Tennesseans called it the “la-la.” Elsewhere known as the john, the shanty, the shack, the throne, the shed, the relief office—it was the humble outhouse. The little buildings “out back” were as important as any building built before indoor plumbing. This was the building you located as soon as possible when you came to visit, and if your guest was the preacher, you invited him outside on some pretext so he could spot “the necessary room” without asking.
During the 1930s the WPA built thousands of outhouses across America. Three-man teams would spend an average of twenty hours on the construction of each one. Where possible the farm family receiving the new outhouse would pay for the materials (about $17 per outhouse), while the WPA supplied the labor free.
These were outhouses like America had never seen before. The American Red Cross developed the basic design. This design featured an enclosed, vented pit for the waste, was fly and vermin proof, and afforded a standard of cleanliness and sanitation that earlier generations would have considered effete.
The building had a concrete floor and a carefully carpentered seat with a close fitting lid to exclude flies. Although many design variations existed, the two basic designs were single seater and two seater.
The two seater was preferred by large families—the second seat had a smaller hole to prevent children from falling through—by those who liked company, and by those who needed a place to set their lantern at night.
“To the right of the narrow entrance was a complete collection of fishing equipment ranging from rods and reels to every size, shape and color of lure imaginable. Directly above these hung an array of ingenious traps which proved to be the scourge of every muskrat and mink for five miles up or down river. In the rear of the little edifice stood two tall bushel baskets containing an endless conglomeration of treasures ranging from outdated articles of clothing to ancient magazines.
“The latter provided amusement and literary driblets for the perusal of the lackadaisical visitor who wished to bide his time informatively. And we must not overlook that standard piece of equipment without which the outhouse would not have been an outhouse–that savior of the toilet-paper-destitute family–the good old catalog. Where would we have been without it? Why do you think the mail-order house was such a thriving success?”
Robert E. Dalton
born Robert E. Lee Dalton, 1938,
in Itman, Wyoming County, WV
And those crescent moon cutouts on the door? That goes back to Colonial times. In a time when few people could read, the crescent moon was the symbol for women while the star cutout was for men.