Weird History
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What Were Bathrooms Really Like In The Wild West?

Updated January 27, 2020 51.7k views12 items

Bathrooms in the Wild West didn't feature proper baths and most weren't formal rooms. Rather, settlers, homesteaders, cowboys, and the like used outhouses, pots, and whatever natural options were available. 

When it came to relieving themselves, men and women in the American West might have ducked behind a tree. Later, settlers and others built signature Old West outhouses for that same purpose, though many of the unpleasant qualities of those structures proved less than appealing. Overall, using a cowboy bathroom was an adventure all its own - one complete with unique sights and scents.

  • Photo: Rookwood Pottery Company / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Before Toilet Paper, Corn Cobs And Newspaper Could Do The Job

    As a relatively modern luxury, toilet paper wasn't available in the Old West. Alternatives included whatever was available, including grass, an old corn cob, or pieces of newspaper.

    Corn was a part of the diet, economy, and culture in the American West. Bell Mattison, who grew up in Nebraska during the mid-19th century, recalled using corn cobs and husks as toilet paper, firewood, and even toys. 

    Using corn cobs to wipe was effective. Left hanging outside the outhouse, users grabbed them on their way in. After they did their business, people would wipe multiple times, drawing the cob across sensitive parts of their body at different angles.

    Once toilet paper was introduced, many Westerners continued to prefer corn cobs over paper options. Another option, regardless of what was available, was to use nothing at all. 

  • Photo: David Claypoole Johnston / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

    Outhouses Were Simply Four Walls Over A Deep Hole In The Ground

    Outhouses, or privies, were placed at a distance from the main residence, and were usually nothing more than a 5- or 6-foot-deep hole in the ground surrounded by four walls and, ideally, a roof.

    Usually 3 to 4 square feet in size, outhouses had no heat or light and very little ventilation. 

    When the hole in an outhouse filled up or the stench became too vile, it was covered up and the outhouse was moved to a different location. The same rudimentary walls were placed over a new hole.

  • Outhouse Toilets Were Splintery Wooden Boxes

    Built mostly of wood (though the roofs might be metal), outhouses could be somewhat dangerous. Wooden seats were essentially boxes with oval holes cut into them.

    Seats were hopefully smooth, but there was no guarantee. Seats, doors, and walls all posed splinter hazards, especially after repeated use and exposure to the elements.

    Even corn cobs, newspapers, and early toilet paper products could have splinters, prompting Northern Tissue to promote its product as "Splinter-Free!" as late as 1935.

  • Privies Were Disinfected With Lye Or Lime

    Lye or lime was commonly used to mitigate outhouse odors. One or the other could be thrown down the hole after use.

    In general, lime was considered "a good disinfectant," and was often "added to urine or excreta in liberal quantity." Lime was fairly cheap and available, and was also used to scrub outhouse interiors "to render them more sanitary as well as more attractive in appearance."

    Lye, similarly used as a disinfectant, also worked well to dissolve waste.