Maine Farmhouse Journal

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Chamber Pots or Indoor Plumbing?

June 9 - 12, 2000

The Two-Holer Outhouse

The old two-holer has been around for well over 100 years, probably since the carriage house was hauled into place and connected to the barn. In the best "Big House, Little House, Backhouse, Barn" tradition (Hubka, Thomas, 1984), the outhouse is located on the northeast end of the carriage house, right next to the barn. The folks that built it weren't dumb. Putting it out there is just about far enough away from the house in the summertime, but close enough in the winter. Putting it in the carriage house meant that a trip to the outhouse was all under cover, whether rain, sleet or snow.

The outhouse hasn't been used for years. I know that archaeologists and historians have made some amazing discoveries by digging up middens and privveys, but we are perfectly content to let the outhouse remain as is - think of it as a time capsule of historic treasures of our very own!

The outhouse will be cleaned out of the culch accumulated over the years. We have plans to use it as the supply closet for the shipping room. Paul has even made a Christian panel door for it to match the rest of the office and shipping room doors.

A New Bathroom for Company

We don't know when the first indoor facilities were installed at the Farmhouse. The bathroom in the Farmhouse has a toilet, shower, and an old claw-footed bathtub - but it is the only bathroom in the house. The bathroom has been renovated several times over the years, with the last renovation being done about 15 years ago. The room itself was, we believe, originally a woodshed. It would have been handy to the original kitchen on the back side of the main house.

Several families, some large, have lived in the Farmhouse and done very well with only one bathroom. However, we'd like to make it a little easier on all concerned when company comes to visit. One of the first things that Penny and I discussed when we bought the Farmhouse was making arrangements for company so we could have our bathroom to ourselves.

Victorian Rose splendor

There just isn't room to put a bathroom in each bedroom, and we wouldn't do so if there were. However, New England homes have had the next best thing for years - chamber pots! Not too many years ago, my folks used to have a white enamelled metal one, with a lid. We used it in the winter, when the upstairs bathroom had been drained to keep the pipes from freezing and was out of commission. Until my dad built a new bathroom downstairs, we had two choices - either make the trip to the outhouse at the back of the shed during the night or use the chamber pot. Most often we opted for the chamber pot. I usually got the job of emptying the thing in the morning.

If it had worked in Effingham for my folks and I, the same arrangement would work in Sebago at the Farmhouse, I thought. We could get some old china chamber pots to put up in the guest rooms, and reopen the old two-holer for company to use. It certainly would be unusual - something that company could look forward to on their visits. We could even pick out some chamber pots with decorations to fit the decor of the guest rooms. There's a wonderful shop on the internet that has some colorful Victorian-era chamber pots with flowers and pretty patterns (The Landbee Collection, St Helens, Merseyside, England.), and we have some friends in the antique business that may come across chamber pots from time to time as well.

"Some of those things can be very pretty, with flowers and all" I suggested. "Company would be talking about our good taste and unique hospitality for years!"

"And, ... we could fix up the outhouse like BNoe's, with cedar shavings and wood ashes - he had the prettiest, sweetest privvey I know of."

Penny pointed out the obvious flaws in my dumb idea -

(1) Most people these days have never seen a chamber pot, let along know how to use one;

(2) Who is going to empty the chamber pots? If I thought that she was, I was badly mistaken; and

(3) It is no longer socially correct to share the bathroom - the two-holer outhouse is an anachronism.

(4) Finally, the outhouse was put way out back for a reason - let it rest in peace!

"We'll have Paul build a new bathroom upstairs for company" was her decision - and so that is what we've done. Actually, it's a pretty good idea.

Framing for the new "company" bathroom
at the head of the stairs

Our original plan was to put the bathroom in the closet at the head of the stairs. This closet connected both back bedrooms, and was about three feet wide and eight feet long. We measured the shower from downstairs and it would just fit! We bought the smallest pedestal sink and toilet that we could find, and hauled them up in the trailer in one of our trips. Russ removed the old plaster and lathes on the west closet wall. Paul made plans to close of the two bedroom closet doors and make a new doorway to the bathroom at the head of the stairs.

Looking from the bathroom
into the curved wall bedroom

"It won't work" Paul said on the phone one night when we were comparing notes.

"What won't work?" I asked

"The bathroom - I tried the sink and toilet, and there's not enough room between the wall and sink to stand, and the shower won't fit either."

"We could have company leave the door open while they're in there." I suggested. Neither Penny nor Paul thought much of my suggestion.

"How about bringing the west wall out a little?" I then suggested.

"Marilyn had the same idea, and I think it just might work." Paul replied "Let me see what I can work out."

Happy inspecting the job

Paul roughed in the wall with two angled walls coming out from the door jams on either side, and then a squared-off front for the door in the center. The angled walls won't interfere with any of the other doors, nor traffic on the stair landing, but it provided the needed room in front of the sink.

The shower was a bit more of a problem, however. The only way it would work was to extend the shower enclosure into either the curved wall guestroom or into Penny's study. The location of the existing faucets on the shower stall settled it, and there will be a small (30") intrusion into Penny's study. Paul will rehang her door, however, so that the intrusion will not really be noticeable.

When Sonny worked on the wiring on the second floor, he installed a ceiling fan and light for the new bathroom. Cutting the holes for the plumbing, however, presented a challenge. Two 12-inch beams were in just the wrong location, so Paul had to work around them. Nothing is straightforward in doing renovations in an old house, it seems.

And new windows, too

We have two new windows
for the bathroom

The large, double window that we had ordered specially for the kitchen was not wasted. It had come in the wrong size, but couldn't be returned because it was a special order. Paul and Russ split the two windows apart and installed them in new openings in the east wall of the new bathroom. The windows really open up the space and provide a great view of the back yard, fields and woods from over the bathroom sink.

The light from the new windows also opens up the sense of space on the second floor landing. We talked with Paul about including some small windows, or a transom, above the bathroom door to let the light shine through even when the bathroom door was closed. He said that he would work that into the design when the dry wall goes up.

Jim and Alison gave us some rolls of wallpaper left over from the B&B in Athens, in case we could make use of them. We found one batch that will nicely match the new linoleum that we picked out for the bathroom floor. Everything should be nicely pulled together for our next trip to the Farmhouse in July.

Outdoor showers

Paul's outdoor shower
has had no takers yet

There will be short period while there will be no shower in the Farmhouse - while the old one from downstairs is being moved upstairs, and the new one is installed in the remodeled downstairs bathroom. To cover this transition period while we are between showers, Paul installed a temporary one in the back yard. So far, it has been so cold and raw this summer that no one has taken him up on the chance to use it. Mebbe if summer ever comes to Maine this year?

We get chamber pots after all

On a recent trip to California I stopped off to visit old friends Dave and Mary, coowners of the Sheepish Grin Antique Market in Folsom.

"Do you have any chamber pots in the shop today?" I asked Mary

Mary said "I think we do - Dave, show Al the one over in our booth."

Dave took me over and showed me an white enameled tin one, with a lid. It reminded me a lot of the one my folks used to have, but I was looking for something with a little more class.

"Don't you have one in porcelain, with flowers and stuff?"

"No, but I think I know someone who might" Mary said. To make a long story short, she called up Laurie, another antique dealer that Penny and I knew from our California days. Laurie just happened to have two procelain china chamber pots, so I drove up to her place in Shingle Springs, in the foothills east of Sacramento. One was a gorgeous flowered in a Losolware design, by Keeling and Company, Ltd of Burslem, Staffordshire, England. The other used to belong to her Norwegian grandfather Carsten Hubertz, and was white china with the letters "C" and "H" marked on it. Laurie said that she'd look up the markings and see if she can find out how old they are. The Losolware design was from the 1886 to 1936 time frame.

"See, the "H" and the "C" stand for House Crabtree" she said, "it was meant for your new place in Maine".

With that kind of a sales pitch, how could I resist - I took both of them. Laurie was good enough to box them up for me, and I shipped them off to the right-hand coast that afternoon. We'll bring them up to the Farmhouse on the next trip, where they will have an honored spot beneath each of the guest beds. However, we don't give instructions to company on how to use them, nor do we empty them in the morning - they are just for "show" and to add some ambiance to the place. Enjoy.

Allen and Penny Crabtree

Photo credit - The Chamber Pot "The Rose" By D.B. and Co. is one of several vintage chamber pots offered for sale by The Landbee Collection, St Helens, Merseyside, England.

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Last updated July 3, 2000

Copyright © 2000, Allen Crabtree