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Thursday, February 26, 2009

What Does the Half-moon on the Outhouse Door Mean?

“What does the half-moon on the outhouse door mean?” Since the Newton Falls Public Library catalog had no books specifically about outhouses, the staff began to look other places. Books on inventions, such as Eureka! An Illustrated History of Inventions from the Wheel to the Computer, The History of Invention: from stone axes to silicon chips by Trevor I. Williams, and Oh, Yuck: the encyclopedia of everything nasty by Joy Masoff, yielded a great deal of information about toilets. In the late 16th century, Sir John Harrington installed a water closet in his home which could be flushed from an overhead tank. Oh, Yuck [p.178] described how reading in the bathroom began, and takes the reader back to the 1700s when American colonists built outhouses over large buckets or pits. No information was given on the meaning of the half-moon. Even Foxfire 11, in its chapter The Old Homeplace, lists the hog scaler, the cornhouse, and the sorghum furnace, but not the outhouse.

The article The Outrageous Outhouse by Joe Curreri and Therese Nolan in
Antiques & Collecting Magazine, May 2005 addresses this question. The cut outs in the doors served as ventilators, let in light and often a much needed draft as there were usually no windows. As few people could read, the crescent moon was for the ladies and the masculine star was for the men.

An online search revealed the website, Outhouse Moon [] with answers to an earlier Yahoo search. The three answers included discussed the crescent moon for women and the star for men. In the third answer paraphrased from Nature Calls: The History, Lore and Charm of Outhouses by Dottie Booth, it says that “the moon symbol comes from the ancient symbol for femininity, Luna. . . Folklore tells us that women took better care of their outhouses, hence, more survived, and the moon became a lasting symbol associated with the outhouse. One reason women's outhouses outlasted men's involved porcupines chewing on the seats of men's outhouses (for the salt found in urine on the seat).” At this site there is also information about an Outhouse Preservation Society.

The Smoking Mountain News Archives/Mountain Voices, February 14, 2001 [] quotes the book, The Vanishing American Outhouse: a history of country plumbing by Ronald Barlow. Barlow agrees that the half-moon symbolized the ladies room, “while a sunburst pattern indicated male use. While some had circles, hearts, diamonds, triangles, and V-shaped notches mirroring those on early barns and outbuildings.”


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outhouseamericana said...

I've been restoring and building rustic outhouses since prior to the turn of the century and have given lectures on outhouse Americana and have learned more than most about this icon of Americana. The problem with explaining the privy moon is not knowing a no nonsense rustic carpenter who actually had a reason to carve one into a door. First let me say that the colonials had a literacy rate just as good, if not better than today's folk. They grew up reading the bible and newspapers flourished throughout the colonies. School houses sprung up like mushrooms and there was no reason not to know basic reading. Those folk did not need ancient folk lore to designate back house symbols. Also most colonial outhouses I've restored or documented, had windows above the eye level allowing in plenty of light and air.
To understand the crescent cutout you must first understand that the necessary was usually built from old scrap because it was never expected to last too long. Rustic carpenters used old leather scrap as hinges and instead of expensive hardware, simply cut out an opening a person could fit their hand into for a "door knob."
This simple convention pretty much come to define the old kybo and when it was no longer needed, because hardware was more plentiful, it stayed on to define this shed as a outhouse. Without its original purpose, it could be placed anywhere on the structure as a "sign" that this building was a privy. This confused later generations who had never had to use it as a handle and so many imaginative explanations were given.
Interestingly enough, I had sold a rustic outhouse to a relative of Ron Barlow's and have recently lectured at the Eric Sloane museum about this.
But I suppose, you could turn this once functional item into a symbol and if now a days, if you want this to be an outhouse for your moon goddess, so be it. But that isn't why it was there to begin with.
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