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A look back at the privy
Ech 5-15-08 The Privy
A replica privy has been added to the Historic Effingham Society's possessions behind the Seckinger-Bridgers House. - photo by Photo provided

In days gone by there was no such thing as indoor plumbing.  The privy, outhouse, shack out back or whatever people called it was the place at the end of the path.  

Nowadays the closest thing to a privy is the rental fiberglass chemical toilet known as a Johnny on the spot or portable potty used at construction sites and festivals.  

Privies were usually made of wood or tin and had a wooden bench seat with holes built into it. It was the hope of the user that the carpenter was kind and sanded out the splinters so that there were no surprises. Powdered lime was used to cover the wastes, tone down the smell, and the privy was cleaned out regularly through a door on the back.

The privy was built a good little walk from the house to minimize the odor. Sometimes rural or mountain people built their outhouses on a cliff over a stream. From time to time, after much use or wet weather, the location of the outhouse had to be changed by dragging it and starting over.  

The privies varied. Some were short; some were tall; most were unpainted but occasionally one sported a colorful coat of paint or whitewash. There was usually a trademark “half moon” or crescent shaped cutout on the door for ventilation and a wee bit of light.  

Of course, the building was not free of spiders, snakes, scorpions or lizards, so the user always took a good look at the surroundings before taking a seat. Boards with many knots were usually not sought for construction because the knots fell out, leaving peep holes. The privy roof was usually made of tin or wooden shingles.  

There was no such thing as toilet paper. Boxes of corn cobs and old Sears Roebuck catalogs or newspapers were in the privy. The paper could be made more useful and soft by kneading them over and over with the hands. Let it suffice to say that paper was in short supply and was never wasted.

There were “two-holers” and “three-holers.” Often small seats or holes were built for children alongside the adults. This prevented the child from falling through.  

Schools and churches often had multi-hole outhouses because of the size of the crowd and some public locations had separate privies for men and women. Some carpenters made the box seat at different heights for the users with small ones for the little people. The Methodist Church in Clyo, the Masonic Lodge and Wingard Memorial Lutheran Church had a community privy. It was an oversize “three-holer” with a waiting bench inside. This landmark is now relocated to Historic Effingham’s Living History Site and is ready for restoration.  

At night and for the convenience of the old, young and infirm, a chamber pot or slop jar was often used. Some pots were made of china or “crockery” and slop jars were special enameled bailed buckets with covers. Of course, the contents of the pots had to be disposed of, and that was not the chore of choice.

President Franklin Roosevelt began the Works Progress Administration to create jobs because of the Great Depression. The WPA went throughout the country in an effort to improve the facilities of the times by doing away with dilapidated shacks out back and replacing them with brand new outhouses. Many were skeptical of President Roosevelt’s Rural Sanitation Program. Some Republicans were especially untrusting of the “Democratic” newly constructed privies.  

Privies now are few and far between. Historic Effingham Society offers an Eddie Browning version of the “one-holer” behind the Seckinger-Bridgers House. This is just a replica and is not usable. Of course sanitation laws now require modern plumbed facilities with septic tanks or modern sewage systems for wastes disposal. Nonetheless you can remember the trip down the path at our museum site. Children who are not old enough to remember times before running water and modern bathrooms or “water closets,” as our first indoor facilities were known, will become educated.  

Be happy that you do not have to make that trip down the path out back on a freezing cold or rainy day. This, as Martha Stewart would say, “is a good thing.”

The Herald regrets having listed Edna Morgan in the May 8 edition as Hollis Morgan.

This article was written by Susan Exley of Historic Effingham from information in the museum archives. If you have questions, comments or photos to share, please call her at 754-6681 or email: