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Silver Threads: Outhouse history

Has everybody out there noticed how much smaller rolls of toilet paper are getting between shopping trips for necessities? Before long we’ll all have to depend again on the Sears catalogue for bathroom hygiene. But wait, hasn’t that venerable publication, once the size of the Yellow Pages of Manhattan, also shrunk, to a few flimsy inserts in the thrice-weekly editions of our newspaper?

Bathroom rolls once filled the toilet tissue holder, from one side of the thingy that fits into the other thingy that screws into the wall. Months ago I noticed they are about an inch narrower than usual, and then, recently, they became tubes you can squeeze down in one hand and that last about a day and a half.

I googled “toilet paper” and came up with some interesting facts, never mind that I complain constantly about the trials of life in a high-tech world with a 77-year-old, low-tech brain. I use the ‘net when I need it and am thankful it‘s available.

Toilet paper was invented in the 14th century by — guess who — the Chinese, for use by their emperors, who ordered it in 2-foot by 3-foot sheets. The first packaged t-p in the United States, produced in 1857, was pre-moistened flat sheets medicated with aloe, and then the rolled and perforated version came out in 1880. I was especially fascinated to learn that the year of my birth, 1935, was marked by the appearance of the first “splinter-free” toilet paper. It seems that early paper production techniques sometimes left splinters embedded in the product. What a narrow escape for me!

All this got me to thinking about something that was ubiquitous — at least in the rural South — for about the first six or seven years of my life. It was the privy or the outhouse, which usually reposed behind a hedge in the backyard of a farmhouse or one of the homes in our tiny town. An aunt of mine had an outhouse that sat behind a fence covered with a lush growth of honeysuckle infested with bees, which made using her facilities hazardous indeed. I remember creeping past them, quietly, when necessity did take me there.

Part of the reason for the endurance of these homely structures was the fact that the world was at war. For those wishing to convert to modernity or those building new homes, the sight of a commode for sale was a rare thing. Our new house was built in ‘42, and Mother even scoured nearby junkyards in an effort to find one. Not two, but one. Few folks had the luxury of more than one bathroom at the time.

The outhouses were, in their way, more accommodating. Few had just a single opening to be occupied; most had two or even a luxurious three upon which clientele could sit and chat during “business.” I often wondered — with a distasteful shiver — what sort of people did that, and could imagine only my careless boy cousins invading an outhouse en masse.

Forty or so years later I discovered I had been mistaken. On an eastern Mediterranean cruise friends and I visited the ruins of Ephesus, which rest along what is now the Turkish coast. Pointing out the remains of buildings of note — the library, the temples and baths, the gymnasium, etc. — our guide marched us to a long stone slab that had four or five uniform holes in it. This was the toilet bench she told us, where the gentlemen of the ancient city sat of a morning.

The marble was often cold, she explained, making it necessary for slaves to perch there for a spell, warming it up for delicate and pampered behinds.

I wonder what they used for toilet paper.

Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at


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