GROWING UP WITHOUT ELECTRICITY
GROWING UP WITH OUTHOUSES
Compiled by Sandra Lee Smith
My online retiree group has (along with solving many of the problems of the world), reflected a bit on issues such as growing up without electricity…to growing up with outhouses). You have to be a certain age to remember these things and soon there may not be anyone left in this country who DOES remember being without electricity or growing up with an outhouse in the back yard. So, take a little journey with me back in time and enjoy the reflections of my retiree friends:
Marge S. wrote:
Thomas Edison did us all a big favor when he invented the light bulb. I just can imagine living as the pioneers did when their activities were pretty much limited to daylight hours. Thank goodness we were all born when had a lot of the comforts were pretty common place. Dorman’s family lived on a farm in the Ozarks, and electricity didn’t reach them until after WW II. He was probably 10 years old then. One of the first places they wanted it was in the dairy barn so they could use milking machines. Their lives changed drastically once the power line was connected to their house. They bought a refrigerator, a cooking stove, lights throughout the house, etc.
Growing up, even in a big city, we accepted what we had because at the end of the Depression, and then WW II years, most of us lived with some of those inconveniences. We even felt like our house had more than most of the neighbors. After the war when the economy switched over to manufacturing more things for the home, we all moved up in comforts. It was usually one thing at a time — a hot water heater, a refrigerator, a stove that used gas or electricity. We lived in that house I was born in, until I was a sophomore in high school, to an updated older house that had a furnace in the basement. But looking back over all these years, we had a great life in that house on the Platte River in Denver. We never felt deprived though we knew we didn’t have everything.
Marge N. wrote:
Marge, you mentioned how Dorman grew up without electricity. Me, too, until I was about 4. And even after we had electricity, I recall it wasn’t all that predictable and a lot of evenings it was out. We used oil lanterns – smoky and smelly! We got running water when I was 7, before that we just had a hand pump in the kitchen sink. The old coal cook stove had a reservoir on the one side, we filled it with water and it would heat when the stove was on. Needless to say we didn’t have a lot of hot water in the summer as the stove was only on to cook meals! We finally got a bathroom put in a few years later – used the old pantry to make a bathroom. I was very happy to not have to use a chamber pot or wade through the snow to go to the outhouse in the winter!
I have fond memories of that old cook stove – and that’s what I learned to cook on because we never had a gas stove until I was in my teens. The oven was always warm if the stove was being used, so in the winter my grandmother often opened the oven door, pulled up a chair and propped her feet on the oven door to keep her feet and legs warm. I remember sitting there with her many a time – eating our soup for lunch, etc. I also remember some days when the door was really hot when first opened and how our shoes would start to smell from the heat burning the soles!
In the living room we had a big coal heater; I recall a hole cut in the ceiling (which was the floor of the bedroom above) for the heat to rise up there. All that work and dust with the ashes.
I always say I’m glad I was born on the cusp and didn’t have to live my whole life that way. My Mom worked very hard hauling wood, hauling water. We did not have central air, just a cook stove and an oil heater.
I have to confess I have lived with electricity and running water all my life BUT when I was about 12, my parents bought a cabin on the Whitewater River, and it didn’t have running water or indoor toilet–and if I remember correctly, no electricity either. I remember lanterns. I hated the outhouse. I was always afraid of going out there at night – fearful something was going to reach up inside the toilet and grab me by the butt. I still hate outhouses.
Marge N. wrote:
On an added note – to those of you who grew up in the outhouse era. I recall when friends came to visit, or if we visited with people who had an outhouse, before going home all the women usually wanted to use the outhouse. ALL the ladies went at once, and went in the outhouse at once if there was room. Definitely was no privacy and I always hated that. Even in later years, I recall my mother and her sister often going into a restroom together (if we were on a vacation trip or something of that sort). I’d always wait until they came out, then I’d go in ALONE!
This was a common etiquette for business dinners. After the dinner you would invite the ladies to freshen up and all of you would go together. I hated it too, but oh the confidences divulged in the washroom made it very interesting. I think this was something that happened in the day when the men worked and the women were included in the social aspects, a form of bonding – I guess.
This made me laugh because I have this one girlfriend who is Mexican American and HER best friend is also Mexican-American; they ALWAYS go to the bathroom together no matter where they are. They did this when they came to visit me at my house. I thought maybe it was an ethnic thing. I have no desire for company when I am doing my business.
Another thought in the outhouse era, they may have banded together for the novelty or protection from who knows what at the outhouse. My Aunt Carrie had a twin outhouse clearly marked his and hers. It was whitewashed and her side had a child-size hole to suit the smaller butts, with a step stool to climb up. They always had lids. On the outside she painted red and yellow flowers and it was very colorful.
The path leading to the outhouse passed through her flower garden and it wound around so you couldn’t just go straight to the outhouse you had to wind along the garden path. Because it would be muddy when it rained, she had fieldstone rocks embedded in the soil and you didn’t have to get your good shoes muddy.
Outside the outhouse was a foot scraper for those muddy trips and inside a piece of home hooked carpet on the floor. On the walls she hung posters and cartoons chosen at random or provided by friends so while you waited for natures call you could always read something. The inside always had flypaper hanging to catch the pesky flies so the experience was quite pleasant.
My mother had a chamber pot in her bedroom and the girls in the family were allowed to use it. Only overnight though or in severe winter weather. She always kept the pot emptied and scalded it with hot water and put a teaspoon of chlorine in the bottom to keep the odor down. She also had a washstand in the bedroom with a pitcher of water to wash our hands in. This washstand was only for bathroom purposes. In the porch we had a family sized washstand that was used for everyday cleanups and before and after meals.
In the winter a barrel behind the coal and wood stove sat full of water (melted snow) and it was always warm from the stove. When the barrel was full my Mom would wash clothes. The men and boys usually hauled the water or snow in on a daily chore but sometimes I would be on call to do this job. I expect some of today’s back problems come from that early wood and water work.
I grew up in San Francisco. Even the cheapest flats we lived in had a bathroom and electric lights. But we spent one summer in Calaveras County,Calif., about 5 miles from Angel’s Camp where they have frog jumping contests..My step-father and two other men had a lease on Michel Mine and they built 3 cabins. Ours had a separate room for me. I was about 15. Outside my room was the generator and boy, was it noisy, but it produced the electric for our lights. There was an outhouse up the hill of course. Down at the stream was where we kept bottles of milk cold. The store was 35 miles away. We went there once a week and if we forgot anything we did without. My Mom cooked stacks of pancakes for breakfast and big pots of stew or beans or spaghetti for lunch and dinner. My brother, my cousin and uncle worked on the mine
too. Gold was $35 an oz but getting enough ore to sell was a long. hard job for the crew. My step-dad decided the real gold was in the city where he worked on roofing jobs. Once we took a trip to the city and came back to find our cabins had been broken into, even windows were stolen. That’s when we gave up and went back to the city. Later my step-father joined the Seabees (construction branch) so he wouldn’t be drafted.
Yes, the toilet is a great leveling ground. I remember at work we had a number of well dressed female executives who never fraternized with staff in the coffee room or elsewhere (parties etc). However, in the bathroom it was totally different. They had tears over their husbands, their children, their lack of promotion and they were well supported by the underlings.