so little from modern models.) In the West, it was actually the Middle Ages that saw the beginning of soap production, proof that bathing was definitely not uncommon.

Here’s something interesting: after the Renaissance, bathing actually declined because water was had been found to be a carrier of disease, and thus sweat baths and heavy perfumes were preferred. (Sometimes you can know more than is good for you, but not enough to get the whole picture.) But back to the outhouse.

Communal latrines abounded, apparently without too much concern for privacy. The Cluny Monastery had a “necessarium” that accommodated 40 men and 30 noblewomen (whether all at the same time or not, I don’t know. Oh yes, and things were plain and simple in those days — urine was used as an industrial solvent and in making leather and for dyeing.

Look up some pictures and you will be charmed. Thomas Jefferson had some beautiful brick privies at his other mansion (Poplar Forest). At the Virginia plantations, Westover and His Lordship’s Kindness, there are some gorgeous little cottages, like children’s playhouses. They were called “throne rooms.”

There were also a few double decker outhouses, and even fewer three decker ones — but the pictures are fascinating. The lower levels of such constructions were built with false walls, offset by the outer wall with enough distance to allow waste generated on the upper level to fall harmlessly past anyone in the lower level.

There seem to be different stories about how the crescent moon became a customary decoration on outhouse doors, As best I can figure it out, earlier on, the men’s bathrooms had a round sun or a star carved into them, and the women’s had a crescent moon. After a while, some men apparently began to use the women’s facilities because they were way cleaner than the men’s, and pretty soon everybody went to the one with the crescent moon on it.

And you always told me you thought history was boring.

Maude McDaniel is a Cumberland freelance writer. Her column appears on alternate Sundays in the Times-News.