In deference to any viewer with a limited amount of time available to read this posting, or the remote possibility of any viewer with a limited attention span, I will make this posting brief. My intention is to provide readers with a method of determining the room, or rooms in which the boys in the family slept in the “good old days,” specifically in old country homes, residences which in most cases sported a little house behind the big house. That little house enjoyed many names, some rather vulgar but all descriptive—outhouse, privy, toilet, outback (no relation to the restaurant chain), “the necessary” (for those of genteel backgrounds) and other appellations too numerous to enumerate.
Special Note: Enumerate is not misspelled—it’s a verb meaning, “to name or to list.” Numerate, conversely, is an adjective meaning, “having a good basic knowledge of arithmetic and able to understand and work with numbers.” I am well aware that I may possibly be the last one to learn and understand the difference—I only define the terms here for my own use as I read (and re-read) my posts.
Now back to my dissertation on windows, boys and nocturnal habits:
By walking a quick circle around old-time country homes with a cursory examination (visual, of course) of the window screens and window sills, one could (and in some areas still can) unerringly pinpoint the rooms in which the younger boys slept.
The little house, for obvious reasons, was usually located a significant distance from the big house. The trek to it was easily made in daylight and fair weather, but at night the path was not so easily traveled unless the skies were clear and a full moon shined down on the route. Under a dark sky, minus the light from billions of stars and an absent moon, the trip could be fraught with perils, including but not limited to mosquitoes, four-legged varmints and snakes (some poisonous and some not) but all had a debilitating effect on a walker when they slithered across the path).
And here it must be noted that country ladies had no fear of cold or wet or dark nights—their bedrooms were equipped with an item with various names—the most delicate term was “chamber pot,” usually ceramic, with requisite designs reflecting the Victorian era and the homes in which chamber pots were used. In my young-boy days and in my economic circles we called our chamber pots “syrup buckets.”
Yep, we used syrup buckets in the same way ladies in the Victorian era used ceramic chamber pots. Our chamber pots were not as large and not as attractively decorated as were Victorian chamber pots, but they were decorated. All over the southern states (I can only vouch for that region), most syrup buckets proudly displayed decals indicating that their former contents were produced and marketed by the “Pride of Dixie Syrup Co. Inc.”
The decals were eventually loosened and lost, their lifespan determined by the secondary use of the bucket. Our chamber pots, as did those of the Victorian era, had lids but ours were flat metal, undecorated and rarely used, and a wire hanger for a handle. The handle was always used—otherwise a two-handed system would be needed to handle (so to speak) the bucket, whether for using it or carrying it. Without the handle, a boy holding the bucket for its intended use would need a third hand—well, there may be some exceptions, but I doubt it.
Okay, at this point I must admit that I cannot write a truncated posting—it’s just not in my nature. I was once charged by a college professor in a speech-class with using circumlocution to make a point. He said that I, rather effectively, used a round-about way to approach my subject, and thus its major point tended to come as a surprise to my audience. It sounded all positive to me, but after class I hastened to the library to see what I was guilty of and learned this:
Circumlocution—the use of an unnecessarily large number of words to express an idea.
I came down from my high when I left the library, but I am still guilty as charged. This posting and most of my others—alright, all my others— are proof of that.
Now back to my thesis:
Syrup buckets had a limited capability to substitute for a trip to to the little house out back. Chamber pots were large and syrup buckets were considerably smaller, usually the one-gallon size. They were limited to 128 fluid ounces regardless of the liquid involved, and any effort to exceed that limit could be disastrous. The buckets filled up rather quickly, depending on the number of users and the amount of liquid one or more of the users may have ingested before retiring for the night. When not in use, the syrup bucket was kept under the bed, slid in just far enough to prevent anyone from kicking it over as they stumbled around in the dark.
And finally, the walk-around to determine where the boys slept:
A cursory glance at the window screens and the outside window sill would pin-point the wrong-doers. In RWNBs (Rooms With No Boys) screens and window sills would be clean and fully functional. Conversely, RWBs (Rooms With Boys) would produce stained and deteriorated metal screens and stained and deteriorated wooden window sills.
Urine is ninety-five percent water—its physical characteristics include color, odor, density and acidity. The latter characteristic—acidity—is the smoking gun in determining whether the boys are shirking their duty to use the syrup bucket in lieu of making the long and perilous trek to the outhouse, and instead are raising the window to a height sufficient enough to permit the offender to pee—pardon the expression—through the screen at the lowest possible level. At that level the screens will be stained white from the acidity, and eventually will sport holes large enough to accommodate flies, bees, wasps, hornets and various other flying insects.
Of course it goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that females, regardless of age, even if blessed with the skills of an acrobat or afflicted with the abilities of a contortionist, would never commit such a faux pas. I mean, like, let’s face it, peeing through the window screen of an open window was then, and is now and should be, considered a violation of social norms in virtually any culture, an obvious demonstration of bad manners—most young girls did their best to conform to those social norms—most young boys were completely indifferent to social norms—they could not care less. I feel that I can say that with some authority because I am a product of that era and that area—a poster-boy of the times, so to speak.
Oh, and just one postscript:
The syrup buckets were commonly referred to as “pee cans,” a nomenclature that was pronounced exactly as many southerners pronounce “pecans.” A pecan, of course, is “a smooth brown nut with an edible kernel similar to a walnut (from Wikipedia). Folks in the deep South had, and still have, a predilection for pronouncing the word pecan with a long “a” and the two syllables accented equally as follows: ( pee’ can’). That peculiar pronunciation produced (how’s that for alliteration!) a really dumb riddle—dumb, but known and parroted both by children and by adults (a real ice-breaker at cocktail gatherings).
If walnuts are on the wall and chestnuts are on the chest, where are the pee’ cans’?
Under the bed.
Okay, just one more postscript:
I realize that some that may read this posting, especially someone from regions other than the deep South (the nether regions), will tend to place it in Ripley’s “Believe it or Not” category. Please rest assured that everything is true, and I will bolster that assurance by using Jack Parr’s trademark catchphrase from The Tonight Show: I kid you not!
January 19, 2010 at 12:33 am
Only my father could make a story about peeing out a window so interesting, educational and humorous. 😉 You have a gift, H.M.!
(Now I will be sure to pay close attention to windows in old houses while on my travels!) Oh, the tales those sills will tell!
January 19, 2010 at 1:32 pm
“Au contraire,” as the French are wont to say. Most people think that the French expression means the same as “on the contrary,” but the two terms are not completely synonymous. According to Wikipedia, “An earnest argument demands “on the contrary”, but an opposing point of view, not meant too seriously and delivered with a flap of the wrist or a raised eyebrow, justifies au contraire.
January 19, 2010 at 12:02 pm
Seriously? The only outhouses I have seen are ornamental. I suppose I never thought about what was entailed with an outhouse. However, this brings up a question:
Where did people with outhouses take showers?
January 19, 2010 at 1:19 pm
Hi—thanks for the comment, and thanks for the question about showers. The quick answer is that people with outhouses did not take showers, at least not in the usual sense. However, when I began writing a reply to your comment the question revived so many memories, some diverse but all related, that my reply became far too lengthy for the standard response. I decided to answer the question with a related post. When I publish my answer I’ll forward the complete posting to you (with the help of Word Press).