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Homestead History
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nother basic need for the frontier home was a means of disposal for human waste. It isn't necessarily the most appetizing subject, and most modest nineteenth-century settlers were characteristically silent on the subject. Frontier toilets were as varied as frontier houses, ranging from an agreed-upon shrub or hole in the ground to free-standing sod or wooden outhouses.

The typical frontier outhouse was basically an oblong box, three to four feet square, and approximately seven feet high. Built into the back wall of the outhouse was a two foot high wooden box with an oval-shaped hole cut into it. This wooden box functioned as the toilet. Fancy outhouses had lids that covered the hole.

frontier fact
Most homesteaders in the 1880s heated their homes with cast-iron stoves. Aside from providing heat, these stoves frequently belched smoke into the house.
The outhouse was typically positioned over a five to six-foot deep hole in the earth. Over time, the hole would fill with waste material and the outhouse would be moved to a new location. In winter, droppings would immediately freeze and form a pile that would eventually reach the seat. Resourceful homesteaders kept sticks or shovels in the outhouse to knock down impending problems.


Jasper City, Colorado, first mining log cabin in camp. January, 1897. Denver Public Library

Plainly and simply, outhouses stank. Though some settlers sprinkled lye or lime down the hole after use, there was little that could be done to control the smell, which became unbearable in hot weather. In lieu of late night trips to the outhouse, most settlers kept chamber pots in their houses, which were later emptied into the outhouse.

Outhouses were also terrific magnets for flies, which soon found their way into the homesteaders' houses. Though window screening existed in the 1880s, it was expensive and hard to obtain. Flies and mosquitoes swarmed over dining tables, sleeping homesteaders, and food. Some settlers tried building smoky smudge fires outside their houses to cut down on winged intruders, and in some families, a child was given the responsibility of waving a small branch over the dinner table to keep flies off of the food.

Frontier house furnishings were usually fairly simple. Large pieces of furniture, such as tables and dressers, were often too difficult to transport on the long trip west. Even basic items, such as stoves and bedsteads, were frequently abandoned along the way to lighten the load for tired oxen.

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