The Sanitary Toilet

By by Luke Boyd

Now-a-days it is a joke to refer to a house as having "four rooms and a path."

However, it was no joke in the 1930s in Mississippi. Most houses had a “path.” This often-traveled thoroughfare usually led out behind the garden or smokehouse around a screen of elderberry bushes to the outdoor toilet. Some of the more cultured referred to it as the “privy” or “outhouse,” but my family used the more earthy term “toilet.”

It was well that they were generally located away from the main house and hidden from view. In the first place, they were not imposing structures and I’ve never seen one that would win a prize for architectural design. Upon entering, one would find across the rear an enclosed shelf or bench about two feet off the floor. An oval hole was cut in the top of this, allowing the waste to be deposited on the ground below. Some large families even built “two-holers,” but one hole was sufficient for us.

In addition to being not pretty to look at, the toilet also had a terrible smell. It was especially oppressive in hot weather. It was an odor, that once stamped in your olfactory memory, was never forgotten. Late one afternoon fifty years later, I was playing golf and walked up to a green that had just been watered, when that telltale odor flooded my nostrils. Even though we were on a new course in the middle of an upscale residential development, the smell was unmistakable. I remarked that there had to be a toilet close by. My playing partner replied, “No, we use fertilizer on the greens that’s made from human waste. It’s real good fertilizer, but it smells like this when it’s watered.” I supposed that some smells were just not meant to die.

Having to walk by a toilet downwind was bad enough; having to be inside one for any length of time was almost unbearable. My grandfather had a book of photographs of World War I which contained several photos of soldiers under gas attack. Those without gas masks were clutching their throats and writhing about on the ground. From my limited experiences, that was the only thing I could imagine being worse than a visit to the toilet on a midsummer afternoon with the temperature hovering at 103 degrees.

One night after supper I heard my parents talking about our getting a “sanitary toilet.” This was one of the WPA projects aimed at improving the health of rural residents through improved sanitation. When I asked what a “sanitary toilet” was, Mama replied, “It’s one that doesn’t stink.” Immediately, I knew that was my kind of toilet.

A week or so later a large truck loaded with tools, lumber, and eight or ten men rolled to a stop in our yard. The toilet builders had arrived.

Instead of putting the new toilet somewhere out back and out of view, my father selected a site at the edge of the side yard by the potato patch in full view of anyone passing along the road. After all, a new toilet built by the United States Government was something to be proud of, and worthy to be seen.

The first thing the men did was to dig a pit about six feet square and probably eight feet deep. It’s a wonder they kept from covering up my brother Gene and me with the dirt from the pit, since we were so close underfoot watching every detail. I was glad school was out for the summer, so I could observe the whole operation from start to finish.

The pit fascinated me. That was the deepest hole I’d ever seen. I had spent my seven years of life in the Delta of Mississippi where all the land was practically flat. I spent a lot of my time trying to get above it by climbing trees, the ladder to the hayloft in the big barn, and up on numerous outbuildings. The minus elevation of the toilet pit also caught my attention. Little did I realize that it would soon produce a painful experience for me.

After the pit was completed, the workers built a form and poured a concrete slab over it. The slab had a rectangular opening at the rear center. They then proceeded to build the toilet over the slab. The final step was to place the “throne” over the hole in the slab. The “throne” had a hinged cover on top and a vent out the rear of the structure. Screen wire was placed over the vent opening so that no flies could get to the waste, lay eggs, and spread germs. Our “sanitary toilet” was now complete, and an imposing structure it was, made of bright new lumber which contrasted with the deep green of the potato plants.
A few weeks later we experienced a rarity in the Delta summer–a rainy day. Since we could not go outside and play, Gene and I had to find something to do in the house. I got several sheets of paper and began to draw pictures for him. I had completed first grade where we got to draw everyday, so I fancied myself as quite an accomplished artist. My brother was still a year away from starting school and had not been exposed to this advanced instruction. I’d sketch something, and he would try to guess what it was.

Our toilet was still new and much on my mind. I had drawn a front view and a side view of it when I began to think about the pit. Even at that young age, I sometimes tended to see things from a different perspective than other folks. I began to imagine just what one would see if he were down in the pit while the toilet was in use. I proceeded to sketch the scene, being careful to include everything I thought would be observed.

Several times during our drawing session, Gene had taken a picture or two to show to Mama, who was doing housework in another part of the house. So, I didn’t think too much about it when he went wandering off with the drawing from the bottom of the pit. I was busily working on another sketch when I heard her voice rise in annoyance and the distinct words, “Where’s my switch?” Gene had the ability to get into trouble very quickly, and I just assumed the words were directed at him. It did not register with me that I did not hear any punishment being administered, and so I was still engrossed in my newest drawing when Mama burst into the room waving her peach tree switch around like some demented philharmonic conductor. Before I knew what was happening, she grabbed me up and gave me a severe thrashing while yelling at me about drawing nasty, dirty pictures, and many other words which meant the same thing.

The storm passed as quickly as it had come, leaving me to rub the stinging out of my legs and dry my tears. I wanted to explain that I wasn’t trying to be nasty or dirty. I was simply trying to view something that happened every day from a different angle. I didn’t see either the act or my perspective of it as things to be ashamed of. But, I knew it would be of no use, so 1 just let bad enough alone.

In looking back on the event, I’ve often wondered if a budding artist was not sent in a different direction on that summer afternoon. But, more immediately, I received a bigger disappointment–after a couple of months the “sanitary toilet” smelled just as bad as the old one.

(For more stories by Luke Boyd and “Coon Dogs and Outhouses V1” go to or