How many hours did I sit in an outhouse before we got indoor plumbing the summer I was eight years old? There was always an outhouse standing behind our home, wherever we lived. People try to find the perfect balance between convenience and smell when they are building or choosing the site for a new one. The one most prominent in my memory was situated about a hundred feet from our back porch in the house on Route 66 in rural Missouri. There was a well-worn footpath from the back steps past the shed on the left, past the dump behind the shed, past the chicken coop on the right to the outhouse.
Ours was a one-holer, with no crescent moon carved in the door. Instead, for light and ventilation there was a two-inch gap between the back wall and the roof overhang, which was screened to keep out insects. There was a latch on the outside fashioned from a small piece of wood, held in place by a nail through the center. On the inside was a hook and eye latch made of metal. If the outside latch wasn’t fastened, you knew there was someone inside and you had to wait your turn. This was rarely a problem at home because our family consisted only of Dad, Mom, me, and my baby sister.
At school, the outhouses were closer to the schoolhouse, with the girls’ closer than the boys’, but the two outhouses were side-by-side. Each was a two-holer. Life was less private and more intimate then. Can you imagine sitting cheek to cheek with a classmate to do your business these days? We also had to indicate whether we were peeing or pooping by holding up one or two fingers to ask to go to the toilet. I expect this was to let the teacher know how long we would be gone. No wonder I was constipated until I was nearly grown. I still prefer to go to the bathroom alone, in my own house.
I’ve read that outhouses were no longer in use in the United States by the 1950s, but I assure you this is not the case. I last used the outhouse at school in 1955. Both the school and its outhouses were still in use when I moved to the small town of Newburg, Missouri where I transferred to an elementary school with more than two rooms, indoor plumbing, a teacher for each grade, and a lunchroom in a separate building.
I never thought I’d feel nostalgia for an outhouse. After all, they’re known for being stinky. They are also hot in the summer and cold in the winter, in spite of being a building, not a bush. Ours was never heated or cooled in any way. As far as being odorous, as a kid I didn’t notice it that much. I knew some smelled more than others, I knew my Dad regularly shoveled a white powder called lime into ours, but I didn’t give it much thought. The smell was familiar to me, and the place was comforting. The wooden latch on the door of our outhouse was worn smooth with rounded corners from years of use. The seat was smooth too, and the odor was never overpowering. On the contrary, I recognized the smells of my family, the way animals do. I felt safe as I sat and thumbed through the catalog, whose pages we used as toilet paper.
When I was growing up, some of the boys at school had a favorite insult. While the girls might call me “stuck up” or “teacher’s pet,” the boys would say, “you think your shit don’t stink.” Truthfully, I didn’t think the smell of my shit was terrible. I thought dog poop stunk. I didn’t think cow manure smelled bad. Horse manure smelled sweet. Pig manure was the worst. Later in life, I learned that when pigs are allowed to run free their excrement is no worse than horses, deer, or rabbits. On the other hand, raccoons build latrines, which can become extremely odorous. The smell of rat pee is not something I’d ever call comforting. But my own bowel movements, when I had them, comforted me.
We all know the power of scent to kindle memories. I gave my first husband what I thought was the best compliment when I told him he smelled like my grandma. He didn’t see it that way. But the combined odors of sweat earned from hard work and cigarettes evoked my deep and abiding love for my grandmother. I didn’t love my husband, so it was indeed a rare moment for me to compliment him. I adored my grandma, and it was she who gave me the money to divorce him later.
Today if I catch a whiff of anything remotely resembling our family outhouse on a warm day, I am transported to the happiest time of my life — the years before we had indoor plumbing. My first stepfather put in running water, built a bathroom, even built the septic tank himself. The year after my father died.
Sandra de Helen writes short stories, creative non-fiction, poetry, plays, and novels. She has a weekly column in ROAR: Literature and Revolution for Feminist People.