An outhouse, usually refers to a type of toilet in a small structure separate from the main building which does not have a flush or sewer attached.


The term outhouse originally referred to an outbuilding, or any small structure away from a main building, used for a variety of purposes, but mainly for activities not wanted in the main house. Outhouses are used for storage, animals, and cooking, to name a few uses. Larger structures have names such as barn or stable.

In North American English, an outhouse (sometimes also called a backhouse) is now a small enclosure around a pit that is used as a toilet. One well-built example had four large holes, and one child-sized.

The term in Chilean Culture is Aldaco. In Brazil, especially in rural areas of Rio Grande do Sul, an outhouse is often called patente.

Dunny or Thunderbox

In Australia the outdoor toilet is frequently referred to as a dunny or "thunderbox". Waste deposited in earth closets was also euphemistically referred to as "nightsoil". In suburban areas not connected to the sewerage, such outhouses were not built over pits. Instead, waste was collected into large cans, or "dunny-cans", which were positioned under the toilet, to be collected by contractors (or "nightsoil collectors") hired by the local council. Collected waste matter would then be removed from the premises and disposed of elsewhere. The contractors would replace the used cans with empty, cleaned cans. Until the 1970s Brisbane relied heavily on this form of sanitation. See also, the discussion of Australia's Kosciusko National Park, infra.

Long Drop

In New Zealand such toilets are referred to as 'long-drops'. These are the usual toilet-variety found on tramping tracks and other locations where water is unavailable for flushing. Less commonly bachs may have these instead of flush toilets.


The term biffy is sometimes encountered in the context of U.S. Girl Scouting, and may have originated with the "BFI" logo of what was at one time Browning-Ferris Industries (now part of Allied Waste Industries), a waste collection company whose trade lines in some markets include the servicing of portable toilets. Campers are told the term is an acronym for "Bathroom in the Forest For You." An alternate explanation: when backpackers prepare a cathole or trench latrine in their overnight campsite (even embellishing it with fresh-cut flowers), they call it the BIFF - Bathroom In Forest Floor. A backpacking group will carry a zip-lock bag with a trowel, toilet paper, and a lighter (to burn the used tissue); this bag is known as "the BIFF key".

The term "biffy" appears to have originally been a localism in Minnesota and adjoining places. Students studying linguistics in the mid-20th century were given the sample sentence, "If I said 'meet me at the biffy' what would you think?" Hysterical laughter would convulse the class as the professor queried students from other regions and logged their responses.


The term "kybo" is popular within the Scout Movement worldwide. The term "kybo" may have originated at the Farm and Wilderness Camps in Vermont where it came from the coffee cans (Kybo brand coffee) that held the lye or more often lime used to keep odor to a minimum and aid decomposition. It was only after Kybo coffee (Motto: a cup full of satisfaction) was no longer available and the cans were no longer used that folks began to come up with other possible reasons for the term "kybo". The word is believed by some to have originated as an acronym for "Keep Your Bowels Open" although this may be a backronym. An interesting aside is that toilet paper is often referred to as "Kybo Tape" or "Kybo Wrap". The term appears in summer camp folklore as a parody of "Downtown":

When you are sleepy and it's time to go peepee there's a place to go… kybo
When you are droopy and it's time to go poopy there's a place to go… kybo
Just listen to the rhythm of the froggies in the toilet,
Even though it's smelly I am sure you will enjoy it
The lights are not on in there, but you forget all your worries,
Forget all your cares in the kybo
Isn't it fun to go… kybo

Kybos are firmly woven into the lore of RAGBRAI, the Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. Although Kybo portable toilets were eventually replaced by other brands, the term "kybo" is still commonly used. "Kybo Roulette", in which riders waiting in line guess which toilet door will open next, is a common and celebrated diversion on the ride. See external link below to view "Adopt-A-Kybo" humor piece.

Controversies, trends and records

Outhouse design, placement and maintenance has long been recognized as being important to the public health. See posters created by the Works Project Administration.

The growing popularity of paddling, hiking and climbing has created special waste disposal issues throughout the world. It is a dominant topic for outdoor organizations and their members. In fact, a grass roots organization -- Hikers Against Doo-Doo, also known as HADD -- exists dedicated to providing information, insight and strategies for addressing the problem of waste disposal. The response to the growing problem has varied around the world.

  • On August 29, 2007, the highest outhouse in the continental United States — which sat atop Mount Whitney at about 4,418 meters (14,494 feet) above sea level, offering a magnificent panorama to the user — was removed. Two other outhouses, in the Inyo National Forest, will be closed within the year. All were closed due to the expense and danger involved in transporting out large sewage drums via helicopter. The annual 19,000 or so hikers of the Mount Whitney trail, who must pick up National Forest Service permits, are now given Wagbags (a double-sealed sanitation kit) and told how to use them. "Pack it in; pack it out" is the new watchword. Solar powered toilets did not sufficiently compact the excrement, and the systems were judged failures at that location. Additionally, by relieving park rangers of latrine duty, they were better able to concentrate on primary ranger duties, e.g., talking to hikers. The use of Wagbags and the removal of outhouses is part of a larger trend in U.S. parks.
  • In 2007, Europe's highest outhouses (two) were helicoptered to the top of France's Mont Blanc at a height of 4,260 meters (13,976 feet). The dunny-cans are emptied by helicopter. The facilities will service 30,000 skiers and hikers annually; thus helping to alleviate the deposit of urine and feces that spread down the mountain face with the spring thaw, and turned it into 'Mont Noir'. More technically, the 2002 book Le versant noir du mont Blanc (The black hillside of Mont Blanc) exposes problems in conserving the site.
  • However, atop the 5,642 meters (18,510-feet) Mount Elbrus -- Russia's highest peak, the highest mountain in all of Europe and (at least) topographically dividing Europe from Asia -- sits the world's "nastiest outhouse" at 4,206 meters (13,800 feet). It is in the Caucasus Mountains, near the frontier between Georgia and Russia and a 'stone's throw' from troubled Chechnya. As one writer opined, ". . . it doesn't much feel like Europe when you're there. It feels more like Central Asia or the Middle East" (Per Outside Magazine 1993 search and article). The outhouse is surrounded by and covered in ice, perched off the end of a rock, and with a pipe pouring effluvia onto the mountain. It consistently receives low marks for sanitation and convenience, but is considered to be a unique experience.
  • Australia's highest "dunny" -- located at Rawson's Pass in the Main Range in Kosciuszko National Park which each year receives more than 100,000 walkers outside of winter and has a serious human waste management issue -- is scheduled to be completed in 2007, before the snow arrives.
  • A stone outhouse in Colca Canyon Peru has been claimed to be "the world's highest."
  • Many reports document the use of Dunny cans (complete with pictures) for the removal of excrement, which must be packed in and packed out on Mount Everest. Also known as "expedition barrels" or "bog barrerls," the cans are weighed to make sure that groups don't dump them along the way. "Toilet tents" are erected. This would seem to be an improvement over the prior practices, including the so-called "McKinley system"; there has been an increasing awareness that the mountain needs to be kept clean, for the health of the climbers at least. '<'See'' ref name="mountainzone1"/>

Design and construction

Outhouses vary in design and construction. Common features usually include:

  • A separate structure from the main dwelling, close enough to allow easy access, but far enough to minimize smell.
  • Being a suitable distance away from any freshwater well, so as to minimize risk of contamination and disease. See .
  • An important feature which distinguishes an outhouse from other forms of toilets is the lack of connection to plumbing, sewer, or septic system.
  • Walls and a roof for privacy and to shield the user from the elements -- rain, wind, sleet and snow (depending on locale) and thus to a small degree, cold weather. Floor plans typically are rectangular or square, but hexagonal outhouses have been built. Thomas Jefferson designed and built two brick octagons at his vacation home.
  • Outhouse door design: There is no standard for door design. The well-known crescent moon on American outhouses was popularized by cartoonists and had a questionable basis in fact. There are authors who claim the practice began during the colonial period as an early “mens”/ “ladies” designation for an illiterate populace. (The sun and moon being popular symbols for the genders during those times. . Others refute the claim as an urban legend . What is certain is that the purpose of the hole is for venting and light and there were a wide variety of shapes and placements employed.
  • In Western societies, there is at least one seat with a hole in it, above a small pit.
  • In Eastern societies, there is a hole in the floor, over which the user crouches.
  • A roll of toilet paper is sometimes available. However, historically, old newspapers and catalogs from retailers specializing in mail order purchases, such as the Montgomery Ward or Sears Roebuck catalog, were also common before toilet paper was widely available. Paper was often kept in a can or other container to protect it from mice, etc. The catalogs served a dual purpose, also giving one something to read. Old corn cobs, leaves, or other types of paper were also used.
  • Outhouses are typically built on one level, but two stories do rarely occur in unusual circumstances. One double-decker was built to service a two-story building in Cedar Lake, Michigan. The outhouse was connected by walkways. It still stands (but not the building). The references and pictures in this article should spike the internet urban legend that any structure is 'the only two-storied outhouse' in the world. The waste from "upstairs" is directed down a chute separate from the "downstairs" facility in these instances, so contrary to various jokes about two story outhouses, the user of the lower level has nothing to fear if the upper level is in use at the same time.
  • U.S. President Calvin Coolidge had a window in his outhouse, but such accoutrement are rare.
  • Outhouses are commonly humble and utilitarian, made of lumber or plywood. This is especially fit so they can easily be moved when the earthen pit fills up. Depending on the size of the pit and the amount of use, this can be fairly frequent, sometimes yearly. As pundit 'Jackpine' Bob Cary wrote: "“Anyone can build an outhouse, but not everyone can build a good outhouse.”
  • However, brick outhouses are known.picture needed Some have been surprisingly ornate, almost opulent considering the time and the place. For example, an opulent 19th Century antebellum example (a three-holer) is at the plantation area at the State Park in Stone Mountain, Georgia. The outhouses of Colonial Williamsburg varied widely, from simple expendable temporary wood structures to high style brick. ] See Jefferson's matched pair of eight-sided brick privies.] Such outhouses are sometimes considered to be overbuilt, impractical and ostentatious, giving rise to the simile "built like a brick shit house." That phrase's meaning and application is subject to some debate; but (depending upon the country) it has been applied to men, women, or inanimate objects.
  • Construction and maintenance of outhouses is subject to provincial, state, and local governmental restriction, regulation and prohibition. ] It is potentially both a public health issue, which has been addressed both by law and by education of the public as to good methods and practices (e.g., separation from drinking water sources). This also becomes a more prevalent issue as urban and suburban development encroaches on rural areas, and is an external manifestation of a deeper cultural conflict. See also urban sprawl, urban planning, regional planning, suburbanization, urbanisation and counter urbanisation.
  • Outhouses are inherently part of larger battlegrounds concerning the environment, environmental policy, environmental quality and environmental law. ]
  • A modern analogy to the outhouse is the "Clivus Multrum", which is an electric and waterless compost-making machine. See composting toilet and humanure. They are an alternative to outhouses and septic fields, and provide effective sanitation in areas too remote for sewer lines. Worm hold privies, another variant of the composting toilet are being touted by Vermont's Green Mountain Club. These simple outhouses are stocked with red worms (a staple used by home composters). ] Despite their environmental benefits, composting toilets are likewise subject to regulations.
  • Street urinals, also known as vespasiennes or Pissoirs are common in some European cities. Since the 1990s, these were offtimes replaced by the far superior Sanisette. This is a new urban analog to the outhouse -- at least insofar as it is a free standing building that houses a unisex outdoor toilet (albeit with modern amenities and a toll being collected). See also pay toilets.
  • While one might think 'there is nothing new under the moon,' in 2005 a patent was issued for a 'portable outdoor toilet with advertising indicia.'

Popular culture

  • Outhouses are common throughout history. Outhouse humor is likewise a constant, which usually involves someone either being trapped in one, falling into the hole, or other social faux pas. Privy-tipping, the act of knocking over the external structure to expose the person within, also features in rural humor. Aside from generic bathroom jokes, some are specific to outhouses, such as this time-honored one-liner, which any rural sort might say, usually making fun of his background:
    • "We had a fire in the bathroom; luckily, it didn't spread to the house!"
  • A 1559 oil-on-oak-panel painting, Netherlandish Proverbs (also known as "The Blue Cloak" or "The Topsy Turvy World") by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, depicts a land populated with literal renditions of Flemish proverbs of the day. Outhouses are humorously used to illustrate a couple of the aphorisms.
  • A 1983 computer game for the TRS-80 Color Computer titled Outhouse by J. Weaver, Jr. distributed by Computer Shack, in which the player controls a flying saucer defending an outhouse from earthlings sticking its toilet paper in their backside and walking out with it.
  • For those persons or avatars who inhabit a virtual world and have an electronic elimination problem, 3-dimensional digital privies are now available.
  • The Simpsons have explored the subject of outhouses from time to time. One eighth season episode mentioned a two-story outhouse. See also, Episode 357, "The Bonfire of the Manatees".
  • The double-decker outhouse has been used as an unflattering metaphor for the "Trickle-down theory" of politics, economics, command, management, labor relations, responsibility, etc. Depending on who is depicted on top and below, it is an easy and familiar cartoon.
  • Speaking of cartoons, on November 10, 2003, a drawing of an outhouse was used by B.C. (comic strip) cartoonist Johnny Hart as a motif in a controversial and allegedly religiously-themed piece.
  • The Jeff Daniels play and movie Escanaba in da Moonlight features a scene where a man shoots a buck through the back wall of the deer camp's outhouse, having heard the animal sniffing around behind it as he was relieving himself within.
  • Also in Michigan, the Upper Peninsula's Trenary has the largest outhouse race but Mackinaw City is home to an annual and largest "outhouse race south of the Mackinac Bridge". Another fameous outhouse race is during the Yale Bologna Festival.
  • Charles Chic Sale was a famous comedian in vaudeville and the movies. In 1929 he published a small book, The Specialist ISBN 0285632264 which was just earthy enough to be a hugely popular "underground" success, and just tactfully worded enough to not risk being banned. Its entire premise centered on sales of outhouses, touting the advantages of one kind or another, and labeling them in "technical" terms such as "one-holers", "two-holers", etc. See The Specialist by Charles (Chic) Sale (as told in 1929) Over a million copies were sold. In 1931 his monolog "I'm a Specialist" was made into a hit record (Victor 22859) by popular recording artist Frank Crumit (music by Nels Bitterman). As memorialized in the "Outhouse Wall of Fame" , the term "Chic Sale" became a rural slang synonym for privies, an appropriation of Mr. Sale's name that he personally considered unfortunate. Id.
  • Folksinger Billy Edd Wheeler wrote and performed a song titled "The Little Brown Shack Out Back", a surprisingly sentimental look at the outhouse (lyrics are worth the read, and the song is worth the listen). The song is often played on the Dr. Demento radio show.
  • Another comedy song written by Richard M. Sherman & Milt Larsen was recorded by the New Society Band (Spike Jones alumni) now on the CD, Bon Voyage Titanic: Sherman & Larsen's Smash Flops! (The Orchard, March 13, 2002) — "The True Legend of Jesse James" ("They shot him in the outhouse").
  • Coincidentally, an outhouse is prominently featured as the setting of a pivotal shooting in Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven".
  • The U.S. National Park Service once built an outhouse that cost above $333,000.
  • As a college student, Richard Nixon achieved renown by providing a three-hole outhouse to be tossed onto the traditional campus bonfire.
  • The United States Army has long been concerned with outhouses and so-called natural functions. It is the subject of many colorful army acronyms and nicknames. Particularly on point is the so-called "John Wayne" which, among other things, refers to the toilet paper from the Meal, Ready-to-Eat, or MRE (pronounced "M-R-E") because "it's rough, it's tough, and it don't take shit from nobody." See List of U.S. Marine Corps acronyms and expressions.
  • Bob Ross (not the painter or publisher) did several books of poetry that are centered in the outhouse (e.g., "Muddled Meandering In An Outhouse Number 2"), and is memorialized at the Outhouse Wall of Fame.
  • Surprisingly, outhouses have been the subject of haiku. ]
  • Tsi-Ku also known as Tsi Ku Niang is described as the Chinese Goddess of the outhouse and divination. It is said that a woman could uncover the future by going to the outhouse to ask Tsi-Ku.
  • Old outhouse pits are seen as fertile ground (no pun intended) for archeological and anthropological digs, offering up a trove of common objects from the past -- a veritable inadvertent time capsule -- which yields historical insight into the lives of the bygone occupants. It is especially common to find old bottles, which seemingly were secretly stashed or trashed, so their content could be privately imbibed.
  • In the film The Villain, Cactus Jack's horse, Whiskey, is seen using an outhouse. When called, he turns his head back into the outhouse and a flushing sound is heard.
  • In South Dakota, Jim Bohan created the worlds largest crapper on a bet he lost during a Super Bowl game. It holds over 9,000 gallons of water and can support obese people.

See also

Literature and further reading

  • Ronald S Barlow: The Vanishing American Outhouse. Windmill Publishing 1992. ISBN 0-933846-02-9
  • 'Jackpine' Bob Cary: The All-American Outhouse -- Stories, Design & Construction. Adventure Publications, Inc. 2003. ISBN 9781591930112
  • Peter Joel Harrison: Garden Houses and Privies, Authentic Details for Design and Restoration. John Wiley & Sons, 2002. ISBN 0471203327 Member of the Outhouse Wall of Fame
  • Charles Chic Sale and William Kermode (Illustrator): The Specialist. Souvenir Press, 1994. ISBN 0285632264 | ISBN-13: 9780285632264


External links

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