Ideas

Brainiac

The golden age of outhouses

Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum

Outhouses are an unloved kind of structure. These days we encounter them only rarely, at campgrounds, maybe, or rotting into the ground in some distant corner of an old farm. Rarely do we see them without thinking: Thank goodness for indoor plumbing.

Yet there was a long period when an outhouse was a perfect convenience, and a well-built one could be a luxury good. The Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum in Wethersfield, Conn. is trying to recapture their golden age with an unusual kind of restoration project: The refurbishment of three high-end outhouses — or privies — from the late 18th century, financed by a grant from the Connecticut Historic Restoration Fund.

“One is a five-holer, the other is a six-holer, the other is a four holer,” says Charles Lyle, executive director of the museum. Two of the privies were originally located on the grounds of local churches; the third was built for the Webbs, a family of wealthy merchants, whose former home is part of the museum today.

Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum
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Lyle explains there’s not a lot known about the architecture and culture of privies, but it’s possible to draw some inferences based on the parts of their design that have survived. The six-holer, Lyle says, “has two seats for adults with high arms, and the other four seats for children [are] of different sizes.” The smallest child’s seat is about half the size of an adult seat (“you want to protect them from, God forbid, from falling in”). Lyle speculates that family members probably used the privy one at a time, so the large number of seats likely indicates each family member had his own dedicated place to roost.

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People spent a lot of time in privies, and it’s not surprising they’d want to dress up the experience. “These privies were treated pretty well,” Lyle says. “[They have] crown molding outside and wainscoting halfway up to the windows on the inside. The one at the Webb house has a wonderful turned finial.”

The image of a “turned finial” in an outhouse seems funny, in a lipstick-on-a-pig kind of way, though of course our inclinations haven’t really changed much over the last 200 years: While our toilets may flush, we still prefer them to be made out of something nice, like porcelain.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.