And since we’re talking about indoor plumbing, did you know that Rose burned down the privy?

It was an accident. Of course. But now, Harold will have to build an outhouse. And that’s no easy task.

A few interesting facts about “the necessary”…

  1. It has a lot of names: can, toilet, head, john, johnny, latrine, lavatory, outhouse, pot, potty, privy, restroom, throne, washroom, water closet—feel free to share other names if you know them. We want this to be an Inclusive List!
  2. Whatever name it went by, it was 3 to 4 feet square by 7 feet high with no window
  3. Most were built 50-150 feet from the house,  facing away, to keep the smell down as much as possible.
  4. To avoid the unpleasant odor, many folks left the door open while they were using it. Old-timers admitted they had trouble breaking this habit with the invention of indoor bathrooms.
  5. If your home included a woodstove (as Rose’s did), wood ashes could be sprinkled over the waste in the outhouse to help hide the odor.

And now, here’s how the calamity happened…

Harold woke her when he moaned. Not that she’d actually been sleeping. Her stomach had not stopped rumbling, and she’d tossed and turned most of the night, hoping their sickness would soon pass. She could hear his stomach gurgling even now, although he, like most farmers, had an innate ability to sleep through anything—even food poisoning, it seemed.

Perhaps it was unkind to blame Melva Tribble’s veal croquettes as the source of their discomfort, but she was sinfully proud of her cooking expertise, and quick to point out every one of Rose’s own shortcomings in that area. Maybe she couldn’t prepare veal—or any other kind of—croquette, but at least she hadn’t poisoned anyone, unless you consider burnt coffee poison.

Another pain rippled through her gut. If I just lie still, it will stop. It has to. I will not go out there in the night.

There was the outside privy. Call it good planning, force of luck, or shear determination, but somehow she’d managed to never need the necessary after dark.

In the end, though, her stubborn will proved no match for either nature’s call or Melva’s poisoned beef. She grabbed her robe, groping for the candle and matches she kept in the pocket for just such an emergency. An outside privy was bad enough, at least it would be well lit.

The matched flared, then dimmed when she set it against the candle’s wick, and out into the night she went. Just the thought of that smelly pit, and the vermin it attracted, sent a shiver down her spine. Nevermind that she’d never seen evidence of any creatures. But, those kinds of things hid from the light of day.

She gripped her stomach. Just a bit further. Even without her candle, the smell would have signalled she was near; neither the chill October air or the woodash she religiously added could dampened the odor. Not even the breeze rustling the fallen leaves helped overmuch.

It was silly, really, how frightened she was of these invisible crawlies. But knowing in the light of day was not enough to ward off her rising dread. She stood a moment, staring, the half moon cutout on the door mocking her with its sideways grin, before taking a deep breath and diving in.

It was like walking into a coffin, pine walls enclosing around her. The candlelight writhed across the walls, casting shadows that danced from corner to corner. A page of last year’s Sears catalog rustled. Was that something creeping just beyond the— She whisked the candle around, as if the flurry of light would scare away the intruder, and instead plunged herself into darkness as it guttered in the wake.

Damn. She set the candle down on the plank and fumbled to light another match. As she touched the flame to candle, a cold wetness nuzzled against her foot.

“Aack! Get out. Get out.” She kicked her legs at the offending… whatever it was, then spun to escape. The candle, almost in her grasp, teetered in its dish before diving off the edge, making its own getaway, and she watched as the light tumbled into the privy pit.

“What the devil…?” Harold, still half asleep, peered in.

She couldn’t say what exactly happened next. A hand… Harold’s hand… A whoosh of fetid air. A flash of light. For a moment she thought it must be morning.

“Rose? God, Rose, are you all right?” Harold peered down at her, his arms and feet sprawled over her as if tackling a football opponent.

“Oomph. I will be, if you…” She pushed his weight from her, and sat up. “Sweet Mother of God, what happened?”

“Well, Bug,” he said, after scrutinizing her for hidden injuries and finding none, “it appears you caught the privy on fire.”

3 thoughts on “Outhouses

  1. Zan Marie says:

    Oh no! I’m having trouble suppressing a laugh. I do know the noxious environs you described. My maternal had a outdoor privy until I was 13. Nasty places in the summer–the time I visited her. I can’t imagine having to go in the deep winter.


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