Jefferson's privy 5 rs

A sedate view of the facilities at Poplar Forest from the lawn (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

I came face to face with the truth about outhouses on my first day in my Peace Corps village. Not that I’d never seen (or used) an outhouse before; I became intimately acquainted with the concept during the summer I worked as the assistant cook on an archaeological dig in Ozette, Washington.

There, the pit descended far down into the bowels of the earth, out of sight and smell.

Not so the one resting precariously in the red mud of that isolated Paraguayan village, where the water table hovered only a few feet below the surface. When it rained, it came down like God unleashed on Noah, which happened the day I arrived in the village – water seeped everywhere and I ruined my good boots. I struggled through the mud sucking at my feet like the hungry mouths of a school of fish. Well, while it is true that some things should indeed remain taboo, suffice it to say that the fat maggots and water pooling at my feet in the outhouse encouraged me to hurry about my business and run as fast as I could to the well fifty feet away, pull up a sloshing bucket of water, and do some quick washing up.

That night at supper, while I chewed on the thick ‘pizza’ Dona Olga cooked in celebration – her pizza more like a focaccia smothered with onions, tomatoes, and black olives, a legacy of a trip to Buenos Aires and the Italian influence therein – I thought about that grimy outhouse and all its earthiness, nay, its outright foulness.

Foods like my Paraguayan pizza come from the earth, and it returns there, too, in an act common to humans and earthworms and all life in between.

Gardens. Kitchens. Cookware. Tables. Markets. All these food-related topics underwrite the stuff of glossy magazines, thousands of testimonies dating back for centuries, and endless  conversations slurred over innumerable glasses of Chardonnay and Cabernet.

Yet, the water closet merits very little mention.

Years later, in West Africa, I attended a funeral feast for an esteemed village chief. After drinking a gourd-full of sorghum beer, I felt the need to visit the facilities, a pit covered with corrugated metal, quite unlike anything I’d ever experienced before and revealing cultural attitudes far different from my own. Once unceremoniously removed, the cover revealed a pit right out in the open, where one dropped trou and did one’s business in full view of people walking back and forth along a well-worn path at the edge of the village. When I finished, I pulled the metal cover over the hole and walked back to the center of the village.

Jefferson's privy 2 rs

Up close and way too personal (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

Even Thomas Jefferson, in his retreat at Poplar Forest, hid his baptistry-like outhouses behind two enormous mounds of earth shoveled out of the ground by slaves working on their free time, which meant Sundays only. Nowhere do you find Jefferson waxing eloquent over the indoor privies he built at Monticello. One of the most detailed references to Jefferson’s toilets came from the hand of Jefferson’s friend, Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, a French Huguenot, in a letter written to his wife, Sept. 28, 1816:

And with regard to English conveniences, they are also an unknown luxury in the United States, where there are only ‘little houses’ five hundred paces from the house whenever possible. That is very disagreeable in winter with the snow, and in summer when summer complaint, diarrhea, is quite a common ailment. Irénée [his son] has done an extraordinary thing for me with a ‘little house’ twenty-five paces away in a little thicket; and when it rains I should like it better even closer. In Washington, Madam Barlow placed hers at the end of the piazza; that is a great improvement. But that lady has French manners. At Monticello, Mr. Jefferson’s home, one has the choice of three hundred paces in the garden and on the terraces or through an underground tunnel, level with the cellars and built for that purpose.

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Ceiling of the necessary at Poplar Forest (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

Of course, others welcomed the opportunity to do what Jefferson did not: the Library of Congress preserved the paper scraps that Jefferson stocked in his privy.

Now, that’s not unlike the airmail versions of TIME magazine that Peace Corps volunteers like me used in their Paraguayan outhouses. Slick, thin, and quite non-absorbant. Not at all like Charmin!

Jefferson built high-class privies in his day and age. Why, the ceiling alone merits accolades. But there’s a deeper issue going on in contemplating privies and toilets and sewage.

Jefferson's privy 4 rs

The roof of the necessary at Poplar Forest, constructed of hickory shingles (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

All that wonderful food – natural, industrial, traditional – ends up in the crapper.* But what happens to it all in the end?

Night soil, as it is called in polite company, still plays a large role in agriculture in many parts of the world. A taboo topic, yes, but one that merits serious attention.

For further edification on this topic:

* Thomas Crapper

Nature Calls: The History, Lore, and Charm of Outhouses, by Dottie Booth (1998, 96 pages) 

Privies and Water Closets, by David Eveleigh (2009, 64 pages)

The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why it Matters, by Rose George (2008, 304 pages)

Necessary and Sufficient, by Michael Olmert

“Memorializing the backhouse: Sanitizing and satirizing outhouses in the American South,” by Helena Safron,, M.A., THE UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA AT CHAPEL HILL, 2009, 218 pages. Available through Proquest’s Dissertations and Theses database.

© 2013 C. Bertelsen

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I am a cook who loves to write. And I am a writer who loves to cook.

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