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Why are there two hole outhouses?
November 24, 2008 6:48 PM   Subscribe

What was the reason for some outhouses to have two or more holes?
posted by Jumpin Jack Flash to Technology (30 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
Because sometimes the second person just couldn't wait for the first one to be done? Also, people used to have lots of kids, so two young siblings would cheerfully sit next to one another in an outhouse.
posted by orange swan at 6:54 PM on November 24, 2008


According to this, the multiple holes in an outhouse were to accommodate users of different sizes.
posted by mhum at 6:55 PM on November 24, 2008


Also, take a look at this picture of a reconstruction of Abraham Lincoln's three-hole outhouse. The holes are clearly of different sizes. I seem to recall reading that three-hole outhouses were considered the height of luxury (as far as outhouses go) since they would have a correctly-sized hole for men, women, and children.
posted by mhum at 7:02 PM on November 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


If there were a time or population constraint. Years ago, way up in the boondocks, I saw the remains of an outhouse in the ruins of an old logging camp that had about a dozen holes in a row, with no privacy walls.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 7:08 PM on November 24, 2008


I seem to recall reading that three-hole outhouses were considered the height of luxury (as far as outhouses go) since they would have a correctly-sized hole for men, women, and children.

Wouldn't the ne-plus-ultra of outhouse luxury have been to have partitions between the three holes, so as to allow men, women, and children the luxury of pooping simultaneously in privacy? (Or is that just a modern idea, while the Lincoln family enjoyed their quality time together in their three-holer?)

The multi-holers I've seen in recent years have all had walls and separate doors, to allow more than one simultaneous user. And we joke about it here, but child safety in outhouses is a real issue -- falling in can be fatal at worst, and deeply unpleasant at best.
posted by Forktine at 7:09 PM on November 24, 2008 [2 favorites]


I seem to recall reading that three-hole outhouses were considered the height of luxury

Nope, I'm wrong. I was remembering this passage from The Great Brain:
We called them backhouses and not outhouses [...]. Backhouses ran from two-holers to six-holers. Ours was a standard four-holer. You could just about judge a family's station in life by their backhouse. Just by looking at the Whitlock backhouse, with its ornate scroll woodwork trim and its fancy vent, you knew Calvin Whitlock was a person of means and influence in the community.
They don't appear to bother to explain the significance of the number of holes in this book, maybe taking for granted that the reader would know (?).
posted by mhum at 7:14 PM on November 24, 2008


My biffy has 3 holes. 2 the same size, 1 smaller for the littles. It makes it easier to 1) dig a hole for the waste containers, and 2) accommodate more than one person if the need arises. I also have a urine trough that uses a different waste collection system. Mixing urine and feces is not a great idea when it comes to outhouses. There's also a handwashing station. I have an awesome biffy.

Yes, there's a certain amount of intimacy involved in communal elimination. That's a cultural bias at work; there's nothing wrong with the practice. (I also have indoor plumbing, but the septic field is not very big and the indoor toilet is only there for emergencies.)
posted by reflecked at 7:18 PM on November 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


That's = There's
posted by reflecked at 7:18 PM on November 24, 2008


When I was a young boy living in Northern Appalachia (in the late 1970s), we had moved to an old homestead with an outhouse that we used for a few months before we were able to install indoor plumbing in the house (and an indoor kitchen, and electricity, and, and, and).

Believe me, you don't want to experience the terror of being a 5-year-old using an outhouse with only one drop that is 6 sizes too big for your scrawny chicken ass. My father, a carpenter by trade, made me a small wooden booster for it, but I still had this fear. It's not the same fear of falling into the ceramic bowl where you make a little splash. In the outhouse, there is a cold stench under those buns emanating from unwholesome darkness. You just don't know what's down there, only that it is very bad. We also had an owl living in there, which made going after dark all the more unnerving.

Those were days of adventure, let me tell you.
posted by mrmojoflying at 7:28 PM on November 24, 2008 [13 favorites]


You know, I think this idea of a need for privacy in the non-bible ordained, every day, natural acts is truly a concept borne out of luxury and Victorian era prudishness. (The sex is generally always something you don't share as a family, but pooping?, come on, your mom's seen your junk. Move along, move along.)

I mean, everyone poops.

Of course it has multiple holes for multiple users. Possibly also so that when one of the barrels/collection systems is removed you can still go, sort of an alternating system so you don't get quite such immense collections of waste.

When I was a wee one in West Virginia History class, we learned something about the shapes on the door pertaining to what gender that privy was for. I think the star was the ladies, but I'm not sure.
posted by TomMelee at 7:38 PM on November 24, 2008


If everyone has their own hole, you don't have to look in and see someone else's poop. Back then that could have been perceived as an enviable luxury.
posted by furtive at 7:47 PM on November 24, 2008


If everyone has their own hole, you don't have to look in and see someone else's poop. Back then that could have been perceived as an enviable luxury.

They were basically just different openings into the same pit, so you smelled everyone's poo there. Also, a second hole could serve as ventilation enhancement.
posted by Burhanistan at 7:50 PM on November 24, 2008


I would pay more rent for a second bathroom (just for the A.M.) I assumed that was why there were multiple holes.
posted by schyler523 at 7:57 PM on November 24, 2008


compare to Roman public toilets (those are in Ostia but they built similar ones all over the empire, from England to Turkey), which are basically a 20 or 30 hole facility with no privacy barriers.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:21 PM on November 24, 2008


Tom Melee has it. I remember my mom telling me that yes, in fact, more than one person would use the outhouse at the same time. Not a big deal back then. Big families, several generations living under one roof. More than one hole meant no waiting. With all the work to be done on a farm, there was no time to waste on silly modern luxuries like privacy.
posted by marsha56 at 8:28 PM on November 24, 2008




I came a cross 2 holes back in my youth, for separate bins under but same room, and it was functioning more as a backup. Use the left until the bin is full, then use the right hole until pickup and replacement of the left bin could be organised.

May have just been convenience and not related to historical reasons.
posted by lundman at 9:41 PM on November 24, 2008


I always appreciated company when I had to go to our two-holer outhouse after dark when I was a kid. It never occurred to me that privacy should be a concern. Luxury was a styrofoam toilet seat in the winter.
posted by teg at 10:17 PM on November 24, 2008


Or is that just a modern idea, while the Lincoln family enjoyed their quality time together in their three-holer?

Pretty much.

People of early America did not have the same sense of privacy we have today. They shared beds with extended family members, changed in common rooms, and apparently had little qualms about maintaining privacy for bodily functions. Basic modesty could be preserved at all times by the voluminous skirts worn by women and long shirts used by men. -- Women in Early America
posted by dhartung at 11:33 PM on November 24, 2008


Not Knowing About Defecation (pdf) and The Social Life of Faeces (pdf), both by Sjaak van der Geest, should help you get to the bottom of it.
posted by pracowity at 3:32 AM on November 25, 2008


"Luke Harkins was my first customer. I built for him just the average eight family three holer"
Quote from "The Specialist" by Charles Sale (pub. Feb 1930).
posted by lungtaworld at 4:12 AM on November 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


Also, a second hole could serve as ventilation enhancement.

If you've ever used an outhouse, you know that ventilation and air circulation in the lower section of the outhouse is the last thing you wnat while you are using the upper portion!

Two holes are for two people. This is coming from someone who regularly summers at a farm with outhouses. The outhouse at the building that housed workmen in large rooms on bunks (the bunkhouse) has a multi-hole. All holes are the same size, it's just so more workmen could crap at the same time without having to run over and defile the gentry's privy.

The different size thing is a new one on me and sounds quite spurious. Men and women certainly don't need different sizes. Why would they? Are men's bung holes reall that much larger than women's? Honestly, it sounds to me as if the "theory" was devised by women, women who might still like to imagine that men would need or use an outhouse to perform action #1 when given the option of a tree or corner of a building or bush. Not that there is anything wrong with this idea, it's just, speaking as a man myself, we are filthy animals.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:55 AM on November 25, 2008


I dated a guy who grew up in a cabin restored to original 1860's condition, ie no plumbing, no electric. They had a two seater outhouse; he said in 20 degree weather, the extra person meant extra warmth, even if it meant crapping next to your mom.
posted by nomisxid at 6:08 AM on November 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


see also, two story outhouses.
posted by nomisxid at 6:13 AM on November 25, 2008


we learned something about the shapes on the door pertaining to what gender that privy was for

Relevant Straight Dope column.
posted by Chrysostom at 6:48 AM on November 25, 2008


I think also is more efficient in that if you have two holes, you have two piles, and it keeps either pile from building up too fast. Then you can clear both at once.

That's my guess, anyway.
posted by sully75 at 7:03 AM on November 25, 2008


Then you can clear both at once.

If you have an outhouse filling up then you could cut down on food, clear it (not fun), of fill it and move it (somewhat less not fun than choice b). These days you can get fancy digesting bacteria packets to toss in. Incidentally, do not use lime! Lime kills the good digesting bacteria and the odors they produce and does not cut the scent of actual feces.
posted by Pollomacho at 7:21 AM on November 25, 2008


What was the reason for some outhouses to have two or more holes?

I suspect part of this is economics, ergonomics, shitonomics, something like that.

The main expense in installing a porcelain water toilet is the porcelain contraption itself and the long pipe running from the toilet to the septic tank or sewage line. After you have one toilet installed, you can add a second toilet pretty much anywhere along the pipe that you have already installed for the first toilet. So putting the second toilet in a different room, maybe an existing closet, is not a crazy expensive idea if you can afford the toilet itself.

But when making an outhouse, adding the first seat means digging a big hole somewhere outside and erecting a shack over it. Adding a second seat means digging another huge hole and building a hole new shack over it or, if you're willing to sit cheek to cheek, just making the shack a little wider, cutting a simple second hole in the wooden cover, and getting double use out of the main expenses, which are the big hole in the ground and the shack. A big old-fashioned family is going to go for a two-hole outhouse and the kids will grow up used to sitting side by side with their siblings or parents.
posted by pracowity at 8:19 AM on November 25, 2008


I always assumed the same thing as sully75. I grew up using a two-holer that was built in the 1970s, so modern privacy norms had pretty much been established at that point. But one wide pit is easier to dig than two narrow pits, and a two-holer will last at least twice as long before you have to deal with a full pit.
posted by lampoil at 8:23 AM on November 25, 2008


Thank you for all the answers to my question. I learned more than I expected.
posted by Jumpin Jack Flash at 8:57 AM on January 14, 2009


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