My irreverent, lapsed-catholic father occasionally answers a yes/no question with his own – ‘Does the Pope shit in the woods?’ Unlikely (although Dad usually means ‘hell, yes’). I, however, do use an outhouse on the edge of the woods, rain or shine, winter and summer as part of my work day.
The outhouse I mention (which is known as the Membership Office because of the sign on the door – ‘Memberships, Donations’) is actually one of three alternatives to the conventional plumbing available to workers at my office. There is a greywater flush toilet in the house where my boss and his family live and a commercial composting toilet encased in shiny plastic in the guest house but everyone seems to prefer the Membership Office for their daily donations.
The old-fashioned pit toilet was standard in (or rather outside of) households great and small for generations and as recently as 1950, America had fifty million “unplumbed households.”1 But the outhouse as a tiny solitary room is only the most recent version. According to Bill Bryson in his wide reaching and funny domestic history, the Romans built public latrines with “twenty seats or more in intimate proximity, and people used them as unselfconsciously as modern people ride a bus.” Mount Vernon as a classic two hole privy.2
While the most basic pit toilets and urban options draining into urban cesspools were noxious and unsanitary, the outhouse didn’t have to be an unpleasant experience. Middle class Victorians decorated their privies with care and cleaned them as thoroughly as any other part of the house.3 Still, the necessity of using a latrine was obviated by the dubious improvement of modern plumbing* and soon an outhouse became a symbol of rural retrograde living.
Now that’s changing again with “composting toilets” gracing the pages of trendy green design blogs, magazines and books. A composting toilet is “a waterless system that breaks down human waste matter into organic compost.”4 This and similar descriptions in eco-media are usually accompanied by several photographs of shining tech-y plastic units or more naturalistic wooden seats arranged next to a picturesque container of woodchips.
The principle of our composting pit toilet is relatively simple formula: one poop, one scoop. The scoop is from a handy bucket of sawdust and ash which goes far to obviate smell (the missing window panes also facilitate that). When full the toilet seat can be removed and the contents shoveled out and removed to a large compost pile in the woods – a simple but effective way to avoid a septic tank.
*I’ll be following up shortly with a brief rundown of modern plumbing … and its problems. As a teaser: The Great Stink of 1858 which had all of London running for their lye soaked handkerchiefs.