Somewhere in my vast reading of Classic Comics 40 or 50 years ago, I came
across the line "The carriage stopped because the king had to go where even
kings must go on foot." I've remembered it for all these years under the
heading "Best Euphemism For 'Going to the Bathroom.'" It's a great
euphemism, but it's really hard to fit into conversations-and, Lord knows,
I got to thinking. Look at any Currier and Ives print or Grandma Moses
painting or painted bird's eye view of a town from the 1800s. None of them
show what the signs on the interstate highways call "Comfort Facilities."
That is, although it is common knowledge that people used outdoor
"facilities" (or just the outdoors) for most of the 250 years our towns have
been in existence, but the pictures from those times show nary an outhouse.
And what about Mary Ingalls and Laura Ingalls of the "Little House in the
Big Woods" books? As far as I can recall, there's no mention in all those
books about going where even pioneer girls must go on foot. And these are
books that are famous for Laura Ingalls Wilder's ability to make
descriptions of ordinary life fascinating. (Or, some say, Laura's daughter
Rose's ability to superbly re-write her mother's basic stories. Who knows?)
It's interesting because, until a very few years ago, there were residences
in our towns that did not have indoor toilets. I know for a fact that one
elderly resident in Thetford did not have indoor facilities as recently as
1981. I'm sure there were others.
This is a subject that is the first one addressed when a settlement is
established. As soon as you identified where you would build your house,
you would identify where you would put the outhouse. And then you would dig
a hole there, because you'd be needing it by tomorrow, at the latest.
Disposal of human waste was quite a problem, even in the country. Without
plentiful running water, it was not possible to flush. In the winter time,
it could be a MIGHTY chilly trip to the outhouse in the middle of the night.
In the summer, things could become a bit fetid around the hole. But it was
just part of life, so people dealt with it. But they did not paint pictures
about that part of life, nor write about it.
So, channeling the inner junior-high-school boy in me, I'll write some about
it. In the earliest days of our towns, people used the great out-of-doors.
Building your log cabin was hard enough, without having to build an
outhouse, too. One could use a chamber pot or bucket inside the house, if
one so chose, and then dispose of it somewhere outside.
Since the subject is thoroughly egalitarian, rich people had to deal with it
too. In the finer houses, there might be a privy built into the end of the
carriage barn or at the end of the sheds. That would be used in the warmer
months, if there was not an outhouse out in the yard somewhere. Another
privy might be in the sheds but much closer to the house for use in the
colder months, when the . . . ahem . . . aromas were held down by the cold.
People are no different from horses or cows. What they leave must be mucked
out. So there would be a hinged door on the side of the facilities in the
sheds or barns for periodic clean-out. With outhouses, they would dig the
hole as deep as they could. Then they would slide the outhouse, which would
be on skids, over the hole. The hole could be used until-oh, you can figure
it out. Then they would dig a new hole a little distance away, slide the
outhouse over the new hole, and use the dirt from the new hole to cover the
old hole. We'd call that "recycling." They called it "practical."
With the coming of running water came the ability to flush waste away. But
to where? If you were near a running stream or river, you would run a
straight pipe to the water. Flush-sh-sh and it was gone, down the
Connecticut or Ompompanoosuc Rivers. Since rivers were used as sewers for
nearly 200 years, not only here, but throughout the country, flushing waste
into them was thought to be no big deal.
Septic systems started to be used in the 20th century. In the beginning,
some kind of steel tank was buried, and the stuff would ferment in there,
with bacteria breaking the stuff down. Then the less-nasty effluent would
be run out to a dry well (a cylinder 8 or 10 feet deep, about 6 feet in
diameter, filled with crushed rock) where it would leach into the ground.
Septic systems work the same way now as they did 100 years ago, but the
engineering is a lot better.
But here's the thing that really impresses me about the subject of "going
where even kings must go on foot." It was-and is-one of the parts of
history that is a daily and intimate part of the history of every person who
has lived in Thetford and Norwich for the last 250 years. But there is no
description of nor reflection on the subject.
Some parts of history don't get talked about because the subjects are too
distasteful, or they are too personal, or the subjects bring up unwanted
memories. 'Twas ever thus, and probably 'twill ever be thus.
So, with credit to Professor Al Foley, here's the best outhouse joke ever.
There was a two-holer out behind the church. Two gentlemen were using it.
When one finished and arose to depart, a dime fell out of his pocket and
down the hole. He looked down, took a $10 bill from his wallet and threw it
into the hole. The second gent said, "Why'd you do THAT?!" The first guy
says, "You don't think I go down there for just a dime, do you?"
Dan Grossman, firstname.lastname@example.org