Another form of vernacular, utilitarian architecture, and the focal point of much humor, especially as the presence or absence of outhouses comes to be seen as distinguishing poor from rich, backward from progressive, and elder from younger generations, or rural from urban communities.
While squeamishness probably prevented much documentation of the outhouse in days gone by, simple biology tells us that it must have been a familiar sight, and a central feature of domestic arrangements. Our word “focus,” meaning the center of things, the important part of a complex structure, was the Latin word for the hearthstone: that was the center of the Roman domestic polity. As a point of comparison, I recently toured a newly constructed college dormitory, and was interested to find that the shower/toilet complex had been made the physical center, and was described as the “focal point,” of each group housing unit. Under comparatively primitive conditions, it might be the only place one could find privacy (at least indoors), though there are enough multi-holed conveniences still preserved—
(Germansville, PA, part of a 150-year old farmstead)
— to suggest that there might, in some times and places, have been a social dimension to its use (as certainly was the case with the Roman latrine).
Excavation of waste-pits often shows evidence that the privy was a favored place for (presumably illicit) smoking and drinking. Bobby Bare’s surprisingly sincere and sentimental – and in the opinion of some, aesthetically successful — tribute, “Ode to the Little Brown Shack Out Back” — expresses a sense of the importance of the structure.
basic outhouse design (it’s just not that difficult)
In Little Vine Cemetery (Ste. Genevieve County, MO)
near Sperry, MO
Here, a photo of Harry Truman’s own convenience, at the birthplace in Lamar, MO. Photo courtesy of Mary June Bartlett, Bartlett’s Peak Communications, Inc. Note the crescent moon cutout in the door.
The Crescent Moon: An Internet Legend
Although it is a convention of the representation of outhouses, and although many later outhouses do conform to the convention, it is not clear that the practice was in fact widespread during the period when outhouses were in common use, any more than real bombs look much like this iconic depiction:
The original purpose of the cutout was of course light and ventilation, and for reasons of privacy, it had to be placed above the line of sight. Why a crescent moon? Why not? Here is some authoritative-sounding but nonetheless utterly ungrounded speculation
Probably the most recognizable symbol associated symbol with the traditional outhouse building is the familiar crescent moon carved into the privy door. Actually, the symbol is an ancient one, and was a sign for womanhood in colonial days and on the frontier. Its male counterpart, Sol, was either a star or a sun burst design also on the door. Since most male outhouses fell into disrepair rather quickly they seldom survived; while the female ones were better maintained, and were eventually used by both sexes. Although you can find outhouses still standing with the crescent moon, the original meaning for gender identification was lost by the later nineteenth century in most areas of the country.
[…] The moon that is often found on the outhouse door stands for the ancient sign- luna- or womanhood. When the outhouse was first invented people needed these signs to discern which was the men’s or women’s bathroom-for most people couldn’t read. Soon, however, the men’s became rundown or was very unkempt and not maintained. So everybody just used the women’s bathroom, and the men’s sunburst or sol sign was forgotten. The moon sign was kept and is also used as a vent.
The assertion is improbable on its face: is it at all likely that the scarce resources of a harsh frontier would be devoted to gender-segregated privies? Thus far, no contemporary records of the practice have come to light. The fact is that, in those dim ancient days when such symbolism supposedly carried weight and meaning – and English had grammatical gender, as Russian, French and German still do – the sun was feminine and the moon was masculine.
The claim is repeated in hundreds of places across the net, often with identical phrasing, indicating many generations of copying and pasting. The unsourced assertion may have begun with The Vanishing American Outhouse by Ronald S. Barlow (1989), or even earlier, as suggested by Cecil Adams of The Straight Dope:
[In] The Little Red Schoolhouse: A Sketchbook of Early American Education […d]iscussing 18th- and 19th-century schoolhouses, Eric [Sloane] writes: “The woodshed was often a lean-to attached to the schoolhouse, but the most accepted arrangement was to place it between the schoolhouse and the privy, with a fence separating the boys’ entrance from the girls’. The ancient designation of privy doors was to saw into them a sun (for boys’ toilet) and a moon (for girls’ toilet).” Eric has supplied a sketch of both versions, showing the familiar crescent moon for the girls and a radiant sun for the boys.
(Sloane’s 1972 volume offers no source for the assertion).
A claim offered at Wikipedia is even sillier, and perhaps simply an ugly joke: An article in Boys’ Life magazine offered an explanation: the holes were fashioned on the outhouses of a site where a Muslim retreat was being held in order to keep the attendant’s minds focused on their religion even when seated there.
The legend would seem to be borne out in this specimen from Cherry Valley, IA:
However, this is a “historic village,” and one approaches its representations with extreme caution. If the icons were for the illiterate, why would there be redundant signage in standard script? The Pioneer Sholes school of St. Charles Illinois had two outhouses, both marked with moons. Are these cutouts authentic period details, or later stage-dressing? Whoever was responsible, and at whatever period, seems to have had no sense of the gendering of the moon-icon.
Definitely a crescent moon. But the owner says it’s only thirty years old (i.e., built ca. 1980)
Another definite moon: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Old_outhouse_-_moon_over_the_door.jpg, and the owner says the structure is “about a hundred years old.” Certainly moons did occur as ornamental rendering of a practical feature on a celestial theme. However, the dating is hardly documented, and the wood containing the moon-feature is clearly not contemporary with the main-structure cladding.
Here, a definitely-dated image of a school privy shows no icon-marking for gender:
A snapshot of modernization: a report on the updating of the outhouse for the Model Rural School (the “Porter School”) at the First District Normal School (now Truman State University), Kirksville, in 1917. The school was built as an ideal version of, and laboratory for, the iconic “one room schoolhouse.”
A Google-image search for “old” and “outhouse” suggests that most authentic specimens had no door-cutouts at all, but rather utilitarian cutouts high on the side-walls (if any such refinement appears at all), though the impulse to ornament may have produced a nicely-framed diamond cutout. Sometimes an eminently practical V-notch at the top seems to have sufficed:
And the same principle operates in a Louisiana example.
Another Louisiana specimen forgoes two separate opportunities to use a crescent moon:
And a Tottenville (Staten Island) example, sketched from memory, gets a practical, easy-to-cut circle.
My own speculation is that an additional function may have been served by the shape, and later displaced. My grandparents’ farm near Hannibal Missouri had an outhouse built between 1920 and 1940. The door, as faced from the outside, had its hinges left, and no knob or pull. Rather, it had a cutout, shaped roughly like a boomerang, with the concavity of the shape opening towards the right, so that one could slip one’s fingers in to grasp it. It permitted light, ventilation and easy opening. I suggest that this simple expedient came to have some traditional force, and once hardware became available, was still felt to be useful or attractive, and was displaced to the center of the door, to break up the flat plane. The process of displacement may be better understood in light of this familiar story accounting for another kind of post-functional, atavistic retention of practices once pointed and practical; the yarn is regularly used in linguistics and anthropology courses:
…After Uncle Herschel married Aunt Martha he noticed that whenever she cooked a roast she would prepare it by cutting off the end. He asked her why she did that. “Because”, said Aunt Martha, “my mother always cut the end off and she taught me to do it that way.” Uncle Herschel shrugged.
Sometime later Uncle Herschel and Aunt Martha went to her parents’ home for Sunday dinner. When the roast was served Uncle Herschel noticed that the end had been cut off before it was cooked. Uncle Herschel asked Aunt Martha’s mother why she did that. “Because”, she said, “my mother always cut the end off and she taught me to do it that way.” Uncle Herschel shrugged.
At Christmas Uncle Herschel and Aunt Martha were at the home of Aunt Martha’s grandmother. Uncle Herschel was in the kitchen and noticed the grandmother cutting the end off a roast. Uncle Herschel asked why she did that. She replied, “When I first got married, we went out and bought utensils to set up housekeeping. I got a roast pan that was too small. So I’ve always had to cut the end off the roast to get it to fit in my pan.”
The crescent moon does seem to dominate in those cases where there is a cutout, but statistically, one would expect at least a few pairs of his’n’hers facilties, with a star for the male, to survive. What’s lacking, and very much needed, is even the smallest bit of evidence that lunar and solar imagery were particularly gendered, or understood to be so. A clear literary reference would be useful, as would a photograph of paired outhouses with solar and lunar markings, prior to (to choose an arbitrary date earlier than the development of the icon) 1920 or even 1930. The moon-icon itself is not yet evidenced in photographs of that period, or shown by written documentation to have been dominant. Note that a datable structure in a present-day photograph would be unpersuasive, due to the likelihood of “historical” retrofitting.
The simplest explanation is that the cutout was one of several simple icons used for ornament: ornamentation of the necessary is a means of assuring oneself that things have gone beyond the level of mere necessity and subsistence. In Germany, a heart-shaped cutout is more traditional — the usage is clearly visual euphemism, i.e., putting a pleasant symbol on something intrinsically unpleasant. In this Polish example, the heart-tradition seems to have opened an associative pathway to another series, based on playing-cards; in one of unspecified provenance, a diamond appears.
In sum, while the crescent moon seems to have been one tradition of combining the impulse to ornamentation with a practical need for ventilation and light, the dominance of that tradition seems to have been media-generated, then provided with a fictive, back-formed pedigree to explain it. As Alfred Shoemaker reported of another supposedly archaic use of visual symbolism, the Hex Signs of the Pennsylvania Dutch, the elaborate phylactery-explanations are less convincing than what the users themselves said about them: “chust for nice.”
-ABD, August 2007
68-year old Jim Snedeker of Pasadena Texas sent us a photo of an outhouse he built from photographs and memories of examples he’d seen:
“No plans, just started guessing the measurements. The inside dimensions are 4 x 4 feet. The front is 7 feet tall and the back is almost 6 feet tall. Tin on the top, screwed down with Screws for tin roofing.” He wants to sell it as a lawn-decoration, but if that doesn’t happen, he’ll use it as a tool-shed.
A concrete outhouse in Archie, MO:
a ruined specimen in Dallas co mo:
Mt. Zion Church, vcn. East Prairie, Mississippi Co., MO, 7/02; photo by Brett Rogers
A gallery, regrettably without the information on date and location folklorists desire