An outhouse, also commonly known as a privy or earth closet, is a small structure, separate from a main building, which covers a pit toilet or a removable container. Outside North America, the term "outhouse" refers not to a toilet but to outbuildings more generally.
The term outhouse is used in North American English for the structure over a pit toilet. The structures are referred to by many other terms throughout the English-speaking world including dunny in Australia and bog in the United Kingdom. The terms kybo and biffy are unique to the Scouting movements. In Australia such toilets are referred to as long-drops.
Walls and a roof for privacy and to shield the user from the elements—rain, wind, sleet and snow (depending on locale) and thus to a small degree, cold weather. Floor plans typically are rectangular or square, but hexagonal outhouses have been built. Thomas Jefferson designed and built two brick octagons at his vacation home.
Outhouse door design: There is no standard for door design. The well-known crescent moon on American outhouses was popularized by cartoonists and had a questionable basis in fact. There are authors who claim the practice began during the colonial period as an early "mens"/ "ladies" designation for an illiterate populace (the sun and moon being popular symbols for the genders during those times). Others refute the claim as an urban legend. What is certain is that the purpose of the hole is for venting and light and there were a wide variety of shapes and placements employed.
In Western societies, there is at least one seat with a hole in it, above a small pit.
In Eastern societies, there is a hole in the floor, over which the user crouches.
A roll of toilet paper is sometimes available. However, historically, old newspapers and catalogs from retailers specializing in mail order purchases, such as the Montgomery Ward or Sears Roebuck catalog, were also common before toilet paper was widely available. Paper was often kept in a can or other container to protect it from mice, etc. The catalogs served a dual purpose, also giving one something to read. Old corn cobs, leaves, or other types of paper were also used.
Outhouses are typically built on one level, but two story models are to be found in unusual circumstances. One double-decker was built to service a two-story building in Cedar Lake, Michigan. The outhouse was connected by walkways. It still stands (but not the building). The waste from "upstairs" is directed down a chute separate from the "downstairs" facility in these instances, so contrary to various jokes about two story outhouses, the user of the lower level has nothing to fear if the upper level is in use at the same time.
U.S. President Calvin Coolidge had a window in his outhouse, but such accoutrements are rare.
Outhouses are commonly humble and utilitarian, made of lumber or plywood. This is especially fit so they can easily be moved when the earthen pit fills up. Depending on the size of the pit and the amount of use, this can be fairly frequent, sometimes yearly. As pundit 'Jackpine' Bob Cary wrote: "Anyone can build an outhouse, but not everyone can build a good outhouse."
However, brick outhouses are known. Some have been surprisingly ornate, almost opulent considering the time and the place. For example, an opulent 19th century antebellum example (a three-holer) is at the plantation area at the State Park in Stone Mountain, Georgia. The outhouses of Colonial Williamsburg varied widely, from simple expendable temporary wood structures to high style brick.See Jefferson's matched pair of eight-sided brick privies. Such outhouses are sometimes considered to be overbuilt, impractical and ostentatious, giving rise to the simile "built like a brick shithouse." That phrase's meaning and application is subject to some debate; but (depending upon the country) it has been applied to men, women, or inanimate objects.
Construction and maintenance of outhouses is subject to provincial, state, and local governmental restriction, regulation and prohibition. It is potentially both a public health issue, which has been addressed both by law and by education of the public as to good methods and practices (e.g., separation from drinking water sources). This also becomes a more prevalent issue as urban and suburban development encroaches on rural areas, and is an external manifestation of a deeper cultural conflict.See alsourban sprawl, urban planning, regional planning, suburbanization, urbanisation and counter urbanisation.
A modern analogy to the outhouse is the "Clivus multrum", which is an electric and waterless compost-making machine. Seecomposting toilet and humanure. They are an alternative to outhouses and septic fields, and provide effective sanitation in areas too remote for sewer lines. Worm hold privies, another variant of the composting toilet are being touted by Vermont's Green Mountain Club. These simple outhouses are stocked with red worms (a staple used by home composters). Despite their environmental benefits, composting toilets are likewise subject to regulations.
In suburban areas not connected to the sewerage, such outhouses were not built always built over pits. Instead, these areas utilized a pail closet, where waste was collected into large cans positioned under the toilet, to be collected by contractors (or night soil collectors) hired by property owners or the local council. The used cans were replaced with empty, cleaned cans. Until the 1970s Brisbane relied heavily on this form of sanitation.
An outhouse is primarily a hole dug into the ground, into which biological waste solids and liquids are introduced, similar to a cesspit. If sufficient moisture is available, natural bacteria within the waste materials begin the fermentation. Earthworms, amoebas, molds, and other organisms in the surrounding ground soils and flying insects entering the privy hole also consume nutrients in the waste material, slowly decomposing the wastes and forming a compost pile in the base of the pit. Bacteria form a complex biofilm on the wastes and in the surrounding exposed soils around the perimeter of the pit and feed on the wastes splashed or dropped into the pit.
An outhouse operates differently from a septic tank in that the pit is not normally filled with standing water. The solids act as a sponge to retain moisture but also are exposed to open air, allowing for insects and earthworms to feed on the wastes which would not be possible within a septic tank. Septic tanks also tend to contain only organisms that can survive anaerobic conditions, while the open outhouse pit can sustain both aerobic and anaerobic organisms.
The process of decomposition is slow due to the layering of waste materials but is generally effective if the input of new wastes does not exceed the decomposition rate of the bacteria and other organisms. Small amounts of moisture from urination are absorbed by existing decomposed wastes in the base of the pit. In soils where the percolation rate of water through the soil is slow and where there is not a large amount of waste entering the pit, the wastes can slowly decompose and be rendered harmless without causing groundwater contamination.
In Scandinavia and some other countries, outhouses are built over removable containers that enable easy removal of the waste and enable much more rapid composting in separate piles.
Soil percolation and groundwater pollution
In soils with a fast rate of percolation such as sandy soils, or where the base of the pit penetrates topsoils and clay going directly down to underlying gravel and fractured substone, waste liquids entering the unlined pit may quickly seep deep underground before bacteria and other organisms can remove contaminants, leading to groundwater pollution. This fast percolation of liquid wastes out of the pit can be slowed or prevented in newly dug outhouses by lining the base of the pit and the walls with a layer of absorptive organic material such as a thick mat of grass clippings. This material then decomposes and becomes part of the compost pile lining the pit that continues to act as a moisture sponge.
In most outhouse designs, the privy hole is covered by a small building. The primary purpose of the building is for human comfort, so that the user does not get wet when it is raining or cold when it is windy. However the building has the secondary and (possibly unintended by the builder) effect of protecting the privy hole from large influxes of water when it is raining, which would flood the hole and flush untreated wastes into the underlying soils before they can decompose.
On flat or low-lying ground, the privy hole can be further protected from rain and floodwaters by constructing a small raised hill or berm around the edge of the hole, using material from the hole when the pit is first excavated, to raise up the outhouse foundation. This helps falling rain and surface water to flow away from the sides of the outhouse so it does not enter the pit and lead to groundwater contamination.
Rain and surface water flowing into a low-lying open pit will also lead to soil erosion around the edges of the pit that may eventually undermine the building foundation, and potentially lead to collapse of the structure into the enlarging hole.
End of pit life
Eventually over a period of many years, the solid wastes form a growing pile that fill the pit. A new pit is dug somewhere nearby, and soil obtained from digging the new pit is used to cover and cap off the old pit. Underground organisms such as earthworms continue decomposition of the old pit until the fecal material becomes indistinguishable from the surrounding ground soils.
High volume usage
Brisbane, Australia was largely unsewered until the early 1970s, with many suburbs having outhouses behind each house.
In locations where an outhouse must service a large number of users, the single pit may be extended to form a long covered trench or a series of separate pits, so that the waste inputs are spread out over a larger surface area. The fastest waste decomposition generally occurs in the uppermost layer of solids exposed to the air. Decomposition continues slowly in deeper layers but relies on diffusion of air into the solids to sustain life for the organisms within the solids.
A deeper pit may appear to provide additional capacity but a thick layer of fresh solids deposited by many users may exceed the natural decomposition rate of the organisms in the pit, leading to increased potential for waste seepage out of the pit. A deep pit may also penetrate upper slow-percolation surface soil layers, and allow entry of contaminated waste liquids into the underlying fast percolation subsoils.
Decomposition may be accelerated by stirring or turning the pile, which breaks up the pile and introduces air pockets and air channels that allow faster organism growth within the bed of solids.
In areas where an open pit cannot be safely constructed due to extremely high soil percolation rates and lack of absorptive organic material to absorb and decompose liquid wastes, the open pit can be replaced with a solid-walled storage tank, that typically must be pumped out regularly if water and waste matter is not permitted to leach out of the storage tank.
As opposed to a closed holding tank, a Septic Tank can be fashioned. The tank is fabricated so that waste water enters the first chamber of the tank, allowing solids to settle and scum to float. The settled solids are anaerobically digested, reducing the volume of solids. The liquid component flows through the dividing wall into the second chamber, where further settlement takes place, with the excess liquid just below the scum layer then draining in a relatively clean condition from the outlet into the leach field, also referred to as a drain field or seepage field.
If bacteria is added to the septic tank (as directed by the manufacturer), and no non-biodegradable matter (such as oil, grease, plastics, styrofoam, diapers, etc.) is flushed into the system, the waste matter will break down into its basic elements and the septic tank will operate trouble free for many years without the solid waste having to be pumped out.
As a sometimes beneficial consequence of trace amounts of waste matter making its way to the leach field, foliage will naturally flourish over the leach field, hence the phrase, "Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank."
As with standard septic and sewage systems, toxic substances such as paint, oil, and chemicals must not be dumped into outhouse pits. The toxic materials will either kill the organisms breaking down the compost pile or the chemicals may not be digestible, eventually seeping deeper underground and contaminating groundwater under the pit.
Interior of an 1880s example near Stamford, South Dakota, showing seat with cover and a louvered vent to one side.
The decomposition of the solids by organisms naturally leads to the emission of gases such as methane and hydrogen sulfide. These gases linger within the pit and are the source of the pit odor, but the open-pit nature permits diffusion of these gases out of the pit, so concentrations are typically low enough not to cause harm.
The odor can be reduced by installing a vertical vent tube in the corner of the outhouse structure. In the warmth of the day the vent tube is heated, which sets up a slow air convection current that draws fresh air into the privy hole, and expels warmed pit gases out the top of the vent tube.
Some types of flying insects such as the housefly are attracted to the odor of decaying material, and will use it for food for their offspring, laying eggs in the decaying material. Other insects such as mosquitoes seek out standing water that may be present in the pit for the breeding of their offspring.
Both of these are undesirable pests to humans, but can be easily controlled without chemicals by enclosing the top of the pit with tight fitting boards or concrete, using a privy hole cover that is closed after every use, and by using fine-grid insect screen to cover the inlet and outlet vent holes. This prevents flying insect entry by all potential routes.
One of the purposes of outhouses is to avoid spreading parasites such as worms, notably hookworms. These worms are able to travel up to 4 feet from the waste through soil, so outhouses are commonly made at least 6 feet deep.
Controversies, trends and records
1940 WPA Community Sanitation Poster by John Buczak of Illinois promoting sanitary outhouse designs.
Outhouse design, placement, and maintenance has long been recognized as being important to the public health. See posters created by the Works Projects Administration.
The growing popularity of paddling, hiking, and climbing has created special waste disposal issues throughout the world. It is a dominant topic for outdoor organizations and their members.
On August 29, 2007, the highest outhouse (actually, not a building at all, but a pit toilet surrounded by a low rock wall) in the continental United States — which sat atop Mount Whitney at about 4,418 meters (14,494 feet) above sea level, offering a magnificent panorama to the user — was removed. Two other outhouses, in the Inyo National Forest, were closed due to the expense and danger involved in transporting out large sewage drums via helicopter. The annual 19,000 or so hikers of the Mount Whitney Trail, who must pick up National Forest Service permits, are now given Wagbags (a double-sealed sanitation kit) and told how to use them. "Pack it in; pack it out" is the new watchword. Solar powered toilets did not sufficiently compact the excrement, and the systems were judged failures at that location. Additionally, by relieving park rangers of latrine duty, they were better able to concentrate on primary ranger duties, e.g., talking to hikers. The use of Wagbags and the removal of outhouses is part of a larger trend in U.S. parks.
In 2007, Europe's highest outhouses (two) were helicoptered to the top of France's Mont Blanc at a height of 4,260 meters (13,976 feet). The dunny-cans are emptied by helicopter. The facilities will service 30,000 skiers and hikers annually; thus helping to alleviate the deposit of urine and feces that spread down the mountain face with the spring thaw, and turned it into 'Mont Noir'. More technically, the 2002 book Le versant noir du mont Blanc (The black hillside of Mont Blanc) exposes problems in conserving the site. * However, atop the 5,642 meters (18,510-feet) Mount Elbrus—Russia's highest peak, the highest mountain in all of Europe and (at least) topographically dividing Europe from Asia—sits the world's "nastiest outhouse" at 4,206 meters (13,800 feet). It is in the Caucasus Mountains, near the frontier between Georgia and Russia. As one writer opined, ". . . it does not much feel like Europe when you're there. It feels more like Central Asia or the Middle East" (PerOutside Magazine 1993 search and article). The outhouse is surrounded by and covered in ice, perched off the end of a rock, and with a pipe pouring effluvia onto the mountain. It consistently receives low marks for sanitation and convenience, but is considered to be a unique experience.
Australia's highest "dunny"—located at Rawson's Pass in the Main Range in Kosciuszko National Park, which each year receives more than 100,000 walkers outside of winter and has a serious human waste management issue, was completed in 2008.
Many reports document the use of Dunny cans (complete with pictures) for the removal of excrement, which must be packed in and packed out on Mount Everest. Also known as "expedition barrels" or "bog barrels," the cans are weighed to make sure that groups do not dump them along the way. "Toilet tents" are erected. This would seem to be an improvement over the prior practices, including the so-called "McKinley system"; there has been an increasing awareness that the mountain needs to be kept clean, for the health of the climbers at least.
A Norwegian invention challenges the conventional outhouse. The toilet incinerates waste into ashes, using only propane and 12 V DC. This Incinerating toilet is installed in several thousands cabins in Norway.
The double-decker outhouse has been used as an unflattering metaphor for the "Trickle-down theory" of politics, economics, command, management, labor relations, responsibility, etc. Depending on who is depicted on top and below, it is an easy and familiar cartoon.
On November 10, 2003, a drawing of an outhouse was used by B.C. (comic strip) cartoonist Johnny Hart as a motif in a controversial and allegedly religiously-themed piece. The cartoonist denied the allegations, and the convoluted analysis of the alleged iconography of the cartoon.
Charles Chic Sale was a famous comedian in vaudeville and the movies. In 1929 he published a small book, The SpecialistISBN 0-285-63226-4 which was a hugely popular "underground" success. Its entire premise centered on sales of outhouses, touting the advantages of one kind or another, and labeling them in "technical" terms such as "one-holers", "two-holers", etc. Over a million copies were sold. In 1931 his monolog "I'm a Specialist" was made into a hit record (Victor 22859) by popular recording artist Frank Crumit (music by Nels Bitterman). As memorialized in the "Outhouse Wall of Fame", the term "Chic Sale" became a rural slang synonym for privies, an appropriation of Mr. Sale's name that he personally considered unfortunate.
In Newfoundland, Canada a well-known song entitled "Good Old Newfie Outhouse" sings the praises of using the outhouse when it is -25 degrees out, mentioning pleasures like pants being frozen in position at the knees. A version by Singer Bobby Evans is available on an album called Silly Songs on iTunes.