Why Did Outhouses Often Have Crescent Moons in Their Doors?

OK, here is today’s history question. I suspect our ancestors all knew the reason for the markings on outhouse doors but those reasons are fast being lost to today’s generation of people who have only been exposed to more modern conveniences. Perhaps the information has already been lost. After all, our ancestors often wrote about many topics but few seemed to have documented the minute details of their outhouses.

An article by Eric Grundhauser in the Atlas Obscura web site insists:

“From cartoons to films to modern-day replicas of historic toilets, the cut-out shape of a crescent moon in an outhouse door seems like something that is so ingrained in our cultural consciousness, that it must have existed in real life. But it doesn’t seem to have been much of a historic reality.”

Grundhauser then offers several theories but seems unable to offer hard proof of his theories. His article may be found at: http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/outhouses-crescent-moons.

Do you know why outhouses often had crescent moons in their doors? If so, please post a comment below.

Just for the record, I grew up in a house without indoor plumbing or a bathroom. However, our version of an outhouse did not have any symbol on the door. I have no idea why.

37 Comments

My grandparents had an outhouse until the mid 1970s, which I used until my mid teens. There was indeed a crescent moon, I just assumed it was to let light in, as it was quite dark in there at night (unless it was a good night for moonlight!). Why the moon shaped design in the door I do not know, but I imagine some of my father’s siblings might. I must remember to ask!

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The crescent moon indicated the ladies room while a star represented the men’s room, for folks who could not read.

In the old days many churches were divided with the men sitting on one side while the women sat on the opposite side. So the crescent and star outhouses helped maintain that line.

This was especially true in Shaker communities

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I remember using the outhouse at my grandparents until the mid 1970s. There was a crescent moon in the door, that I remember clearly. I will have to ask aunts and uncles if they knew why!

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I can’t suggest a reason for the crescent moon, but it does make me wonder; is there a tie with the silly, childish practice of dropping one’s pants to “moon” someone??

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to vent the “gases”

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I also have heard the crescent and star in place of men and women (or vice versa). The question is-why did only the crescent ones survive? I like the various words that have been used: in an old barn converted into a place for house concerts-“cows” and “bulls”; In a pet shop – “setters” and “pointers” and recently at a house concert for a group that does maritime songs – “drunken sailors” and “drunken ballerinas”.

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Could it be connected to night soil men, who collected the waste of privies & outhouses, before honeywagons??

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I do not miss teetering on the edge of the too-large opening, wondering when the spiders below would bite my butt. Definitely don’t miss that!

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As the red-faced Scotsman said on returning from the restroom, “Ach, mon, I thot it said “Laddies’!”

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Isn’t it amazing how many of us have experienced the lowly outhouse? Our history is so much closer than we think. I recall a school day trip to a farm to discuss rural electrification expansion in the early 50s. At the time I didn’t appreciate the very real historic implications but now electricity for all is so taken for granted we don’t realize how recent that gift was. Our family summer “camp” was without electricity or plumbing. As a kid, I was not impressed by this interesting fact, but when those amenities were added in recent times it struck me again how recently our “historic events” occurred.. Our outhouse had no window, niether moon or stars, it really didn’t need an added opening to vent as it was “well ventilated”. It had a name tho- it was “UncleCharlies’ place. if someone was missing they were supposed to have gone to visit Uncle Charlie-( with apologies to all those Charlie’s out there.) don’t know why or where it started as Charle is not a family name anywhere on that side of the family tree. Might the portal port have had something to do with vision and safety? Like a gun port in times when you might be visited by someone with evil intent- or being crept up upon by sneaky brothers and cousins?

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My grandmother, a rural dairywoman, refused for many years to have an indoor toilet – bathtub and sink were fine but no toilet in the house for her: “I don’t want people doing THAT in my house!” She was finally persuaded in the early 1950s. There was no symbol on their outhouse door, that I recall — but always a Sears Roebuck catalog to read.

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Actually, the symbol is an ancient one, and was a sign for womanhood in colonial days and on the frontier. Its male counterpart, Sol, was either a star or a sun burst design also on the door. … The moon that is often found on the outhouse door stands for the ancient sign- luna- or womanhood.
outhouses – The Missouri Folklore Society – Truman State University
missourifolkloresociety.truman.edu/outhouses.html

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In the early 1960s we had a two family out house with a square hole in the door that was for ventilation and light. when it got so full that the floor was floating on the stuff underneath and none of the men would build another one, one day
I took our trusty axe out there and Destroyed it totally. They built another one that same day. Some times we have to take things into our own hands (so to speak) to get results.

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As to why the crescent moon carved into outhouse doors has survived, I suspect that since the entire great outdoors is a restroom for men, the outhouse with the star was deemed an unnecessary use of scarce resources as the people expanded into new territories. The outhouse with the moon, however, remained a staple in rural settings because, as we all know, women will hold it until their eyes turn brown before squatting over a branch in the woods.
OR,
It could be that the outhouse was built with the cheapest materials around and, as the door boards dried, the knots in the lumber fell out (since the door moved about so much more than the walls), leaving a crescent moon shaped opening in the door.

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Our farm outhouse had a solid door, no moon. Other than direst emergencies, only used when we were working in the field. Scary childhood memory: sitting on ‘the throne’ and hearing a wasp buzzing – below me.

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Reading today’s thoughts on the ‘star’ and ‘crescent’ I thought of the number of countries (meaning no disrespect) with these two symbols on their flags (see:https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Flags_with_star_and_crescent) and wondered if the daily brief time in ‘meditation’ might be a symbol and a time to remember their home country to many of our nation’s immigrants, as we all are a nation of immigrants.
I was also reminded of your Eastman plus blog of Feb. 26, 2016 of “The Three-Story Outhouse” of your youth, which you might want to again share.

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Chris & Juli Hernandez March 29, 2017 at 10:38 am

This doesn’t have anything to do with the reason for the moon symbol on the door, but there’s a family tale in my family about my maternal grandmother that everyone gets a good chuckle out of. My maternal grandparents had outdoor plumbing that everyone used until their children were well into their teens. Grandma had to go to the outhouse once. She got situated in the outhouse & prepared to do her business & looked down to see a snake in between her feet. The family tale goes that Grandma was so freaked out to see that that she jumped up & pissed all over the snake & ran shrieking from the outhouse. Scary but funny!

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I was told that my favorite teamster Master Plumber father had the first 2 hole, indoor outhouse in N. Creek, NY? Childhood summers spent on a family farm in Hancock, NY have similar memories.

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I’m thoroughly enjoying the stories of long ago. While we are all remininscing…

I spent my childhood, during the early 1940s, in the big city of Baltimore, Md. and, believe it or not, we had no bathroom indoors. We had to go to an outhouse in our very small back yard. Fortunately, it had a real flush-toilet. It also had an electric light, with a pull cord, hanging from the ceiling…all the comforts of an indoor bathroom! As a kid, I enjoyed the solitude of that wooden structure and would spend my time there singing the latest songs of the day at the top of my lungs. I wonder if our neighbors enjoyed the free, daily concerts? I suppose it was too private a situation because they never commented on the noise. In a few years after we moved to that house, my father installed a bathroom inside of the house, with a toilet, washstand, and tub. What luxury…we felt RICH!

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A solid door with no symbols for our “2 holer” outhouse before in-door plumbing was added to the house in 1952. A scary and not funny story in our family is the time my Uncle had to visit “Ms. Murphy” in the middle of the night and was bitten by a black widow spider. He spent several days in the hospital. After that, I was afraid to sit down. As I read the comments, history is very close.

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I remember the not too distant past as well. When my family visited an uncle’s dairy farm in the mid-1960’s, my youngest brother went to the outhouse. When he came back he said, “Gosh mom, you can see all the way down where the devil lives!”

And lest we think everyone in the United States has indoor plumbing today, I recently was an educator in rural Yupik Eskimo villages in Alaska. Everyone had honey buckets.

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Back in the 1930s(Yep, I’m old as the hills) we celebrated Xmas at Grandma’s. No electricity and an outhouse. With 7 daughters, their husbands and kids I now have no recollection of using the outhouse at that time. I’m sure we did but time does seem to cause some memories to disappear.

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Reading the comments noting that the home outhouse had no particular design cut out – I would think that at home there would be no need to designate a ‘men’s’ or ‘women’s’ toilet.

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My grandparents also had no indoor plumbing until the 60s. Their outhouse had no moon in the door, as it was naturally ventilated by the gaps as the boards shrank. It was only used for #2. And in winter, boy was it cold!

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One of the outdoor conveniences I used had metal Pepsi sign tacked over the door saying ‘THE PAUSE THAT REFRESHES” One night someone dropped a flashlight down the hole. We fished it out. Was in mid teens at the time.

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We had an outhouse until the town insisted on sewer lines, about 1965. Several years ago i was reminded of those times when I staid with a family in Oaxaca, Mexico- separate kitchen building with no running water, outhouse- with one light, and sleeping building with one light in each room.

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Ours did not have any markings but was known as “The Washington Monument” and was where you went to pay your respect to the administration. No one has commented on the Outhouse Hollyhock Flowers that were planted next to the outhouse so that women could find it without having to ask someone where it was at.

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Yes memories of outhouses are nearer then we think. One on an uncles’ farm in the Yakima Valley once had a wasp’s nest in it. Great concern and activity until it was removed. Getting rid of an outhouse to have a new one? In the early 20th century in a rural Minnesota town, kid’s including my mother were hired by the wife of a farmer to tip over the old outhouse in hope that her husband would install an indoor toilet. Nope, he dug another hole and moved the outhouse (after repairs) over to it.

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My grandparents lived in Centreville, VA in an old house across the street from a Methodist church which had been used as a hospital in the Civil War. The house had no indoor bathroom, only an outhouse which everyone used when we visited, except for one of my sisters. My dad had to buy her a bedside commode because she would hold it until she burst rather than go in the outhouse. The outhouse had a plain door. Spiders and bugs were the big concern, but at night we kids worried about ghosts of the soldiers who died at the church hospital. Finally, in 1964, my grandparents got indoor plumbing when they moved in with us.

And back to grtgrndmamoe, what is it about upstate New York and indoor outhouses? My husband and I lived outside of Rochester, NY for a few years and rented an old farmhouse that had a two-hole indoor outhouse connected to the back of an attached garage. That was the first time I ever saw anything like it. I suppose it was to prevent having to go out in the cold in the winter. The house had been renovated and had a modern bathroom, but the landlord left the attached outhouse. A number of garter snakes took up residence in there. I guess they worked for their housing by catching mice.

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This is not pertinant to the question, but somewhat odd and interesting. I often visit cemeteries looking for ancestors tombstones. The small Alum Creek Cemetery near Paige, Texas has an outhouse for visitors; the one and only time I have ever encountered such.

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In the early 1990s’ a boyfriend’s family had a cottage and outhouse outside New Paltz, NY. When you used “the facility,” you then dumped some lime down the hole. When the kids were small and didn’t want to go outside in the dark, they used “tinkle jars,” gallon-size glass jars from mayonnaise, etc.

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I think we all have such amusing stories regarding these outhouses. I grew up camping with my Grandmother who had a real but humorous fear of the outhouse being tipped over by an Indian when she was inside it. It was a story that wove it’s way through practical jokes and fun through my childhood and when she died? I created a cake of a campsite scene complete with a porcelain outhouse with a crescent moon door- I have that outhouse to this day on my desk to remember her 🙂

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I’ve been building, restoring, researching and giving talks to historical societies, libraries and country fairs since the turn of the century and have accumulated much knowledge about privies. There still is a demand for these and I’ve built a good many.The crescent did not originate as a symbol, but rather as a simple no nonsense door knob as rustic carpenters did not want to spend money on “expensive” hardware for a structure that was hidden away and would probably not last that long. A rough crescent shape was good enough to fit the curved hand into. Some folk seem to think the colonials were illiterate and needed a pictograph in order to ID a thunder box but history tells us that those folk had a literacy rate of close to 100% so that theory does not hold water. As hardware became more available it was used on this humble structure but because the cutout come to identify the outhouse in years past, it was no longer needed as a practicality but became a symbol, a sign so to speak that this was an outhouse. Over time, nonrustic carpenter folk forgot or just never realized why that moon was put there to begin with and came up with all sorts of (sometimes loony) ideas. The bottom line is, that you can make that represent anything you like BUT it was not what it was put there to begin with. Old timers were very practical folk and shunned nonsense.
My website is outhouseamericana.com or bullhillworkshop.com if you want more info.

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I have recently returned from a tour of Alaska. A large proportion of the outhouses had the moon symbol on their door

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