Privy to Outside Information
Jesse J Elliot (aka Julie Hanks)
Nothing entertains more than a few good privy stories—even when you’re beyond the age of potty jokes. The one-room schoolhouses produced plenty of them since bathrooms were not connected to the main building. A very few of the schools had brick outhouses, but the majority of the schools’ privies were anything from a copse of bushes to a ramshackle shack to a solidly constructed building—all set away from the schoolhouse.
Before jumping into the privies, here’s a bit of a background on the symbols on the outhouses:
Traditional privies often have the shape of a quarter moon on them. In the old days, two symbols were actually used to identify who should be using the privy. A masculine sunburst was used to identify the [boys] outhouse and a more subdued moon was used for the [girls] comfort station.
Symbols were used because hundreds of years ago, a good share of the population was illiterate and in places like the U.S. where many nationalities lived, no matter what language you might read and understand, the moon and sun were universal.
As the years passed. . . the moon symbol evolved as the universal symbol of a privy. From “Strolling Down Privy Lane: Digging to the Bottom of Outhouse Lore” by Curt Arens in Living Here Magazine, Winter 2005-2006. However, I was surprised to find that sometimes stars and hearts were sometimes used on the girls--as illustrated.
One story was about a four-year old who attended school with his mother, the teacher. Apparently, the little boy wanted to fit in with the older, more “worldly” boys, so he tried to befriend them. Not realizing they were out to create mischief, he went along with them when they asked him if he could do them a favor. His job, they told him, was to help them paint the toilet seats in the privies. They handed him the paint and the brush, and he proceeded to paint all the seats in both privies. Of course he was caught, but only he got into trouble. Apparently a teacher’s child was on the same plane as a clergyman’s child—always having to remain above the fray.
One South Dakota resident remembers hearing about some 7th and 8th Graders putting a cow in the girls privy. When they were discovered, they had to go and figure out how to remove her. Unfortunately, the story ends there. One-Room Country School (Dakotas, August 31, 1999, by Charles L Woodward & Norma C. Wilson.
Most of us are familiar with the function of the Sears & Roebuck Catalogues (and later the Montgomery Ward Catalogues), but one school was lucky enough to have had a gift from one of the director’s wives who had been a seamstress and had a big box of old cloth patterns that she donated for toilet tissue. The additional benefits were that the girls would sit outside and open those patterns, learning about darts pleats, and folds. When these girls began sewing, they knew all about making clothes. From The One-Room Schoolhouse: A Tribute to a Beloved National Icon by Paul Rocheleau.
Norma Wilson (1999) said snakes were always a problem in outhouses. In one of her stories, a teacher sits down in the outhouse and immediately notices a rattlesnake curled up in the corner. She flew out of the building in a flash to elude the unwanted visitor.
Another story talks about a rattlesnake curled up in the pit of the privy. The teacher and one of her older students were able to prod the snake out of the pit and take care of it with the business end of a shovel. No one mentioned the trauma of black-widowed spiders, but I would imagine that they too presented some excitement in the privies.
Interestingly enough, in one schoolhouse, built in the 1870s, the students would raise their hand and ask not to go to the privy, but rather “could they go to Massachusetts?” The reason being that the privy, though still in sight of the school, was built just across the state line separating Connecticut from Massachusetts, the privies were in Massachusetts while the schoolhouse was in Connecticut. (Daniel P Jones, “The State of a One-Room School,” in the Hartford Courant, Jan. 4, 2018.)
Hopefully, with all the world/national news being as it is, a few light anecdotes helped alleviate your concerns for at least a little while. Between the humor and the sound of rain falling for the first time in months in California, my spirits are a bit lighter.