Learn

Let’s talk about toilets

Let’s talk about toilets.

An indoor toilet just off one of the downstairs reception rooms, 'Iolani Palace

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

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.

Why?

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.

But…

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.

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:

Talking about historical toilets, thedreamstress.com2

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

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!

31 Comments

  1. I grew up without houses as well, which aren’t all that uncommon in the US if you A) grew up on a farm, and B) were poor. They were uncommon enough that people were still shocked we didn’t have an indoor commode though, so I feel you on it being a bit embarrassing as a child. Although a Hawaiian outhouse sounds much better to use than one in Ohio in the middle of winter! I definitely get a bit weirdly nostalgic for them though. I’m a true city woman now, but there’s something about an outhouse on a summer night, as crazy as that sounds.

  2. A very interesting post. I never really thought about having the toilet right next to the shower but it is a bit gross now that I have thought about it! The outhouse your parents have looks much like the ones I used every summer growing up at summer camp and while I wouldn’t exactly say that I enjoyed that part of camping, it really wasn’t all that bad.

  3. Susan Robinson says

    On the 100th anniversary of the founding of Canada, 1969, a huge effort was made to bring running water and toilets to just about everybody in the country, including the city I live in, Winnipeg. Prior to that outhouses were the way to go and I remember lessons on where to place them.

    But that’s not why I’m emailing. I’m here to encourage you to do plumbing! Its not hard for someone who is good a figuring things out and these days you don’t even have to solder anything. It is true you probably need a permit and your house insurer will want it inspected, but it totally doable I’ve replaced galvanized pipes and put in one shower, so I know what I’m talking about.

    Susan

    • Kathryn says

      Fellow Zcanadian just weighing in to poit out that they didn’t quite make it to everyone in Canada. There are multiple First Nations reserves lacking running water of any kind to this day. 🙁

  4. I was fortunate enough to visit Japan pretty young and it totally changed my perspective on toilets in the bathroom. I often wish I had the space, and the money, to remodel to two separate rooms! (an outhouse would be even better, but definitely wouldn’t work on my property). It’s too bad it’s such a squicky topic for people in the US.

    What might work for you though is a common toilet I saw there, where there’s a sink above the tank. So you can wash your hands with clean water and then that water goes into the tank to be used for the next flush. Not quite as water mindful as an outhouse, but definitely a step up from the traditional toilet.

  5. What an interesting perspective! It was very neat to read, though I fear I don’t share your comfort with outhouses. Which is not to say I won’t use them—I have, intermittently, even in the midst of a Canadian winter (which is a particular kind of hell, although the smell is slightly better). But I have never used one and not wished I was using a proper flush toilet. Even the well-maintained ones are unpleasant, and I’ve met a few that were very far from well-maintained.

    When my brother first moved to Australia, they lived in a very old house that had the (plumbed) toilet at the back of the yard in its own little house, which was fascinating to me at the time.

    Nonetheless—a very interesting read, and great to hear a different perspective on outhouses. 🙂

  6. HoiLei says

    I second the comment on Japan. Bathing is serious business there, and the bathrooms are generally things of beauty, but then right next to the bathroom is a tiny little toilet room. No-one wants the toilet in the same room as the bath. Not only that, but house-slippers are taken off before going in the toilet room. Toilet stuff is unclean!

    The toilets with built-in sinks on top are common and sensible solutions in Japan. I don’t think you use soap in them, though, since that would scum up the tank. Toto makes them… you might be able to find one and simply replace your toilet with that instead of re-plumbing the bathroom to install a sink.

    My aunt’s outhouse has a sharpie on a string hanging from the wall, so people can write each other funny messages on the wall while they do their business! There’s a certain irreverence inspired by going in an outdoor shed. As for outhouses in cold weather, get a padded toilet seat. It warms up faster and makes the experience less shocking!

    Re: historical voiding… what about toilet paper? When did we start using that? And when we didn’t have that, what did people do when they were ready to get off their chamber pots or close-stools?

    • synj_munki says

      Lots of stuff! In ancient Greece and Rome you see bits of broken pottery (used to remove the bulk of the matter) and sea sponges soaked in vinegar to clean up the rest. Broken pottery actually is used quite a lot. Medieval monks used nut shells, small parchment offcuts, teeny pieces of rags from old clothing, and so on. In royal circles in renaissance through rococo, you’ll see swan and duck feathers (usually still attached to the neck). In rural America you see corncobs soaked in vinegar. Sometimes you see “the family cloth”- bits of rags hung and dunked in vinegared water. With the advent of direct mail marketing, like the sears catalog, paper became popular. The old catalogs came with a hole in the corner to hang. You’d use pages- it was so popular there was a huge outcry and reversal when they switched to glossy paper. Before toilet paper was available on rolls it was individual sheets, like Kleenex; advertised for the “prevention of piles” (a common medical condition, literally wads of dried poop) and available in discrete packages like a hollow ladies’ fan. The soft paper mostly took off with the popularization of indoor plumbing since the alternatives screw up plumbing.

  7. HannahS says

    What an excellent point! I remember reading somewhere that when indoor toilets were first emerging in the North America, people were horrified–they imagined it like having a chicken coop in the house. Downright barbaric! My cousin, who lives in Jerusalem, has a separate room with toilet and sink in her teeny tiny apartment. It makes so much sense, both hygienically and logistically: no one has to “hold it in” while someone else is showering.

    Living in Canada, I’m profoundly, PROFOUNDLY glad to have indoor washrooms. I guess in the winter people used chamber pots instead? I cannot imagine having to bundle up each time.

    • Funny, I visited a museum of Austrian farmhouses from all over the country (they were taken down at their original place and rebuilt and restored at the museum site), and although they all had outhouses or toilets in/close to the stables, more than one house had chicken coops in the living room, right underneath the benches people sat on. Apparently, it was warmer there in winter for the chickens – nobody seemed to have any concerns regarding hygiene. 🙂

      • HannahS says

        I’m actually really surprised to hear that. I know chickens are quite, uh, fragrant. I wonder why they weren’t set up in a corner of the stables? Perhaps an issue of space?

        • You know, I was surprised myself and did a little bit of research. Mind you, what I know about chickens fits on a very small index card, but apparently there are experts and chicken fans who do know lots more – and these are main points, according to them:
          – in many areas, farm houses were constructed in such a way that the space where people (or chickens) ate or relaxed was in some way connected or close to the stables so that everything was slightly smelly and not too clean anyway, with or without chickens.
          – warmth: the living space/kitchen was much warmer than the stables, so it was easier to get chickens to breed and to raise the chicks even in winter or early spring when they wouldn’t have been laying eggs in a cooler environment.
          – fattening: there was a delicacy called “Hambuger Stubenküken” – in an early form of factory farming, they were kept in small cages set on top of each other (like a pyramid) and put close to the stove. They would be fattened up for six weeks (with buckwheat and soured milk, apparently) and then sold. Again, it seems they grew a lot faster close to a warm stove.

          Somehow unfair, chickens enjoying the warm kitchen while humans had to freeze their behinds off in an icy cold outhouse next to the stable door… 🙂
          In Austria, I guess warmth was the main motive. 🙂

    • In the Basque country, that is exactly how traditional houses are built: animals in the floor level during winter, which provides radiant floor heating for the family living above!

  8. Woohoo. I’ve been thinking about this myself, but in nowhere near as much thoroughness!
    Here in the Czech Republic, separate toilets and baths are also very common, although our house in particular happens to have them together. And outhouses are probably still fairly common in some village homes – my aunt had one during the years she lived in a village nearby, and summer cottages may have them – so I was familiar with them from an early age. Plus, what with Czechs being fond of being in the outdoors, you would do a lot of squatting behind a tree throughout your life.
    Add to that the different style of toilets in public places in the Baltic countries (and elsewhere east of the Czech Republic) and the little additions on the walls of medieval castles, and I’ve been introduced to a wide scale of… whatever do I call it? Anyway, enough for me to facepalm at the trope of the “realistic” fanfiction stories in which a modern girl falls into Middle Earth (or whichever version of history applies), has a horrifying encounter with an outhouse and freaks out. Yes, it’s a trope, and yes, every time I read it, I get the knee-jerk reaction of “a Czech girl wouldn’t”. Which may not really be entirely true, but this Czech girl certainly wouldn’t. 😉 I may have had more encounters with unpleasant ones, too, but it’s not something I would freak out about; to tell the truth, the Czech word for one (a diminutive) helps in having a sort of amused fond perspective on the occasional (seeming?) absurdity of the establishment.
    (Back when I first encountered one in a summer home – I had to be really small – the whole experience was like living in a fairy tale, and the outhouse did not take any of that away, it was part of the experience.)
    On the subject of cleanliness and different cultures and what not, my father has long been amused and sort of pleased by a certain passage in the Old Testament that commands having a stick among one’s things to use to dig out a hole outside your encampment…

  9. There’s another way also – the composting toilet. These I believe were invented in NZ, or at least seriously improved upon here 🙂

  10. I’m not convinced that outhouses are the best idea for urban living, there wouldn’t be the land available to have outhouses working efficiently. I also think that you have to consider the geology of the area, soil types etc and make sure there isn’t leaching into waterways. There are some interesting eco-toilets around which could be used instead of an longdrop. Anyway, have you seen the mythbusters clip where they test toothbrushes for faecal matter? Poo is everywhere 🙂
    http://science.howstuffworks.com/innovation/45813-mythbusters-surprise-toothbrush-minimyth-video.htm

  11. Lyndle says

    I don’t mind outhouses, but I’m less keen on the wildlife. Spiders here aren’t generally poisonous and we don’t have snakes, but finding a poisonous variety of either would freak me out. And I’m really not keen when I find a possum staring atme from just above my head.

    The other advantage of a separate toilet (with a handbasin) is that your peaceful bath or shower isn’t interrupted by family members who are ‘just busting’.

    I know several New Zealanders with composting toilets. Flushing toilets are a huge waste of water ( and if you rely on rainwater from the roof you are very aware of it). It’s an indoor commode that looks exactly like a flush toilet, but the waste chamber is ventilated to outside. Like a longdrop you put a handful of dried woody stuff in at each visit. When the chamber is getting full you should have compost to dig out. That does seem to need quite warm weather and the right rate of throughput to ensure it does actually turn to compost in time. (Last time I looked they weren’t approved by the wellington city council, but they are in other places).

  12. I always find your perspective interesting, even if I don’t agree with it.

    Thanks for writing this! It is an interesting reminder that, even now, not everyone has indoor flush toilets.

    P.S. I’ve worn divided drawers under a crinoline and skirts for a weekend-long live-action role playing game, and can attest how essential they are to using any kind of toilet cleanly.

  13. I used long-drops as a child, too – nearly fell in once when I was little, but that hasn’t stopped me approving of them generally. I can see it could be difficult installing one in a city. And I don’t fancy using one in winter, either! Perhaps we should bring back the chamber pot as the convenient comrade of the long-drop? Or perhaps we should just take Mrs C’s suggestion and go for composting toilets – who’d say no to free compost?

  14. Till I was 5, we had a “long drop loo”. We looked on it as normal. When we did move to a house with a flushing toilet, my little sister tried to wash her hands in it as it flushed!!!

  15. Kathryn says

    Leimomi, this isn’t specifically a wardrobe question, but I wonder if you can comment on the toilet situation(or lack thereof) at Versailles? I have watched the odd documentary that states that toilets of any kind were so few and far between that often courtiers would just do their business right in the hallways and such. Is this actually correct? How did people keep their skirts and shoes clean if that was the case?

  16. A subject close to my heart. I have nightmares about negotiating the canetoads on the way out to a long drop and yet more nightmares about falling in as a kid. I hate long drops, you find newly built ones on the main highways between Syd and Melb and the flies are horrendous, the smell in the heat nauseating. My daughter did a lot of bushwalking in year 9 and wrote me an entire letter regaling a newly built long drop on a mountain top that still smelled of sawn timber and had a window at seated viewing height!
    We have only septic at our holiday shack. After rain the effluent leaks into the waterways and makes the water unsafe for swimming though its quite a highly populated area with hundreds of septics. The mandated solution is something akin to an Envirocycle which has a holding tank and an aerating system which then sprays the treated (no chemicals) water onto the lawn. we’ll be putting one in when we rebuild.
    I like a separate toilet for convenience, though ‘holding on’ is good for the pelvic floor, not bad. I suspect the fear of E coli is somewhat overstated when you realise the bug is everywhere and really is only of detriment to those with impaired immunity. if one were afraid of bugs to this degree it may seriously impair one’s sexual relations eh?

    • Thanks for mentioning the smell in hot weather, I was scratching my head about it! This is an excellent post and it is sure to cause a lot of research for me. I am thinking about retraining as an engineer and waste disposal is one of my areas of interest. Thanks Dreamstress!

  17. Deanna says

    The Iolani Palace toilet room is full of pretty warm-toned wood! The bathrooms shown at the castle on Monarch of the Glen looked to be of a similar era (maybe with some later additions). This whole post is pretty interesting. 🙂

  18. Facinating post and comments! I must say as a mum of three boys in a house with one bathroom, I am very pleased our toilet is separate. It is in the old ‘lean-to’ part of the house and we had a small sink installed for hand washing. It only has cold water which is fine. As a bonus with the separate toilet room it’s more conducive to the water-saving motto ‘if it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down’.
    I would be most interested in another post on the specifics of historical undergarments and elimination habits!

  19. Very interesting! I can certainly vouch for the awfulness of outhouses in the Canadian winter, and the awful heat and smell of portopotties in the summer.

    Funny about separate bathrooms. I knew a lot of Americans in Germany who protested at the thought of washing machines in the kitchen. Keep all the plumbing together, I say. Of course, a small wall shouldn’t be too hard. An old movie theatre I used to go to had sinks in every stall. Maybe you could do the plumbing, although the guys on This Old House always amaze me.

  20. you couldn’t use long drops here in Christchurch, the water table is too high. We only got down 1.5 feet when we were digging for drainage when we had the ducks; way too high to work for a long drop.

  21. Martina says

    We had outhouses in Girl Scout camp…they were disgusting. It was a game to see if you could run in and do your business without taking a breath.

    At Trim Castle outside of Dublin they showed us a hole in the floor that served as the bathroom. Everybody’s waste flowed outside and once a year the pit was tented and everyone’s clothes were hung up inside…the ammonia killed all the vermin. So much for any idea of romantic medieval times!

  22. synj_munki says

    I’ve used lots of outhouses, and honey pots and cat holes, but mostly camping. They aren’t my favorite. My grandmothers told horror stories- one in Kentucky following a rope in a blizzard and accidentally urinating in the hurricane lamp instead of the chamber pot; the other in Oklahoma using a string to find the outhouse in a dust storm. My most memorable outhouse was the one in Belize for field school in college that we used all month; never mind the smell of an outhouse in a jungle even with a big pile of lye to top off every poo, there was a weekly chore on the chore chart of knocking down pyramids, and the things were infested with scorpions you had to check all crevices for before sitting, and snake sightings weren’t uncommon (luckily the monkeys and jaguars stayed away).
    The bathroom arrangement in the US is due to the history of development of plumbing in the country, and chunking all the potential overflows in one room is common and an efficient use of materials (having toilet cubicles in master suites and powder rooms for guests with just a toilet and sink are increasingly common, but are a luxury). The separate toilet cubicle in much of Europe (and their colonies and protectorates) comes from the evolution of the toilet and bathroom in England, when the s-trap was poorly understood and poor design could lead to sewer gasses coming out of the toilet.
    One of the biggest issues with outhouses is population density and hygiene. There are many stories of the night soil men and other people falling in and dying in overflowing cesspits that often infected the water supply or simply caused sinkholes that destroyed streets and structures. Septic and outhouse contamination is really prevalent in densely populated areas, especially if the water table is high. There are still cholera outbreaks in poor towns on the U.S. gulf coast because of high water tables and poorly contained poo.

  23. Fashionista says

    I am a huge fan of the separate toilet, for privacy reasons and hygiene. My theory is that “some things are best done in private” so I would no more go to the toilet in front of my husband than I would fly to the moon.

    Also with children it is just easier to have a separate toilet so that the bathroom can be used simultaneously.

    I’ve used lots of long drops when camping and travelling and while they are most certainly an excellent solution for supplying toilets, the stink in the Australian summer is not pleasant. At all. Ever.

Comments are closed.