The mere mention of an outhouse can be enough to turn a stomach. Cottagers who have or continue to use them know it’s hard to shake that unforgettable stench. But while most cottagers shudder at the thought of them, others find them fascinating—so much so that outhouses are studied, restored, raced, and even stolen.
John Loose has learned a lot about outdoor toilets since launching the Outhouse Tour of America in 1997, an online collection of hundreds of random facts, photos, and stories about outhouses from around the world. He’s been interviewed for a Wall Street Journal cover feature, and even invited to England by descendants of British toilet entrepreneur Thomas Crapper.
Never heard of the Outhouse Tour of America? Here are 10 more things you didn’t think you’d ever know about outhouses.
1. There’s meaning behind the moons and stars: Moon and star cut-outs are commonly found on outhouse doors, allegedly dating back to colonial times when literacy levels were low. “They serve two purposes,” explains Loose. “Basically, they’re for lighting but the other purpose was to tell the difference between the male and the female outhouses.” A crescent moon symbolized a female and a star a male. However, he says that if families had a single outhouse, it most likely had a moon on it.
2. Outhouses in the past often had more than one storey: Believe it or not, high-rise outhouses actually existed, like the preserved two-storey “skys-crapper” that still stands in Gays, Illinois. “Back in the old days, they had two-storey hotels in towns so they would build two-storey outhouses,” Loose explains. “On the upper floor, you’d go back in a little bit further than the outhouse below.” Waste from above would fall down a shaft behind the first-floor loo’s wall, allowing for a seamless flow of sewage. An even more elaborate example can be found in the Missouri History Museum archives, where they have photos of a three-storey outhouse that served 12 families.
3. Two-seater outhouses aren’t as strange as you think: Have you ever used an outhouse that had two seats and thought, “Huh?” Turns out, traditional two-seater outhouses have two holes for different-sized behinds: a bigger one for adult bottoms and a smaller one for kids.
4. There’s an outhouse capital of the world: It’s a curious claim to fame but American town Elk Falls calls itself the outhouse capital of Kansas (and even the world). On the Friday and Saturday before American Thanksgiving, Elk Falls holds outhouse tours that promise “an outrageously ‘moving’ experience,” as people wander through wacky homemade outhouses and vote for their favourites. Last year’s winner was the very pink “pretty privy” with lace curtains and a frilly table lamp.
5. And an outhouse museum in Nova Scotia: The tiny Museum of the Outhouse is tucked inside Liverpool, Nova Scotia’s Rossignol Cultural Centre and is filled with collectables, photos, artifacts, and more. “It’s one room and there is an actual outhouse in it. We have little tiny outhouse key chains, outhouse posters, outhouse coffee mugs—literally a whole room dedicate to outhouses,” says John Siriopoulos, manager at the Rossignol Museum, but he adds that despite the eccentric outhouse shrine, the Rossignol “is really an art museum.”
6. There are outhouse races: Outhouse racing has become a popular sport in small towns around the continent, including Trenary, Michigan where they’ve been racing them for more than 20 years. The annual Trenary Outhouse Classic is held on the last Saturday of February and contestants construct outrageously-themed outhouses then push them across the snow. This year’s winners included the Who Cut the Cheese outhouse, the wolf-themed Let Your Bowels Howl, and a wrecking ball-shaped outhouse.
7. People actually steal outhouses: It may seem impossible, but in 2013, there were multiple outhouse thefts across Canada. Alberta’s Randy Nemirsky made headlines when his new outhouse was swiped from his farm near Edmonton. It was estimated to weigh up to 450 kilograms and would have required as many as six people to move. As he told the CBC: “how low can you go to steal a man’s privy?” Later that year, a man by the name of Morris Harris, from New Brunswick’s Charlotte County, had his custom-made outhouse stolen from his hunting camp in Clarence Ridge.
8. Outhouse digging isn’t what you think: Believe it or not, some people cash in on outhouse holes of the past. “In the 1700s, 1800s, and early 1900s, [the outhouse] was also the garbage disposal,” Loose explains. “People would not only use their outhouse to go to the bathroom, they would throw trash into the hole. There are people out there called outhouse diggers who do nothing but dig in places where they think old outhouses were. Usually what they find are really old bottles like medicine bottles, codeine, whisky bottles, you name it.”
9. The Sears catalogue collection: Have you ever seen a vintage Sears catalogue in an outhouse, or even framed pictures of them? It’s actually a tribute to the popular makeshift toilet paper of the past. “Toilet paper was a luxury,” says Loose. “Sears would always send out these catalogues that were two or three inches thick with black-and-white grainy paper. The farmers would take these catalogues and when they were done with them, put them out in the outhouse and use them to wipe with.”
10. Outhouses on mountaintops can be hazardous: Outhouses can pose big problems in high places. Nature calls no matter where you are and if you think digging out an outhouse at your cottage is tricky, imagine trying to put one on top of a mountain. California’s Mount Whitney summit once had the highest outhouse in the continental United States, but in 2007, they scrapped their outhouse strategy and started requiring climbers to “carry their own.” Composting isn’t possible at that high of an altitude, so it meant that helicopters and hazmat-suited rangers had to battle high winds and extreme weather to retrieve big barrels of human waste.