Q: Why do I always see crescent moon cutouts on outhouse doors?
C.J., of Belleville
A: Probably because movies, TV and comics have taught us that’s the way outhouse doors should look. Yes, this is likely another urban legend that should be flushed down the sewer as quickly as the popular — but false — contention that Thomas Crapper invented the toilet.
For decades, many writers have perpetuated the idea that, similar to the stick-figure designs you see on modern restroom doors, our forefathers cut out cosmic symbols to ensure that a woman wouldn’t stumble into the boys room and catch a stranger with his pants down. Here are two of the most cited references that contend the symbols were used to help a largely illiterate populace find the right water closet:
“Probably the most recognizable symbol associated with the traditional outhouse is the familiar crescent moon carved into the privy door,” according to one explanation on an English website that looks into the origin of popular words and phrases (www.phrases.org.uk). “Actually, the symbol is an ancient one (Luna, the Roman moon goddess), and was a sign for womanhood in colonial days and on the frontier.
“Its male counterpart, Sol, was either a star or a sunburst design also on the door. Since most male outhouses fell into disrepair rather quickly, they seldom survived. The female ones were better maintained and were eventually used by both sexes. Although you can find outhouses still standing with the crescent moon, the original meaning for gender identification was lost by the later 19th century in most areas of the country.”
A similar explanation comes from Eric Sloane in his 1972 book, “A Sketchbook of Early American Education”:
“The woodshed was often a lean-to attached to the schoolhouse, but the most accepted arrangement was to place it between the schoolhouse and the privy, with a fence separating the boys entrance from the girls. The ancient designation of privy doors was to saw into them a sun for the boys toilet and a moon for the girls toilet.”
There’s just one minor problem: There’s little historical evidence to back up these assertions, according to many historians. They contend that the moon is a relatively recent ornamental addition, and the whole moon-Luna-woman explanation may have been concocted later to justify it.
“The idea that outhouses always have moons on them has been perpetuated largely by several generations of cartoonists (e.g., Li’l Abner’s Al Capp), probably none of whom ever saw one,” writes Cecil Adams, author of The Straight Dope books and website.
Experts at the Missouri Folklore Society agree.
“Although many later outhouses do conform to the convention, it is not clear that (the crescent moon) was in fact widespread during the period when outhouses were in common use, any more than real bombs look much like this iconic depiction (a black ball with a fuse sticking out of the top).”
They point to several logical reasons for their conclusion. First, if you were living a hardscrabble life in the wilds of a new country, would you really spend the time and resources needed to build sex-specific outhouses? Many one-family houses today do just fine with one bathroom. Why would the little house on the prairie need two?
Second, why wouldn’t a few men’s outhouses with the star symbol survive? Surely, a man would want to take care of his throne as much as his queen did. (And even if he didn’t, wouldn’t the queen have been tasked with looking after it back then?) Besides, it’s not like women’s outhouses were filled with the scented soaps and feminine hygiene dispensers you’d find today. Yet the Missouri group has no record of even one his’n’her moon-star facility that you might expect to find near a public building.
Finally, if you search the Internet for truly historic outhouses (www.sewerhistory.org, for example) you’d be hard-pressed to find any symbolism on the door. Even those built by the Works Project Administration and Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression had plain doors. Perhaps it was only relatively recently that the moon became a popular decoration.
“My grandparents’ farm near Hannibal, Missouri, had an outhouse built between 1920 and 1940,” writes Adam Brooke Davis, an English teacher at Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo. “The door, as faced from the outside, had its hinges left, and no knob or pull. Rather, it had a cutout, shaped roughly like a boomerang, with the concavity of the shape opening towards the right, so that one could slip one’s fingers in to grasp it. It permitted light, ventilation and easy opening.”
So just as he found people in Germany often use a heart cutout to spruce up something that is intrinsically unpleasant, we, ironically, decided it would be charmin’ to “moon” our users.
“The dominance of (the crescent moon) seems to have been media-generated, then provided with a fictive, back-formed pedigree to explain it,” Davis concluded. “As Alfred Shoemaker reported of another supposedly archaic use of visual symbolism — the hex signs of the Pennsylvania Dutch —the elaborate phylactery explanations are less convincing than what the users themselves said about them: (They’re) ‘chust for nice.’”
Until 2007, where was the highest outhouse in the continental United States?
Answer to Sunday’s trivia: So how did a bird native to North America ever come to share the same name as an ancient Eurasian country — Turkey? Turns out it’s a story that spans three continents. First, although it was known as the Ottoman Empire until 1922, people had referred to it as the “land of the Turks (or Turkey)” since the late 1300s. Later, when Portuguese traders began importing a bird called the guinea fowl from West Africa, people started calling it the “turkey-cock” or “turkey-hen” because the birds came to Europe by way of Turkey. So when explorers in the New World began bringing back similar birds, they were confused with the guinea fowl and called turkeys as well. They quickly gained popularity on English dinner tables, and by the 1590s, even Shakespeare mentioned them in Act II of “King Henry IV, Part 1”: “God’s body! The turkeys in my pannier are quite starved.”