Outhouses I Have Known

By Sandy Ward
January 8, 2007

A small framed photograph of a wooden outhouse decorates the wall of my modern bathroom. I've moved that photograph from house to house, bathroom to bathroom, over the years. Why? The photo itself is not special. I don't know the photographer or location nor do I recognize the exact style of the outhouse. But this photo is a friendly reminder of outhouses I have known. It is a reminder to smile and appreciate the luxury of a warm indoor room with plumbing and running water. Most of all, it brings back memories of other times and places.

I did not grow up with outhouses. My first encounter was a confusing one. My parents had stopped at a farm to visit with old friends and I, a bored child impatient to move on, asked to go to the bathroom. The adults pointed to a shed that connected the house to the barn. Inside the dimly-lit space I found a wooden bench-height cabinet with two round holes in the top. Huh? That was my first sight of a “two-holer.” I recall that the adults were rather amused by my puzzled reaction.

Years later, I became fond of a two-holer at a weekend campsite in the Santa Cruz mountains of California. It was an open-air outhouse on a hillside among redwood trees. Plywood panel sidewalls blocked the wind and provided some privacy. A corrigated panel made a partial roof to deflect rain. The front edge was open, with a lovely view of the trees and the valley below. Washbasin, water jugs, and soap were available on a countertop in front of the broad front opening. Towel racks, hooks, and mirrors were mounted on the sidewalls. This was a pleasant place to come with friends and chat as we freshened up before the evening dance parties. At night a few lightbulbs wired to a generator lit our path to and from this outdoor bathroom. A simple rope draped across the path between nails on two trees served as a “door,” indicating whether the outhouse was available. Of course we could often tell from the laughter and chatter ahead that this outhouse was occupied.

Most outhouses are smaller and more private, with only a single hole and lacking washbasin or other amenities. Basic requirements are met by a tin can to cover the toilet paper roll (so animals won't shred the paper) and another can of ashes to sprinkle down the hole to control odor and flies. The simplest outhouse I've experienced was constructed in Katmai National Monument, Alaska, by my then husband. He lashed together several branches to construct a seat, and dug a hole in the ground below. We were the only people for miles around, so no walls were needed. The view was spectacular, overlooking the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes with a row of volcanoes on the horizon. We camped in a tent there one summer in the 1960's, collecting scientific data for his graduate school and enjoying an extended honeymoon.

One of my fondest memories connected with outhouses is of the outdoor silence at night in northern New Mexico. The walk from my sister's house to her outhouse gave me time to view the huge expanse of starry sky and listen to the night. The lone barking of a dog miles away carried to my ears from the valley below. A rooster crowed before dawn. How could I hear these far-away individual animal calls so clearly? All else was silent. The silence felt deep and profound, unlike anything I had experienced elsewhere. I came to look forward to each trip to the outhouse, even on a winter's night. My sister's creativity in decorating various outhouses over the years also impressed me. She adorned the walls with collages of bright fabrics, stained glass or mirror pieces, pictures, and assorted artifacts -- always a pleasing array. Deep silence at night, whimsical artwork by day -- these were the attractions of my sister's outhouses.

Architectually more interesting, the outhouse at Peter Grubb Hut in the Sierras is a two-story affair with a small porch and a long ladder built up the front. It looks like a narrow well-built treehouse. On summer trips, my children enjoyed climbing up to this tiny room. The front door opens in two sections, top and bottom, Dutch-door style. You can sit up on the throne with the top door left open and enjoy fresh air and a beautiful view of the mountain scenery. In the winter, however, the real reason for the split door becomes obvious. Deep snows and snowdrifts bury most of this structure. The ladder extends well above the porch, providing a way to climb down to the outhouse door. If too much snow has packed onto the porch against the bottom of the door, at least you can open the top half and climb in. I spent a New Year's weekend at Peter Grubb in a fierce blizzard and very much appreciated the carefully planned design and shelter of that outhouse!

My modern bathroom in my city home is more convenient and comfortable to be sure, but lacks the stillness, views, and creativity of outhouses I have known. Perhaps that is why I keep the little framed photo on the wall.