Connecticut

Colonial Outhouses, or George Washington (Probably) Sat Here

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

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

One of the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum’s colonial outhouses.

The Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum restored to their former glory three once-ritzy outhouses believed to date to the late 18th century.

Colonial Outhouses

One stands behind the Joseph Webb house, where George Washington stayed in 1781 when he met with the Comte de Rochambeau to map out 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 4Historians know little about early American outhouse etiquette. How, for example, did one excuse oneself from company when nature called? Washington says nothing on the matter in the Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior he copied for himself. he did, however, weigh 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.

Grand Illusions

Archaeologists have unearthed little in the way of knowledge about the use of colonial privies or much else abaout them. 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.

Potty Mouths

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, tells 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.  This story was updated in 2020.

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