Dear Cecil: Why do outhouses have half-moons on their doors? Perhaps it’s related to the great high school custom of “mooning”? Joyce K., Seattle
This is no time for buffoonery, Joyce.
Level with me: you’ve never actually seen an outhouse with a half-moon cut into the door, have you? Neither have I, despite several decades of camping trips. I’ll bet the same goes for just about everybody else. The idea that outhouses always have moons on them has been perpetuated largely by several generations of cartoonists (e.g., Al Capp), probably none of whom ever saw one either.
The only reference I can find to the practice is in Eric Sloane’s The Little Red Schoolhouse: A Sketchbook of Early American Education. Discussing 18th- and 19th-century schoolhouses, Eric writes: “The woodshed was often a lean-to attached to the schoolhouse, but the most accepted arrangement was to place it between the schoolhouse and the privy, with a fence separating the boys’ entrance from the girls’. The ancient designation of privy doors was to saw into them a sun (for boys’ toilet) and a moon (for girls’ toilet).” Eric has supplied a sketch of both versions, showing the familiar crescent moon for the girls and a radiant sun for the boys.
By way of corroboration, I note here in my manual of semiotics that the moon “is usually represented as the feminine power, the Mother Goddess, Queen of Heaven, with the sun as the masculine.” Isn’t that just great? All this time you thought you were in there just doing your business and now it turns out you were participating in a pagan ritual.
Why cartoonists picked up on the moon rather than the sun as the universal symbol for outhouse is hard to say. But knowing cartoonists I’d guess it has something to do with the fact that the radiant sun is hell to draw. The reason there’s a hole in the first place is a lot simpler: it provides ventilation.
From the Teeming Millions
How old are you — 12? And do you only hang out with other 12-year-olds? I’ve seen REAL outhouses with moons on them! I’m originally from Green Bay, Wisconsin, and they had them all over.
(I’ve been out here since ’58 and have never gone back. I LOVE Santa Barbara, and I have indoor plumbing.)
All you may have seen are the ones on construction sites or in campgrounds. These, of course, don’t have cute little moons on them. I can’t believe you didn’t ask around to find out this important information.
— Gini M., Santa Barbara, California
You’re smart to stay in Santa Barbara, Gini. They say the indoor plumbing there is one of the wonders of the world. But I still say all those guys in Green Bay were just borrowing from Al Capp.
I’ve found another book, The Vanishing American Outhouse by Ronald S. Barlow (1989), that expands a bit on why you see (or saw) half moons on outhouse doors:
“Luna, the ancient crescent shaped figure, was a universal symbol for womankind. A moon, sawed into a privy door, served as the ‘Ladies Room’ sign of early innkeeping days. Sol, a sunburst pattern, was cut into the men’s room side of the outhouse. These symbols were necessary because in Colonial times only a fraction of our population could read or write.
“As time passed by and frontiers were pushed further westward, the gentlemen’s restrooms fell into disrepair and eventually were abandoned altogether. Accommodations for ladies were better maintained and this is why the moon symbol remains on many outhouse doors today. Its original meaning, however, was lost to the general population sometime in the mid 1800’s.”
The book is abundantly illustrated, with an entire section devoted to brick outhouses. These are handsome pieces of construction, although the basis of the proverbial comparison to an attractive woman (“built like a brick …”) is not apparent to the casual eye. Still, any book showing a double-decker outhouse, with entrances high and low, has got to be worth whatever it costs.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.