In the rush of daily life, it’s easy to forget indoor toilets are relatively new to housing construction. Those who’ve never relied on an outhouse don’t understand how relieved residents were when they had a solid privy resting on a concrete foundation. Thanks to Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, 600,000 American families enjoyed stable, sanitary facilities behind their homes.
The WPA focused on projects that improved life. Few communities could fund band shells, picnic houses, and swimming pools without federal dollars and the necessity to provide jobs. However, those weren’t the only projects that enhanced the USA. Health organizations had insisted from the early 1900s that Americans needed higher sanitary standards. Shallow pits and poor outhouse drainage led to epidemics related to fecal exposure. Scientists determined that concrete vaults at least 6 feet deep reduced such risks. This was a perfect goal for this department.
Most of us have visited WPA pools, buildings, and other monuments to hard work and hopes for better times. Depression era toilets add to the projects local labor teams and resources constructed. With so many built across the country, remains of facilities must still exist in western Kansas.
This information might help find them. Bureaucrats selected a standardized design that involved a poured underground vault planned so the top served as the outhouse foundation. Wisely, someone included a surface level concrete pot and vent hole. Cement flooring and seat construction offered better sanitation than wood construction did. Wisely, this design required screened vents to prevent fly-borne disease. Such models significantly improved public health.
While the vaults and seats were standardized and mass-produced, the actual wooden shelter depended on local materials and preferences. The plan called for a 4 x 5 frame and braced wooden door. While building crews followed similar plans, researchers note structures varied throughout the country.
Although labor teams installed over 600,000 outdoor commodes during that era, few remain. If you want to visit a Kansas WPA outhouse, you must get permission to search old homesteads for concrete foundations. Once you find one, don’t fall in the hole.
If seeing the wooden “house” satisfies your curiosity, a landowner in McPherson County moved one onto his property years ago. The Sherman House Bed and Breakfast in Elk County transported another one to a site near their flower garden and named it “The Flower Pot.”
A trip to Franklin County Indiana offers the opportunity to check out ten such relics. For your reading pleasure, their museum has an edition of the “Indiana Community Sanitation Program Regulation Manual, Sponsored By United States Public Health Service, Indiana Division of Public Health Works Progress Administration.” This would be helpful if you want to install a reproduction on your homestead. In addition, they’ve posted official outhouse maintenance rules tacked to a surviving privy door.
Personally, I want to observe one of these as an historical object. While WPA construction has many charms, I’m happy with my indoor toilet.