History of the Old Outhouse

A look at the privy's history, such as outhouse designs, including the two-story outhouse, as well as outhouse construction.

| Summer 2017

  • A rustic outhouse in a yard near Nebraska City, Nebraska.
    Photo by Dorothy Rieke
  • A historic double-decker outhouse in Illinois.
    Photo by Fotolia/Ed Baumgarten
  • A dilapidated outhouse on a farm.
    Photo by Fotolia/wolterke
  • Traditional outhouses were nothing fancy, inside or out.
    Photo by Fotolia/Christine

As people settled on the Great Plains, a need for sanitary facilities arose. In order to meet this need, outhouses were constructed using lumber or bricks. Outhouses were a type of “folk architecture” and soon became commonplace.

Contrary to need, some people didn't like outhouses and considered them indecent and an affront to the sensibilities of civilized frontier people. However, they eventually realized they were necessary.

These small buildings had many different names, including little house, privy, back house, water closet, latrine, and in Australia, dunny.

Location & Maintenance

Outhouses were located in backyards, placed a distance away from the house, yet close enough for easy access. They were also situated away from wells to minimize risk of ground water pollution, contamination, and disease.

Some owners camouflaged the structures with plantings of hollyhocks, trumpet vine, wisteria, and honeysuckle. Sometimes the structures were placed near the family's wood pile, so users, on their way back to the house, could pick up and carry in an armload of wood, so there would always be wood to feed the stove.

Most outhouses were cleaned periodically. On certain wash days, leftover soapy water was carried to the outhouse and used to scrub everything down. In addition, some outhouse owners kept a bag of lime with a tin can in the outhouse, and occasionally dumped some down the holes to control the odor.

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