Connecticut

Colonial Outhouses, or George Washington (Probably) Sat Here

The outhouse behind the Silas Deane house. Photo  courtesy the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum.
The outhouse behind the Silas Deane house. All photos courtesy the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum.

The outhouse behind the Silas Deane house. All photos courtesy the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum.

Colonial potty humor has pretty much disappeared, and so have colonial outhouses – but a Connecticut museum is bringing them back.

The Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum is restoring to their former glory three once-ritzy outhouses believed to date to the late 18th century. One stands behind the Joseph Webb house, where George Washington stayed in 1781 when he met with the Comte de Rochambeau to map out what became the Yorktown campaign. Visitors to the museum can not only see where George Washington slept, they’ll be able to see where he probably did something else.

colonial outhouses 4Little is known about early American outhouse etiquette. How, for example, did one excuse oneself from company when nature called? Washington is silent on the matter in the Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior he copied for himself, though he weighed in on eating in the street, sneezing at the table or killing vermin in front of others (don’t do any of those things).

The Webb-Deane-Stevens’ outhouses include a five-holer and a six-holer, raising the question of whether families that ate together also – well, finished the process together. Charles Lyle, executive director of the museum, doesn’t think so.

“The family members outnumbered the holes, so it’s hard to figure out,” Lyle said in a recent interview.

Some of the holes are for adults, the smaller ones for children – to prevent them from falling in, no doubt.

Archaeologists have unearthed little in the way of knowledge about how the colonial privies were used or much else. According to Musings of a Privy Digger,

In the early privies, those dating before 1840, we find very little in the way of artifacts, usually only organic waste (kitchen scrapes, bones and seeds), window glass, and shards of pottery or porcelain. Containers were valuable. Glass was reused or sent back to factory for cullet (broken glass used by the glass factories to start a new batch).

colonial outhouses no. 2What is known about the Webb-Deane-Stevens outhouses is that they were quite grand for their time. One has a finial on it. They have armrests and a shelf where a candle could be set, as well as architectural features such as crown molding, raised paneled doors and wainscoting. One was later prettied up with wallpaper and curtains.

Square holes in the foundations were used to clean out the contents once or twice a year, Lyle said. Servants or slaves, presumably, spread wood ashes to mask the odor, and they’d rake and shovel out the contents and move it to a compost pile to make rich fertilizer.

Lyle said children are fascinated by the outhouses and love to make potty jokes about them.

A trove of bawdy humor does exist about chamber pots, which people used at night rather than stumble outside in the dark. One that survives, The Old She Crab, is the story of a man who put a lobster in his chamber pot because his wife was asleep:

The old woman got up for to do her due
Shallow-who, shallow-who
The old woman got up for to do her due
And the damned old she crab
Grabbed her… (read the rest here.)

A Boston Globe story about the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum’s privies elicited some modern bathroom humor in the Comments section:

Hear about Santa and his reindeer landing on top of an outhouse? Santa looked around for a moment, then hollered "No no, Rudolph! I said the SCHMIDT house!"

For information about visiting the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum, which opens weekends in April, click here. The privies will be included in the tour this spring.

colonial outhouses 3

12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Alex Kambanis

    Alex Kambanis

    March 9, 2015 at 9:29 am

    Travis Bean

  2. Sara Doherty

    Sara Doherty

    March 9, 2015 at 11:54 am

    The multi-holer, a fine old New England tradition.

  3. Sara Doherty

    Sara Doherty

    March 9, 2015 at 11:54 am

    The multi-holer, a fine old New England tradition.

  4. Deb Dondzik

    Deb Dondzik

    March 9, 2015 at 6:30 pm

    Attached to my barn is a dual potty.

  5. Sarah H. Gordon

    Sarah H. Gordon

    March 9, 2015 at 6:33 pm

    Do they have potty parties here?

  6. Gail Girard

    Gail Girard

    March 9, 2015 at 11:40 pm

    I think I had a nightmare about such a bathroom.

  7. Richard Patch

    March 12, 2015 at 7:01 pm

    There were two three-holers behind the Grange Hall outside of Pleasant view, CO. Now they sit in a family backyard. One a dry woodshed and the other a keeper of garden tools. Habits learned as a child in New Hampshire. Not a whole lot goes to waste.

  8. Michael Keupp

    March 16, 2015 at 10:14 am

    Multi-seat privies were common in ancient Roman times. Multiple people would use the same privy at the same time (including men and women). The waste would be carried away by a stream that ran below.

  9. Georg Papp

    April 30, 2015 at 7:28 am

    As a builder, restorer and speaker on privies since before the turn of the century, I can verify these kybos are pre 1800’s based upon the seat construction however of the three at the Webb-Deane complex, only one is native to the lot. The other two (more elaborate ones) had been relocated from a nearby church.
    Backhouses are a great window to Americana in that we can learn a lot on how we dealt with trivial aspects of solving basic needs from original construction through various repairs necessary over time.

    • Georg Papp,Sr

      May 2, 2015 at 6:39 am

      By way of clarification, the Webb privy is thought to be original to the site. The Deane outhouse was probably moved from a nearby church and the Stevens backhouse from the home of a rector of another church.

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