Fancy a tandem trip to the outhouse?

Published: November 13, 2019

duo sitting on a toilet Illustration by Heidi Berton

“We have a two-seater outhouse. Legend has it that my grandpa built it when he was drunk. I don’t get it. Were there—or are there—benefits to a multi-seat outhouse?” 

This type of query just begs for another clever rhetorical question, like “Is the Pope Catholic?” or “Does the Prime Minister enjoy a costume party?”

Of course, there are benefits to a multi-hole privy, beginning with the obvious rewards for having any type of outhouse at a cottage, no matter how many parking spots it has on the bench. Even if you don’t use it much, an outhouse is a gold-plated asset, requiring neither electricity nor running water to function flawlessly, and never needing to be drained or winterized.

Even the most basic biffy can take the pressure off an overtaxed septic when it is assaulted by a family reunion or, joy of joys, a fairy-tale cottage wedding. Is your water pump on the fritz? The backhouse has your back. Want to come up for a quick winter weekend? The kybo might be cold, but it’s always open for business.

At my cottage, given the choice between a perfectly functioning indoor composting toilet or an outdoor outhouse, I always take the outhouse option, if only for the better view. So I guess you could say I am a biffy booster. But before we address the multi-holed crux of your question, let’s talk about your grandfather, whom I believe you have libelled.

I have serious doubts that your grandpa built your earth closet with twin depositories “when he was drunk,” as you maintain because building even a simple dunny requires back-breaking labour to dig the hole and intermediate carpentry skills to frame the structure.

Think about it. When was the last time you got sauced and decided to perform a really difficult task? Sure, most of us have done something really stupid when half in the bag, like learning to barefoot ski or free-climbing a giant hemlock, but I have never once met a drunken cottager who would attempt physically demanding and productive work.

In my experience, which is considerable, tipsy cottagers gravitate toward easier projects, like rigging a super-dangerous rope swing over the lake or building a cockeyed badminton court with clothesline and a bunch of tent pegs.

No, I don’t think your grandpa was whistled when he built your loo. So that leaves two possible explanations for the twin-hole configuration. First, there is the remote possibility that Gramps suffered from a serious case of double vision, but unless all your double doors have two handles on each side, and there are two stoves and two fridges in both your kitchens, I suspect this line of thinking might be off the mark.

What’s more likely is that your grandpa built the outhouse with two holes because he was a grandpa-aged man, and that’s how things were done back in the day. Pit latrines were commonly used anywhere that lacked a septic system or a sanitary sewer, like most rural or wilderness areas. And prior to widespread sewage treatment, outhouses were used everywhere, even in big cities.

My point is that in days of yore when everybody used an outhouse every day (and surely more than once every 24 hours), there had to be some accommodation given for volume and frequency. So it was not uncommon for places like hotels, schools, and resorts to have high-capacity commodes—some of them two-storeys tall—with up to a dozen holes.

Of course, this sounds absolutely disgusting, but if the communal convenience is the only game in town, what’s the alternative? When ya gotta go, ya gotta go. And it may help explain why we still huddle shoulder to shoulder in public restrooms, separated only by a flimsy sheet-metal cubicle wall, to stare at our neighbour’s feet and wonder, How much did he pay for those boots?

But your grandpa’s double-barrelled thunder box was probably inspired more by a family-style comfort station of days gone by, where having two or three holes was more about obliging different-sized bottoms of men, women, and children. You’ve got to remember that those were the days before the widespread use of the standardized toilet seat as we know it (or maybe folks just couldn’t afford them), so the hole cut in the bench was one’s only support.

Including some smaller holes for smaller people made sense, especially if you can imagine trying to rescue a screaming two-year-old from the depths of a well-used pit latrine, an area known, according to outhouse expert Max Burns, as “the dungeon of dung.”

Another possible benefit to having multiple holes is the ability to “spread the joy” around the bottom of the pit by rotating between holes over a period of time. Case in point: my own cottage latrine pit is wide enough to accommodate three holes, but has only one seat of honour in the middle. This necessitates the occasional employment of the dreaded Poo Stick, an eight-foot-long tool used to even out the pile. It’s especially important in winter when the ever-growing stalagmite of frozen dung gets too high.

Your grandpa was clearly a man of vision, and you should use his little brown shack out back as much as you can. Rotate between seats to see if you are right or left dominant. Or enjoy your little house with a friend (Best Outhouse Friends Forever!).

One thing is for certain: if your grandpa is alive and well, you must give him a big hug and call him a genius. If he is at eternal rest, send a silent prayer to say thanks for his amazing double-wide gift, one hole better than most outhouse-owning cottagers possess, and two holes ahead of everybody else.

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