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When Nature Calls

By Robin Mayes, Farm Educator

Farmhouse bedroom toilet set

Young visitors to Gallant Farm are often disgusted at the thought of using … or worse, yet … emptying, the porcelain pot that is kept hidden discreetly in its compartment of the bedroom washstand. It is not the receptacle itself that repels them, of course. When I produce the rather delicate-looking, lidded vessel, some even “ooo and ahh” over it! When questioned about the possible uses of the pot, invariably someone responds with “Cookies!”

Needless to say, they are shocked and dismayed to hear the actual use of these one-handled, Chinaware pots that the Victorians dubbed “Thunder Mugs.” They even get pretty judgmental about people who would be so crass as to USE such a thing! When informed that the emptying of the chamber pots often fell to the young members of the household, the kids emit sounds of revolt!

By the 1930’s, most city-dwellers had the luxury of “indoor plumbing”, but it took a while longer for this modern convenience to make its way to the humble family farm. Interestingly, some were not anxious to bring the outhouse IN! If you have ever used an outhouse or a modern pit-toilet, you are familiar with the aroma. Today’s Port-a-Johns mask the smell with overpowering artificial fragrances, but you get the general idea. Many housewives, unfamiliar with the mechanics of an indoor flushing toilet, could not imagine why anyone would want to bring THAT inside!

By the 1960’s, although the farm families I knew had nice, inside facilities, most farms retained their outhouses. They were handy if you were engrossed in a great game or if you were wet from swimming and were forbidden to enter the house wet. An outhouse is also an option if you simply wanted to avoid the house just in case Mom had a job for you.  And the convenience of 2-holers? Well, we won’t even get into that.

Farm outhouse exterior

The construction of a good solid outhouse took thought and planning. As with many things, there were experts who knew the ‘ins-n-outs’ of outhouses. One such specialist took his knowledge on the road and made it into a successful comedy career and even wrote a book on the subject! All humor aside, the situating of the outhouse took forethought. The soil type in the spot where the pit was to be dug was even taken into consideration. A quality outhouse included a long stabilizing post driven down into the ground. This made it much more difficult for fun-loving juvenile delinquents to upset occupied outhouses or from stealing them as a Halloween prank. These stolen privies often ended up in the middle of a downtown street!

Farm outhouse interior

Here at Gallant Farm, our one-holer came ready-made and was set down where we thought it made sense. It is near the woodshed as it probably would have been decades ago. This would facilitate grabbing a few sticks of firewood for the woodstove with every trip to the outhouse. People often ask us if the outhouse here at the farm still works. We smile and reply that there is very little to go wrong with the workings of an outhouse but, remind them that ours is just for display.

So even though chamber pots and outhouses are often the butt of jokes (no pun intended) they hold an important part in history.

Chamber pail with flannel “husher”
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