The Outhouse Moon - Function vs Meaning
Some Real Talk
Being a genuine old time outhouse restorer, builder and common sense historian on the subject, I find it amusing how many folk will go to sources about privy questions who have never built or done any real-world study on the jakes and come up with "authoritative" often nonsensical knowledge on the subject. The thunder box, moon or crescent if you prefer, is a prime example. When I hear some of the reasons for it I cringe as if I am listening to fingernails on an old fashion chalk board. The number one offender is the Luna - moon goddess rational. Let me explain.
Some educated and well meaning writers, state that the crescent is an ancient symbol for Luna and whenever anyone in the old days saw such a shape, associated it with women. Therefore they assume that this outhouse was a woman's necessary. It is said, that this convention was used because in colonial times, few folk could read and a universal symbol like this was needed. Facts tell us differently.
If we research colonial times, we find most folk grew up reading the Bible and schoolhouses sprung up like mushrooms. Even young 'uns, who had to work the plow had several years of schoolin' under their belt. The colonies had hundreds of newspapers. It is said that Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" sold about a half million copies in the first year of publication. For a book sharing population of 2.5 million, this is indeed an extraordinary number. That's the equivalent of 60 million books today. James Madison, reports that literacy was over 99%.
Also democracy begins and thrives only in a well educated society.
So for them folk who base their premise on the fact that few could read back then, I suggest they get their fact straight. For those who state this convention started in Europe, well I been there and I've only seen heart shaped cut-outs or plain old simple auger holes.
Another popular reason has to do with light and ventilation. Most older restorations I've done had a sliding window high on a side wall. Other's had diamond shaped cut outs high on each side wall. High enough so's that the eaves could help keep the rain and prying eyes out. Never seen a crescent cut out there probably because that shape wouldn't do much good. The diamond was easy enough to make by boring 4 holes and using a key hole saw to "connect" em. I got some good examples of that in my workshop. I have yet to see any cut-out than can be reasonably used for light and ventilation on a colonial jakes door. Besides, the colonials were smart enough not to put vent or light holes in doors because if they were put there for such, there would be privacy issues that would not please the lady folk.
Now let's get real. Old time rustic folk, rarely spent much time or resources on a purely functional structure which would probably be replaced after a relatively short period of use and rebuilt over a fresh hole. Most found it easier to bang together a new shed rather than try to move it. Simple common sense items were used to construct it. Old leather from harnesses made right sensible hinges. A rotating peg nailed on the side of the door kept it shut when not in use and when in use inside. Because hardware was hard to come by or too expensive, a cutout shaped (like a crescent) so a person could grab the door and open it, was used as a "door knob."
There was no need for fancy symbols or separate man/lady structures on the rustic homestead. This convention of rustic builders was common enough and come to define which farm shed was the privy. Barns, root cellars and such were more permanent and built as such. So when folk would visit a homestead it was easy enough to locate the kybo although it could have been hidden behind shrubs.
Over time, hardware become cheap and easy to get. Sometimes reused from older outdated structures and jakes become more permanent due to the use of clean out flaps which took the worry out of digging new holes and moving or replacing the old one. The days of the nightsoil men. These new, better built units no longer needed the crescent but because it had been used so many years and made it easier to locate, it was replicated somewhere on the newer structures pretty much as a sign.
Such common everyday no nonsense stuff was obvious to rustic folk and they didn't need to make a big thing over it. No need to document it as there was also no need to state you had to put a roof over it or nail boards together as, well. You just did it. Common sense.
Long after most old time rustic carpenters pounded their last nail, more refined folk with less old time experience, wondered why many back houses had crescents associated with them. Because they didn't need them as door handles, they just come up with all sorts of explanations. In reality it became a sign which symbolized the original door knob, but, lacking rustic carpenters to ask, come up with some mighty creative symbolism.
One reason the Luna theory comes up has to do with Eric Sloane's story about a school teacher who, as a teaching aide, placed a moon on the girls side of the privy and a star on the boys side. As the father of a grammar school teacher, I can see this as a creative way of teaching basic classics.
Now-a-days, I suppose if you want it to symbolize your moon goddess , so be it. But that ain't why it was put there to begin with.
For some reason, modern folk like to think of olden times as having a bunch of quirky, dumb hicks and modern folk like to feel superior over them. Well when we reasonably study what they have done and why, old timers were very ingenious in solving problems which I wager folk today would have great difficulty dealing with; with or without them plastic brains they keep thumbing mindlessly all tday long.
This is an excerpt from "Outhouse Americana" ©2017 Georg Papp, Sr, The Bull Hill Workshop
Georg Papp, Sr., OBPA
The Bull Hill Workshop
151 Bull Hill Rd
Colchester, Ct. 06415
Phone: 860 267-8123
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