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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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From My Window

Issue Date: February 28, 2018

Privy Musings

Janie Thibodeau Martin

My parents bought an old farmstead in 1957 which became their "forever" home. One of the features of the property was a wooden outhouse or "privy." By the time they bought the place there was an indoor bathroom, but the privy was still a solid, well-built structure at that time. In fact, 60 years later it endures today in its new role as my sister's charming gardening shed, withstanding a relocation about five years ago.

The privy did see a little sporadic use when we had overflow company when I was small. "City kid" visitors loved to try it out, although sometimes they flung the door open and came running out after encountering a snake or some angry wasps. It had a small ventilation opening up near the eves, and a tiny pane of glass for light. (No electricity or water, obviously, just a pit underneath to contain the waste, and a roll of toilet paper sitting on the floor for amenities.)

The most unusual feature of the privy was that it was equipped with three separate seats. One was set at half the height of the other two, obviously meant for small children. The other two were side by side at a taller height. We used to call them "Papa Bear, Mama Bear and Baby Bear." The three were all in a row, close together, with no separation partitioning.

The little seat obviously had a very utilitarian role. A small toddler would have had trouble getting up on the adult sized seats, and was probably at actual risk of falling in once up there. So the little seat had a much smaller hole. But today, for some reason, I was musing about the need for two side by side adult seats.

My biased thought, colored by my world today, was that although a parent or older sibling might accompany a tyke out to the privy, especially after dark, the rest of the time a single person would use the privy. But a second adult sized seat was no doubt provided for a reason, and here's my speculation.

On a cold, dark winter evening, or early some bitterly cold January day, the family might make one trip together to use the facilities before bed or right after getting up. They'd use a lantern to light the way, and then return to the house 50 or so yards away. It was sort of a necessary chore, like lots of the other farm chores. And living in relatively small homes, families had a lot less privacy than we expect now. It was likely no cause for complaining, smirking or disgust " just a daily task. And in a cold Wisconsin winter, a pretty unpleasant one, where lingering was probably not an option. In fact, if three people could go at the same time, the return to the warm house was expedited " and if it was below zero, that was probably the primary objective of the family.

When I was very young, I also used a privy at my Grandpa's lake cottage which did not have any indoor plumbing. I don't recall for sure if it had more than one seat but I don't think it did. Since his privy was frequently occupied by bats, my visits there were extraordinarily rapid.

I am curious if multiple seat privies were normal, as I don't think anyone ever said they'd seen one like ours at home before. If any readers know anything about multiple seat privies I'd love to hear from you.

The trend in new luxury homes is a dedicated bathroom for every bedroom, plus extras near living areas. No one has to go outside in the dark or cold, snakes and wasps are not often encountered and plenty of clean running water, soap and towels are at hand. I like to tell my kids about growing up with six family members sharing a bathroom " which might seem like a challenge to some, but a luxury compared to the facilities of the house's earlier residents. In fact, even our camping trailer has a bathroom vastly superior to a privy.

We sometimes forget to be grateful for the little things that make life easier, safer and healthier for us, and indoor bathrooms should be near the top of the list.

One more followup from a reader on handkerchiefs: an old classmate of mine, Robin, sent a picture of a "memory bear" (teddy bear sewed from material that evokes a special memory.) Usually these are made from clothing from a loved one who passed away; in this case, the material used was from a woman's handkerchiefs. Very creative and proof that there are still a few steadfast handkerchief users out there! Thanks Robin.

You can reach me for commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address: Janiethibmartin@gmail.com.


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