Reconsidering The Merits Of The Great American Outhouse


During the Depression years in Chicago, my grandfather frequently strolled me through our verdant Garfield Park. It first opened in 1874 on the city’s west side, renamed in 1881 in honor of slain President James Garfield.

None of that was known to me [and possibly not to Grandfather], but what counted in those strolls is what still counts to many today. Its green, lush beauty in the urban midst of this crowded city of glass and steel.

The reason for recalling all this has to do with the often neglected American tradition: the outhouse. Grandfather always insisted Chicago’s last one was in Garfield Park. I can’t confirm his belief, but it does raise a troublesome fact. We as a young nation tend to forget what we don’t like to remember. It would many years before Joseph Crapper invented the indoor toilet. Still years later that opponents used its image to slam “trickle-down economics.” And surely in the interim, both Montgomery Ward and Sears catalogs became an integral part of America’s sanitary habits.  

Currently we are ricocheting from Presidential crisis to crisis. Depending on one’s political persuasions, this is either due an incompetent in the Oval Office, or a relentless resistance in the land. A third possibility occurs: the lack of outhouses in our century.

Hear me out, before you scoff. This has to do with the old adage: necessity is the mother of invention. The record tells us until Joseph Gayetty came up with the idea of toilet paper in 1857, Americans of all stations high & low were compelled to take a lot more time in these human necessities.

Time to think, to ponder, maybe even to modify one’s compulsive urges. It was said by Lincoln these were introspective moments for him. It was also said by Lyndon Johnson, and who knows how many other Presidents who were likewise compelled to take-more-time.

There is certainly no reason to return to the old outhouse [although one is still memorialized in the Illinois city of Gays]. But is it too absurd to make the case for doing whatever it takes to-take-more-deliberative time? Especially in today’s hyper-speed culture where we seem to be repeatedly hurting ourselves from too much thoughtless haste…?

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