Let’s talk about toilets.
An 1880s toilet just off one of the downstairs reception rooms, ‘Iolani Palace
Yep. Actual toilets. Not toilettes.
Toilets are actually pretty interesting from a historical sense, and they are something that I get asked about a lot when I give talks about historical costuming. One of the most common questions people ask, for many different periods, is “How did they go to the bathroom in that?”
The answer, of course, depends on the dress, and the period, but it does give me an opportunity to talk about the lack of any sort of under-pants in earlier periods, and the benefits of divided drawers, and the range of period toilets, depending on era and status.
My toilet experience is a bit unusual (almost, you might say, historical) in the Western world, so I thought you might find my perspective on them interesting.
I was raised predominantly with outhouses (or, as they would be called in NZ, long drops).
An outhouse on my parent’s farm
When I was about 9 or 10, my parents got rid of the only normal flush toilet on the farm, and to this day there are nothing but long drops on the property.
As a kid, it was terribly embarrassing to explain to my peers that we only had outhouses, but as an adult, now that I live predominantly with indoor toilets, my feelings towards outhouses have changed a lot. I’ve come to respect, admire my parent’s choice to have outhouses, and I even envy them.
Yes. I wish I could have an outhouse.
Well, living in another country, and interacting with lots of immigrants, and reading, and simply thinking about it have taught me how much our perceptions around toilets and cleanliness are shaped by culture.
In New Zealand, especially in older houses, it’s common for the toilet and bath to be in separate rooms. This was something I had rarely encountered living in the US. For many older Kiwis, and for most Maori & Pacific Islanders, having the toilet and bath/shower in the same room is disgusting.
If you think about it, it makes total sense: the toilet is where you do the most un-clean, gross thing that you do in a day, and the bath/shower is where you get clean. Why would you put those in the same room?
I quite agree with the ‘baths and toilets should be in separate rooms’ philosophy, but there is an aspect to it that is a bit gross to many North American immigrants to NZ (and many younger Kiwis). In many older houses (including, sadly, ours), there is no sink in the toilet room, so you have to go out of it into the bathroom to wash your hands – and that means the possibility of touching handles.
And yeah, that’s gross. Putting a sink in the toilet room is top of my list for big changes to the house, so much so that I’ve even looked at the plumbing and said “You know…I’m pretty sure I could plumb in a sink here myself” while Mr D looks alarmed and says things about permits and regulations.
Western toilets as a whole can be a bit gross to other cultures, and the more I think about it, and the more I compare it to the outhouses I grew up with, indoor toilets ARE gross.
What you put in an indoor toilet is carried to the entire inside of the toilet by the water, and is sent up into the air as a fine spray when you flush (which is why the answer to ‘lid up or down’ should always be down, even in an all-male house!). Even if you put the lid down when flushing, the bacteria from flushing is over the lid when you open it up again, and gets on to anything that touches the underside of the lid, like your shirt, or hair. Since what goes in the toilet gets all over the inside of it, you have to clean the toilets, and then that brush is sitting around the house…
I think ewwww covers the whole situation quite nicely…
Plus, from an environmental perspective, mixing human waste with water is just about the most un-sustainable thing you can do. It uses tons of water, it’s really hard to clean and sanitise that water, and really hard to do anything useful with the waste.
With an outhouse, all the waste goes straight to its final destination. It doesn’t have to travel and get spread around. No water needed. No waste touching anything. No spray. No need to clean anything but the lid and seat.
For those of you who are thinking about the smell, there really doesn’t have to be any. A reasonable diet (outhouses aren’t great if you are eating a ton of saturated fat, chemicals and super processed food), the judicious addition of woodchips or other cellulose material, lots of ventilation, and there is no smell at all.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there are huge advantages to indoor toilets, and the more I live in a temperate (hah. Wellington, temperate?) climate the more I understand them. An outhouse is perfectly nice in Hawaii, where 15 degrees Celcius is such a shockingly low temperature that we took a photograph of the thermometer because we were that excited (true story), but it would be horrible in the middle of a Wellington winter, and it doesn’t even get down to freezing here. It would be really horrible somewhere with snow and ice.
So I wouldn’t only want an outhouse in Wellington.
If council by-laws and our property space allowed it, I would have an outhouse to use any time the weather permitted it in a heartbeat. So much cleaner, so much better for the environment.
An outhouse and a flock of ducks fertilising a banana grove.
If you’re wondering about my parent’s outhouses, they are very simple and rustic. Here is one being used as a tool-shed when it is not in use:
They switch between outhouses, giving them a few months in use and then a few months on break, which also helps with smells.
Yep, they could be poshed up, with tiled floors and fancy seats, but basically, they are great. You don’t have to touch anything but the toilet paper, you can go straight from them to an outdoor sink with soap to wash your hands. Great for the environment, clean in the most important sense (but not so clean that it doesn’t matter if you are wearing your muddy farm boots), and eminently practical.
The outhouses on the farm are situated in groves of banana trees. You cannot safely use human waste to fertilise field crops like lettuce and carrots, but fruit orchards are the perfect place to put outhouses, The waste will ultimately end up fertilising the fruit trees, without any chance whatsoever of passing on harmful bacteria.
A stalk of ripening bananas near the outhouse
There are many, many things about the past that I am SO glad I don’t have to worry about, or live with. But outhouses? Maybe we need to re-think our stance on them. In many ways outhouses are actually better than the modern alternative.
At least if you live in Hawaii or it is summer!