The little brown shack out back

Published 8:02 am Tuesday, March 6, 2012

With less than 24 hours before the deadline for this column, I had no idea what I was going to write about. Driving home late Monday afternoon, I noticed the bright pink in my yard as I approached our house. Thinking at first it was some of our beautiful tulips; it was only as I got closer that I realized it was a brilliantly pink toilet.

Adorned with many flowers both in the bowl and the top of the tank, it also had a sign notifying me that it had been placed there by a person working for a local Relay for Life. There was a telephone number on the back of the sign notifying us where to call to have the pink toilet removed.

We paid to have the toilet removed. We paid for “insurance” to make sure the toilet didn’t come back. And finally, we paid to have it sent to one of our dear neighbors who had neglected to buy insurance when the pink decoration had made it to their yard the first time.

Email newsletter signup

The outdoor toilet brought back some memories of my long distance backpacking trips. I took pictures of every outhouse I passed; all of them different. They were made of stone and timber. Some were not much more than a shack while others were beautiful in design.

My personal favorite was one on the side of a mountain. The side was open facing the open valley below giving a beautiful view for contemplation while on the throne.

Many had the traditional crescent moon on the door. As a kid I assumed it was to let in some light, but I never gave any thought to why the hole in the door was in that shape.

Many authorities believe that the crescent moon dates back more than 500 years. At that time most people could not read or write so putting “Men” or “Women” on the doors would not have done much good.

The builders of the outhouses in that time used the moon and the sun as cutouts on the doors. The moon had long been a symbol for women while the sun represented men. Over time more and more of the facilities only had the moon.

Many of the inns of that day only had facilities for women. The reasoning was that men could always go behind the tree. Having only had daughters, it was finally having a grandson that reminded me that some of that habit must be ingrained into boys. It is a tradition that survives to this day.

While I was born in the first generation likely to have not grown up with an outhouse, they were still prevalent in my younger years. I grew up hearing about the “two-holer” at our family’s first cottage at Compass Lake. The yearly Sears & Roebuck catalog was there for your convenience and reading pleasure.

Many of the two-hole variety had a larger hole for adults and a smaller hole for children. Many a child feared getting them mixed up in the middle of the night. Children today would probably refuse to use such a facility no matter what the size of the opening or type of carving on the door.

Outhouses became more substantial and ornate during the antebellum period. The plantation at the state park in Stone Mountain had an outhouse that was brick and actually had three holes. Two story homes occasionally had two story outhouses. Thomas Jefferson, ever the designer and engineer, actually constructed an eight sided outhouse, showing off his wealth at the time to anyone that might visit.

Outhouses have long been a part of modern day culture. The Specialist, written by comedian Chic Sale, sold over one million copies in 1929. “The Little Brown Shack Out Back” was a popular recording by folk singer Billy Edd Wheeler who sang sentimentally about the outhouse.

Various communities across the country feature races with outhouses being pulled as part of local festivals. There are literally thousands of pictures of unusual outhouses on sites on the internet proving that I am not the only one that regularly took pictures of the shacks as I passed by.

As with almost all things, the passage of time brings change. As electricity made its way across rural America, pumps fed the water into the houses. Outhouses eventually gave way to indoor plumbing.

Modern day bathrooms are becoming more and more sophisticated and elaborate. Current features could include heated seats, lids that sense your approach and raise or lower the seat somehow knowing which direction to go. They play music to help you relax.

For warmer climates, there are some toilets that are air conditioned below the seat. Some seats glow in the dark.   Some toilets automatically flush. Researchers have even designed features that measure your sugar, pulse, blood pressure, and even your body fat, of all things.

The measurements can even be sent to your doctor via a built in cellular phone or wireless computer. I guess that might beat sitting in the waiting room at the doctor’s office for long periods of time, but it still seems a bit intimidating to me.

Any way you look at it, the little brown shack out back was definitely a sign of a simpler time.

Dan Ponder can be reached at