I once met an old gentleman named Charlie Edmondson, who was now getting up into his nineties. “Stillwell - do I have a story for you. When I was a much younger man, before the days of sewers and the rural water district, most people across the county either drew water from a well or the cistern out back....
I once met an old gentleman named Charlie Edmondson, who was now getting up into his nineties. “Stillwell - do I have a story for you. When I was a much younger man, before the days of sewers and the rural water district, most people across the county either drew water from a well or the cistern out back. The well water around this neighborhood has a high amount of iron, which gives it an odd taste and stains the porcelain a rusty brown color. So, most people preferred catching rain water in a cistern, which was fine except during a drought, such as we had last year. So, the little outhouse was once as much a part of America as computers are today. Many city dwellers as well as all farmers in those by-gone days used the outhouse – way out back.”
Charlie proudly told me, “I was a specialist back then, a champion privy builder. I did nothing but travel across the Midwest building outhouses.”
He then launched into details and claimed a lean-to type roof was better than a gable roof, because it had two less corners above your head for the wasps to build their nest. He told me “On a hot summer day there was nothing more un-peaceful as a lot of wasps buzzin’ around while you were sittin’ there reading the Sears catalog, figuring, thinking, or what ever.”
Charlie went on to explain that he built a pretty basic outhouse. To protect the user’s privacy there were no windows, because if someone was in a hurry, and the door was locked, the first thing they would do was look in the window. “Of course, we still had to have a little fresh air, so I would cut a diamond, crescent moon, or some stars above the door for ventilation and to add a little class to the new privy.” He generally built a two holler, but he said, “If there were small younguns’ in the family I would cut a smaller third hole, so they didn’t have the fear of fallin’ in.”
He said the average woman made 4 or 5 trips a day to the outhouse, but some women were timid if any of the men folk were around. She would be too bashful to go directly onto the throne, so he always built a rack for the woodpile near the outhouse. That way they could just saunter over to the woodpile and pick up an armful of wood and return to the kitchen until the coast was clear. “On a good day the wood box was full by noon,” he chuckled.
Charlie said times got tough for him during the Depression years, because the WPA started building outhouses at a nominal cost, which basically put him out of business. Thousands of people took advantage of the government program to modernize their outhouses, thus supplying thousands of men with jobs.
Page 2 of 2 - As for myself, I can well remember the day that the folks set a water pump in the cellar and pumped water from their cistern into the house. That afforded us the opportunity to take our Saturday night bath in a bathtub instead of a wash tub in front of the kitchen stove.
Recently, a company in California advertised a “custom made deluxe modern outhouse.” Its features included: Color coordinated wall to wall carpeting, C.B. radio, television, burglar alarm, smoke detector, fire extinguisher, a clear plastic seat, seat belts, fan, fly swatter, wasp spray, clock, thermometer, spittoon, kerosene stove, calendar, 1908 Sears Roebuck catalog, Farmers Almanac, and a pocket knife with a whittling stick. The price was $1,895. When I called and asked the company how many they had sold to date, the answer was “none”.
Portraits of the Past - Volume Five, a collection of the stories and artwork from this column has arrived and are available at the Examiner office, 410 S. Liberty St., and at the Blue & Grey Book Shoppe at 106 E. Walnut St., two blocks south of the Independence Square.
To reach Ted W. Stillwell, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 816-252-9909.