The water is flowing again at most homes and businesses in Jackson, but it was a different story a week ago. This time last week, I was here at work dreading the prospect of having to use a porta-potty. We were open for business for much of last week, and like every other place around here, we were without water. The solution? Portable toilets and hand sanitizer.
I’ve never used a porta-potty, not even the Hotty Toddy Potty at Ole Miss. I didn’t have to use one last week, so I feel like I dodged a bullet. Everything I’ve ever heard about porta-potties (except the Hotty Toddy Potty, of course) has been bad. My mother never let me or my sisters use them when we were little. And whenever the subject of porta-potties comes up in conversations with others, someone always mentions how gross they are. One of the things that had the biggest impact on my attitude toward chemical toilets was the movie North Country with Charlize Theron. There’s a scene where Theron’s character is inside a porta-potty when her co-workers, a bunch of jerks, tip it over. She crawls out covered in the contents of the potty, some of the vilest nastiness you can imagine. Seriously, it was one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen in a movie, and it sealed the fate of my porta-potty attitude.
Being the history nerd that I am, the whole water crisis made me think about how people survived before indoor plumbing was the norm. My parents have told me about their experiences with outhouses, but it should come as no surprised to you that I’ve never actually used one. Dottie Booth, the author of Nature Calls: The History, Lore, and Charm of Outhouses, is part of a movement to preserve existing outhouses and a make a record of these disappearing structures. New ones are no longer being built because of environmental issues, so this movement seeks to preserve the history of outhouses so that they aren’t forgotten after the bulldozers have done their job.
While charming isn’t quite the word I’d use to describe an outhouse, I can definitely understand the urge to study them and at least record their existence for history’s sake. Booth incorporates the memories of former outhouse users throughout the book, which was one of the best aspects of the book for me. One user, Betty, told of how she felt that something was watching her one night when she was in the outhouse. When her husband took a flashlight out there to investigate, he discovered a big raccoon inside! (11)
Booth’s book is loaded with history. In one section, she discusses the predecessors to toilet paper as we know it today, which didn’t come along until the early 1880s. People used all kinds of soft materials, including dress patterns, newspapers, mail-order catalogs (before they were printed on glossy paper), and even corn cobs (thank goodness for Charmin). (27)
And then there are the rules. Oh yes – there are rules to using an outhouse, at least according to Booth. Here are some highlights from the long list:
- Don’t shoot animals in the privy.
- Taco, refried beans, sauerkraut, and herring eaters, use neighbor’s privy.
- Knock twice for emergency, and if you hear someone running on the path, get out quickly. (16)
Note: That third rule may not apply if the outhouse is a two-seater (or three- or four-seater).
After doing a little research and thinking it over, I realized that porta-potties would probably be considered a luxury compared to what people had to deal with in the old days. A porta-potty would probably seem fancy to a person whose only bathroom was an outhouse. Even so, I’ll still avoid them like the plague (unless I absolutely have no choice).
Booth, Dottie. Nature Calls: The History, Lore, and Charm of Outhouses. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 1998.
North Country, Warner Brothers, 2005