From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia - View original article

Jump to: navigation, search
This article is about a type of building or structure used primarily as a toilet. For other uses, see Outhouse (disambiguation).
Example in Le Palais, Brittany.
Outhouse in the mountains in Northern Norway
The privy at Örebro castle

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 in a general sense.


The term outhouse is used in North American English for the structure over a pit toilet.[1] The structures are referred to by many other terms throughout the English-speaking world including dunny in Australia[A] and bog in the United Kingdom. The terms kybo and biffy are unique to the Scouting movements.[3] In Australia such toilets are referred to as long-drops.[B]

Design and construction[edit]

Squat outhouse (i.e. without seat) in Poland
Two-level outhouse connected to main house via a skyway at the Hooper-Bowler-Hillstrom House in Belle Plaine, Minnesota
A brick outhouse at Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest estate near Lynchburg, Virginia
Outhouse used by sharecroppers on display at Louisiana State Cotton Museum in Lake Providence in northeastern Louisiana

Outhouses vary in design and construction. Common features usually include:

Biological processes[edit]

Main article: Pit latrine

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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

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[edit]

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.[citation needed]

In most outhouse designs, the privy hole is covered by a small building. The primary purpose of the building is for privacy and human comfort, so that the user is not exposed and 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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

End of pit life[edit]

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.[citation needed]

High volume usage[edit]

Brisbane, Australia was largely unsewered until the early 1970s, with many suburbs having outhouses behind each house.

In locations where an outhouse must serve 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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

Holding tanks[edit]

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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

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."[citation needed]

Hazardous waste[edit]

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.[citation needed]


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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

Insect control[edit]

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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]


One of the purposes of outhouses is to avoid spreading parasites such as intestinal worms, notably hookworms, which might otherwise be spread via open defecation.

Controversies, trends and records[edit]

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.[24]

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.[21]

In popular culture[edit]

School outhouse from Portz, Germany about 1900, now at the Roscheider Hof Open Air Museum

See also[edit]



  1. ^ "The Great Australian Dunny outback 50 m"[2]
  2. ^ "This website has been set up to showcase all the creative Long Drops that are popping up around Christchurch [improvised after the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake]" [4]
  3. ^ Discussion of outhouses as vernacular architecture (including crescent moon folklore), from the Missouri Folklore Society.[9]
  4. ^ 7620 N. Academy Rd, Cedar Lake, Michigan.[11]


  1. ^ "Plans for a five-holer at Sewer History". Retrieved 2012-04-16. 
  2. ^ "Australian Country Roadsigns". Retrieved November 27, 2014. 
  3. ^ "KYBO". Scoutorama.com. Retrieved 2012-04-16. 
  4. ^ "ShowUsYourLongDrop.co.nz". Showusyourlongdrop.co.nz. Retrieved 2012-07-11. 
  5. ^ a b Martin, Douglas (August 29, 1996). "An Outhouse in SoHo Yields Artifacts of 19th century Life - New York Times". The New York Times. 
  6. ^ "Sewer History: Photos and Graphics". 
  7. ^ a b c Olmert, Michael. "Necessary and Sufficient". Colonial Williamsburg Journal. Retrieved November 27, 2014. 
  8. ^ Adams, Cecil (January 9, 1987). "The Straight Dope: Why do outhouse doors have half-moons on them?". 
  9. ^ "Missouri Outhouses". Missouri Folklore Society. Retrieved November 27, 2014. 
  10. ^ "PortalWisconsin.org – Chat". 
  11. ^ "Cedar Lake, MI - Two-Story Outhouse". 
  12. ^ Bahne, Charles (2012). Chronicles of old Boston: exploring New England's historic capital (Print). New York York: Museyon, Signature Book Services distributor. p. 74. ISBN 978-0-9846334-0-1. 
  13. ^ Kamensky, Jane (2008). The exchange artist: a tale of high-flying speculation and America's first banking collapse (Print). New York: Viking Press/Penguin books. p. 184. ISBN 978-0670018413. 
  14. ^ "Coolidge outhouse with window, picture". 
  15. ^ Cary, 'Jackpine' Bob (2003). The All-American Outhouse–Stories, Design & Construction (Print). Cambridge, MN: Adventure Publications, Inc. ISBN 978-1-59193-011-2. 
  16. ^ "Sewer History: Photos and Graphics". 
  17. ^ Nichols, A. (February 28, 1998). "Georgia's Stone Mountain Brick Outhouse". Retrieved November 27, 2014. 
  18. ^ Reilly, Mike (December 18, 2005) [February 19, 1997]. "The World & Milwaukee Early Sanitation History - Outhouses, Privies, Scavengers & Sewers or Privileged Privy Prattle". Privy Vaults: Early Milwaukee Sanitation History. Sussex-Lisbon Historical Society, Inc. 
  19. ^ "Among the Outhouses, the Prospect of Plumbing; Change, Not Sought by All, May Be in the Pipeline for a Rustic Westchester Niche - New York Times". The New York Times. December 1, 1997. Retrieved May 20, 2010. 
  20. ^ 'See "Kentucky Amish-Mennonite schools accused of violating health regulations". U.S. Water & News. January 1, 2003. [dead link]
  21. ^ a b c Motavalli, Jim (1998). "Flushed with success: new waste-reducing design in modern toiletry". E: The Environmental Magazine. 
  22. ^ 'See Composting toilets bring the outhouse indoors — JSCMS[dead link]
  23. ^ "Observations « Carry the Bags". 
  24. ^ "Library of Congress, American Memory Historical Collections for the National Digital Library, Reproduction Number LC-USZC2-1592 DLC.". 
  25. ^ Barringer, Felicity (September 5, 2007). "No More Privies, So Hikers Add a Carry-Along - New York Times". The New York Times. Retrieved May 20, 2010. 
  26. ^ "FresnoBee.com: Outdoors: A new approach to Whitney's waste". Fresno Bee. [dead link]
  27. ^ Barringer, Felicity (September 5, 2007). "No More Privies, So Hikers Add a Carry-Along - New York Times". The New York Times. Retrieved May 20, 2010. 
  28. ^ "Europe's highest toilet". Ananova. 1989-04-15. Retrieved 2012-04-16. 
  29. ^ proMONT-BLANC Le versant noir du Mont-Blanc.[dead link]
  30. ^ Flinn, John (August 28, 2010). "The pinnacle of success - and disgust - for climbers". The San Francisco Chronicle. 
  31. ^ See Getting to the Top In the Caucasus - New York Times
  32. ^ "Kosciuszko National Park Plan of Management: 2006-2007 Implementation Report" (PDF). National Parks and Wildlife Service. 2006. Retrieved November 27, 2014. 
  33. ^ "ideotrope | Peru07: Colca Canyon". 
  34. ^ a b "MountainZone.com". 
  35. ^ "Mt. Everest 2005: The British Everest expedition reports 7 Summits from the North!". 
  36. ^ "BBC | Horizon on Everest". 
  37. ^ "Paul & Fi's Mount Everest Climb". 
  38. ^ "Adventure Peaks Mt Everest 2004 Expedition:". 
  39. ^ "Cinderella Gas". 
  40. ^ See American Chronicle A Well Deserved Death for Trickle-Down
  41. ^ See also Hyde, Kevin. U of L magazine - "Dr. Phil is Leaving the Building". U of L Journal. Retrieved November 27, 2014. 
  42. ^ "The Two Story Outhouse!". 
  43. ^ Weingarten, Gene (November 21, 2003). "Cartoon Raises a Stink: Some See Slur Against Islam in a 'B.C.' Outhouse Strip". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2007-04-09. [dead link]
  44. ^ Packard, Mary (September 2004). Ripley's Believe It or Not! (Hardcover Print). New York: Scholastic. ISBN 0-439-46553-2. 
  45. ^ "The Annual Outhouse Races in Northern Michigan". 
  46. ^ "Google Image, Mackinaw Outhouse race". Mackinawouthouserace.com. 2012-01-21. Retrieved 2012-04-16. 
  47. ^ Sale, Charles (Chic); Kermode, William (Illustrator) (1994) [1929]. "The Specialist" (Print). London: Souvenir Press. ISBN 978-0-285-63226-4. Retrieved 13 July 2013. 
  48. ^ "The Specialist". Outhouse Wall of Fame. Outhouse Museum. [dead link]
  49. ^ Wheeler, Billy Edd. "That Little Old Shack Out Back" (Audio). Retrieved November 27, 2014. 
  50. ^ Nolan, Dick. "Song Titles by Album". Dick Nolan. Retrieved January 10, 2014. 
  51. ^ Greve, Frank (October 8, 1997). "The Opulent Outhouse". The Seattle Times (Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania: Knight-Ridder Newspapers). Retrieved November 27, 2014. 
  52. ^ People's Almanac, Wallechinsky & Wallace.
  53. ^ FireyOn. "The Gods and Goddesses of China". Gods and Goddesses of the World. Retrieved November 27, 2014. 
  54. ^ Monaghan, Patricia; Mullane Literary Agency (Editor) (December 2009). Encyclopedia of Goddesses and Heroines. Santa Barbara, California: Heinemann Educational Books. p. 111. ISBN 978-0-313-34989-8. ISBN 0-313-34989-4. 
  55. ^ Compare, "What are Outhouse Diggers?". Outhouse Tour of America Tour. January 18, 1998. Retrieved November 27, 2014. 

Literature and further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

  1. ^ "Outhouse Museum Wall of Fame: Peter Harrison".