Saturday, January 10, 2009

Outhouse Doesn't Have To Be A Dirty Word

Recently something came up that made me start thinking about outhouses, or biffies as they are called up in this part of the country. (I know. Strange where one's mind goes.)

Because we still resided in Illinois when we purchased our land here in Minnesota, we came up to it every time we could for several years before moving here permanently. After buying the land, one of the first things we did was to build a biffy . . . in our backyard in Illinois. It was purposely constructed in sections so that we could take it completely apart and transport it up here to Minnesota on our next trip. (Even after we moved here permanently, it was several years before we had indoor plumbing so a good biffy was an essential part of the homestead.)

When we next arrived on the property with the disassembled biffy, we needed to choose a location for it. Roy didn't want to erect it where it would be visible from the future house site, so he chose a really nice spot overlooking a ravine (very picturesque) although a short hike from the house. It was by way of a lovely path winding through the evergreens that he (nature lover that he is) enjoyed each and every trip. For me, it proved to be a bit too far from the house. First of all, it's my belief that women use a biffy more frequently than men (how many women feel comfortable ridding themselves of excess water next to a big tree or off the deck, for heaven's sake?), and secondly, I was the one hauling our toddler to the "facilities" most of the time.

But back to the biffy itself. I painted the inside a light and bright color, we had constructed it with a large window through which one could gaze at the scenery, I put pictures on the walls, hung a small magazine rack and toilet paper holder. We kept two containers on the floor, one containing wood ashes and the other a mixture of wood shavings and sawdust. By frequently sprinkling a small quantity of each of these into the hole, it was very rare to have any kind of an offensive odor in the biffy. Just as I would do with a bathroom in the house, I cleaned it regularly.

Despite all this little building's amenities, the toilet seat sure did get cold in the winter. My mom back in Illinois got the idea to make a crocheted toilet seat cover thinking that would lessen the sense of shock when skin came into contact with the seat. She made the cover with tight-fitting elastic around the backside which provided quite a snug fit. And you know what? It worked! I immediately put in an order for several more covers so I could change it every two or three days, thereby feeling the level of sanitation was being upheld. Plus, you better believe, I also gave strict instructions to all patrons to take care when availing themselves of the comfort of the warmth provided by the crocheted cover!

The custom-crafted seat covers certainly provided a source of conversation for anyone using our facilities and also garnered more than one curious question when they were seen as I was folding my clean laundry at the laundromat each week.

The picture below, for better or worse, is a classic in our family. Our daughter, these thirty-some years later, has it mounted on the wall over her desk in her office.

The story behind it is simple. My mom was up visiting us and she and I were involved inside the house while Roy was working outside. I can't remember specifically what he was doing but it must have had something to do with wood, as you'll notice the hatchet in his hand. Inside I noticed our small daughter starting to take off her pants and asked why she was doing so. She replied that she needed to take a walk to the biffy. So I called outside to Roy and asked if he would take her. He said sure and off they went. My mom grabbed her camera and captured them heading down the path to the biffy secluded in the woods, no doubt having an animated conversation the whole way.


  1. That picture is too cute!
    My grandparents in Wisconsin didn't have an indoor bathroom at their house for years and it was always an experience for us as little kids to visit them and use the outhouse!

  2. Thanks, Ruthie! When I was growing up we, too, had relatives in the country who had an outhouse but theirs was NOT nice so I think when I found myself living with one I vowed to make sure that using it wasn't a bad experience!

  3. In our part of the north of England it's called a netty. Since, like the houses, they were made of solid stone, most older houses still have them, usually converted into a storage shed.

  4. Hi, Jim - Bet you and your lovely wife are glad to be home together in England again!

    Do you have any idea where either of the names for outhouses . . . biffy or netty . . . come from? Do you think "biffy" could come from "bivouac?"