The House Out Back

Visiting Aunt Agnes
Aunt Agnes
The Homestead
The House Out Back
The Old "Buggy"
The Wedding Dress
Elk County, KS

        In the days before indoor plumbing, the solution to "nature calling" was the outhouse. Outhouses had many interesting names, some less mentionable than others, but Aunt Agnes just called it "the outhouse." This is not to say that she didn't make its ambiance as pleasing as possible, under the circumstances of its purpose. It was located to the northwest a ways behind the house, situated among some trees to give it a more secluded appearance. To the south for some distance were fields, so it faced that direction as opposed to facing the Kessingers property. The field was owned by Aunt Agnes and a local farmer planted and took care of it. So, indeed, "the outhouse" had a good amount of privacy. It had been ensconced in its position for many years and had the appearance of well-weathered wood. I don't think it had ever seen a coat of paint. The old rusty hinges on the door squeaked shrilly when opened. There was a little screen- hook on the inside to ensure privacy. The only lighting was through a decorative slot in the door and around the various gaps between the boards. If one utilized the facility after dark, a flashlight provided the needed vision but also caused the various creatures within to scurry about unpleasantly. Heating came just from the solar source.

      On the inside walls Aunt Agnes had decorated with colorful pictures cut from old magazines. I remember one picture in particular of a little curly-haired girl hugging a black dog. It seems that many of the other pictures were of flower arrangements. There were two holes cut in the wooden bench to provide the seating. Since using the facility was generally a private thing, I always wondered why there were two together, but guessed it was so one could choose left or right. Aunt Agnes's outhouse had covers for the two openings, which was not the usual norm in outhouse design I don't think. I learned that it was important to replace the covers after use to help prevent black widow spiders and other creatures from taking up residence inside. I don't know for sure if that was the real reason, but to this day I'm a fanatic about closing the lid on the potty. I'm sure that is where I learned that lesson. For a little girl it was quite frightening to sit upon that throne because my feet hung free and I thought that I might fall all the way inside and into the contents below. I always hung onto the edge for dear life! There was modern tissue, though Aunt Agnes said that in the old days the pages of catalogues were used. In those days one had to be frugal so that the catalogue would last until the next years edition arrived.

      On cold blustery days the wind would whirl in through gapes in the boards. Often it would make a whistling sound that was quite eerie. The breeze would send a chill up one's posterior as well. If it was snowing, one might come out looking like old "Frosty." I can remember that it wasn't awfully comfortable either to be all bundled up in a coat, hat, scarf, mittens and boots and still accomplish the job at hand. Under these circumstances, one did not tarry long on the premises, I guarantee.

      In the summertime when all of nature's creatures were abundant, the old outhouse would be bustling with activity. Wasps liked the upper corners for building their homes, while web-spinners seemed to prefer the lower recesses, and flies loved the whole place. Little girls, I in particular, didn't care for the place at all. I was always extremely squeamish about creepy, crawly things. Just the thought of going into that old outhouse made chills go up my spine. Aunt Agnes always tried to assure me that if I didn't bother them, they wouldn't bother me. Never mind – I wasn't buying. It all gave a whole new meaning to the story of "Little Miss Muffet" for me.

      Whatever the season, I never utilized the facility without being accompanied by an adult who could rescue me on a moments notice. Their being across the yard was not acceptable. They had to stay right by the door and keep talking so I knew they were there, but they couldn't come inside because I was a very private person. That too may have been why, in the winter especially, I was allowed to use the alternate latrine choice, known as a "slop-jar."

      Chamber pots were containers created back in the dark ages for use in the bedroom as a toilet. They were designed for night use or when one was bedridden I think. Well, they worked well for me anytime rather than making the trek to that old house-of-terror out back. Aunt Agnes never dignified them with the more classic name, but instead, used the colloquial term "slop-jar." There were several of these containers around the house, each stored under a bed. The one that I favored was under Aunt Agnes's bed. It was a round, white porcelain pot with a turned edge at the top to provide comfort for one's derriere. It had a black metal and wood handle for toting it out of the house. Its porcelain lid had long since been broken so a white enameled one, retired from kitchen duty, took its place. On our visit to Grenola in 1969 I told Aunt Agnes that I would like to have that old "slop-jar" someday. She thought I was a bit strange for asking I think, but in a couple of years she gave it to my mother to pass on to me. When I got it I shined it all up, repainted its handle and fixed it up as a planter with a philodendron inside. When Aunt Agnes heard that it was residing in my living room, she was aghast. After all, it was a toilet! To make her happy I moved it into the bathroom for a time but after her death it found it's way to the top of the china cabinet. In good conscience, however, and to honor her memory, it once again resides in the bathroom and serves as a holder for extra rolls of toilet paper. It's happy there I think - and I'm sure she is resting easier too!

      Whenever we did use the facility or had been outside playing, we learned to go in through one of the porches and straight to the washbasin. From the kettle that was always on the stove, Aunt Agnes poured a bit of hot water in and added cold water from the pitcher that stood ready. We used plenty of soap and dried on the embroidered towels. It was so fun compared to the boring faucet method we had at home. The wash water was thrown out the back door onto the yard.

      When I was older and going to visit Aunt Agnes for only a day, I drank very little before leaving home, drank nothing while there and made a pit-stop at the last possible location with an indoor facility before arriving. Once I was older I should have had courage enough to visit the outhouse facility but I never got over those old thoughts about it. How could I forget that at one time a snake had taken up residency in there and had been shooed away? Maybe he or his kin had returned! Aunt Agnes said it was "just a little garter snake," which meant python in my book. It was good enough never to enamor me with that place.

      With Aunt Agnes' advancing years came the need for more conveniences. When my parents remodeled their bathroom at home, they installed the displaced toilet in a corner of the pantry room behind a floral print curtain. Thus came the end of the old outhouse's rein of terror.

Carol J. Swander Clark
(These are my memories - accurate to my way of thinking.)
Explore Grenola & Elk County, or visit other Kansas Cities & Towns
September 27, 2000 / John & Susan Howell / Wichita, Kansas /

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