Your home is not complete without a Sanitary Unit

sanitary-unitThink your bathroom is a problem? Let us not forget that until well after WWII, many homes in America did not have indoor bathrooms. My mom and grandmother, in Shenandoah, Pa. — outhouse out back until they moved to an apartment in 1950.  Dad — farm in Aneta, North Dakota — outhouse ’til about the same time. The poster at left, produced between 1936 and 1941 as part of the Work Projects Administration Federal Art Project, appears to indicate that many homes didn’t even have outhouses. Gulp. Image: Library of Congress.


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  1. says

    My grandmother didn’t have indoor plumbing until she moved out of her farm house into a mobile home my parents had moved into her garden somewhere around 1990. I am fairly certain that I am one of the few people my age (at least in my area, I’m 27) that has actually used a real outhouse, and in the winter a chamber pot. I was around 8 years old when “Granny” moved into her new house. I always hated going back to that outhouse…I was afraid there might be snakes in there! Thankfully, I never found one in it.

  2. says

    My grandparents still had theirs until the late ’70s I believe. A 2-holer between the house and barn. It was the spiders—not snakes—that I imagined living just under the seat board.

    What would’ve been funny is if they’d painted it pink with little poodles on the walls. Barnyard magnifique!

  3. Retro Junkie says

    My family has their roots in Kentucky, but I was born in Washington state, We would go to visit when I was young and like Michael, I was terrified thinking that there was snakes in there. My Aunts not only had outhouses, they also had to carry water. I believe they were from hardier stock than we are now!

  4. says

    Wow. That’s an eye-opener, Pam. I guess plumbing is an expensive and disruptive process in a house originally built without it.

    Our former house, built in 1917, had a door on the back porch leading to a toilet inside the house, presumably during a transitional phase of moving plumbing inside.

    Give me a flush toilet, indoors, any day, and a sink to wash up in!

  5. Fiona - Notorious Kitsch says

    We had an outhouse until I was 11 (I’m only 42) but our house was built in the late 1800s! When it was modernised it was quite a revelation! The building still stands and mum uses it as a shed now.

    My grandparents lived on a farm in the wilds of Scotland and had an outhouse the whole time they lived there until I was about 8 I think and what’s worse is it didn’t have plumbing, so poor grandad has to dispose of said contents on a daily basis! Can’t believe that was still happening even into the 70’s!

    I hated my grandparents outhouse as it was on a farm the possibility of meeting a rat or suchlike was high, happened to me once and somehow using the chamber pot when it got dark suddenly got easier once I met that rat!

  6. Sara Tinkelman says

    I was born in the ’50s and every summer we traveled to rural Pennsylvania (closest town of any size, Towanda, was a twisty-turn-y, nightmare of a 10 mile drive) where my great-grandparents had in 1932 purchased a tract of land along the Susquehana River. It had a dilapidated barn, an old building that had once housed a general store, a few acres of land and a huge farmhouse built in the 1850s. I had to leave a comment today because at the time my great-grandparents moved in the WPA came through the valley and built a solid, safe, sanitary two-seater outhouse on the property, identical to the one pictured. My extended family has carefully maintained it over all these years and it is neither smelly nor creature-infested. I’ve lived with indoor plumbing all my life, which is why using the outhouse (and the occasional chamber pot) has been important for me. How else could I otherwise appreciate my pastel bathroom???

  7. sumac sue says

    My paternal grandma had an outhouse in the early 1960s, in rural southern Ohio. She was the only one in the family to have one, so the grandkids thought it was pretty nifty. She also had a little bucket under her bed so that she didn’t have to go outside at night. I wanted my mom to let us kids keep such buckets under our beds, but she said no, we could walk down the hall to the bathroom.

    So, while I never lived in a home with an outhouse, I did move into a rural area of Kentucky that still had telephone party lines in the 1980s. That was strange, sharing a phone line with another family. Also, our house, a two-story farmhouse, had no electrical outlets or light sockets in the upstairs. When the rural electric cooperative brought electricity into that area in the late 1950s, families did not think they needed electricity upstairs — that area was just for sleeping, after all. We had electricity put in upstairs — had to be able to read in bed at night, and have a clock radio, of course.

  8. atomicbowler-dave says

    Wow! That’s a lot of outhouse memories to be sure.
    A friend of mine about 20 years ago had a piece of property he had bought that he was someday going to put a house on. Of course, affording the property at the time meant he had no running water while living in a trailer. Dedicated man, he was. I remember he asked me once if I could help him with some excavation work on the weekend (he was a really good friend and had helped me on a few big things gratis already, after all). Guess what he wanted help SHOVELING!!!! EEEEeeeewwww!!!!

  9. Nina462 says

    My grandma & grandpa had an outhouse until my mom moved to the “big city” of Grand Rapids and sent them money to have a bathroom installed inside.
    That was 1952, and in Michigan. Not so long ago, it seems.

  10. Mickey says

    When I bought my 1934 lake cabin, you could tell there had once been one in the back yard… however all that was left was a foot deep tench, so i filled it with gravel and packed it down and now it just blends in with the fire pit in the back yard.

  11. RetroSoIl says

    Our house was built in 1901 and you can see in the cellar that when the city installed sewage and water in 1906 that they just went in and cut holes in the foundation where ever they deemed it appropriate. Oddly enough, they didn’t put in an indoor bathroom at the time and the families (railroad tenent housing) continued to use an outhouse until the 1940’s when they finally put a bathroom in what had been a second bedroom and turned the formal parlor into a master and expanded the kitchen to be larger than 5×10. Thats the postwar renovation we are restoring our house to. I’d love to know where the outhouse was located, that area, and under the kitchen, can be a treasure trove. We’ve already discovered so much in walls and under floor boards that 100 year old trash seems like a jackpot!

  12. kmodek says

    I have a picture somewhere of me, my sister, and my cousins lined up in front of an outhouse that was at a cemetery where we had our family reunions. (Yes, I guess it sounds odd, but our family was all buried in this place and there’s a pavilion there and for some reason, all the older generations had gathered there for reunions until the past 10 years or so.)
    I just remember being grossed out by the bugs and the creepy dark hole. I still hate bathrooms at campgrounds that are just a hole in a seat….even porta-potty’s are creepy and gross!

  13. modcat55 says

    My grandmother had an outhouse behind her tiny house. There was no water inside the house, but there was a kitchen sink which puzzled me! I thought it was fun to pump water and carry it inside the kitchen. A chamber pot resided under the feather beds. It was an adventure to stay overnight with her. In high school I attended Girl Scout camp where there were outhouses for the campers. We were delegated chores and I was amazed at the duties of “cleaning” the outhouses! I wondered how you were supposed to clean such a thing. I was born in the mid-50’s and I’m still amazed when I spot an outhouse in the rural countryside of the midwest where I live. I’m glad I experienced the use of one. It makes me appreciate what I have come to take for granted. Oh–I have a pink bathroom, too!

  14. Ed says

    A house I used to rent is on a farmstead with several other barns and storage buildings, along with a “modernized” outhouse. Plumbing is still just a hole in the ground, but it has electricity for lights and a small electric heater and fan. The main house itself has modern plumbing, the outhouse is just for the convenience of those working or attending social gatherings at the farm.

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