Some other time, we shall discuss the weighty question of why our ancestors had so many jokes about bathrooms and their functions and the functions of people using them in their world of postcards. It could be because postcards were consider such a quick, informal form of communication that we could toss in a quick bathroom joke and no one would care. Or it may be that, as the twentieth century went on, postcards became associated with vacations and leisure time, and one could have a more relaxed attitude to humor. Or it may be, as discussed in a previous column, that people encountered outhouses more while on vacation (they were a fixture, apparently, in trailer parks before the Fifties or thereabouts).
Or it could be that we judge our ancestors by the most accessible data, and movies and radio shows were more heavily censored than other media, and we simply have our ancestors all wrong.
Today, however, I thought we might consider an equally controversial sociological topic which will require less research. What is it with that crescent moon on the outhouses we see here?
Outhouses, for reasons too obvious to require discussion, needed SOME sort of ventilation, so openings would be cut here and there about them for that purpose. Or others.
You didn’t want anything too big, I suppose, or too conveniently positioned, so one wouldn’t find oneself in the position (beg pardon) of the young lady who left her parasol on the outside of this outhouse.
And, if nothing else, a convenient opening in the door that you could grab so the door could be opened when you were in a hurry was necessary, too. But why a crescent moon? The traditional story is that the crescent moon represented womanhood. Men’s rooms had a round sun symbol cut into them. When asked why we never see outhouses with that sun sign on them, they tell us women are most likely to want to take care of business in private. There just weren’t as many men’s rooms. Another possible explanation is that the story, like the outhouses, is fulla…never mind. Most home outhouses were ungendered; it was more of a first-come, first-served thing. This story about the moon goddess and women’s rooms is now believed by absolutely no one except those who believe every strange but true fact they get sent by email.
Some people claim the symbol was simply traditional, and thus a handy signal to people who were in a hurry. Others state it was never traditional to begin with, and all outhouses we see with crescent moons nowadays had those moons put in them later because we expect them. Still, if they were never traditional, why WOULD we expect them?
One writer who is probably on the right track says we simply got used to seeing the crescent moon in cartoons and postcards, and THAT’S how it became traditional. He kind of slips off the rails when he points out that comic postcards of the 1930s and 1940s NEVER show crescent moons on outhouses, so obviously it’s a post-war convention. (By the way, a couple of the postcards shown here are from the 1940s and I’m pretty sure that young lady in a hurry dates to the 1930s.)
His suggestion, which associates the symbol with the habit of mooning people or just referring to the southern end of the body as the “moon” (also referred to on numerous postcards), is tempting. But he points out a glitch: why a crescent moon, then, when the association of one moon with the other has to do with roundness?
I am perfectly willing to muddy the waters (so to speak) by adding another possible explanation, which has just as much historical backing as his. People who are sitting around just thinking about other things and not getting anything useful done are referred to as “mooning”. I saw it started as a complaint from someone on the outside of the outhouse about what the person inside was doing all this time, and it just became a symbol of the one place people were free to sit and contemplate. There. Let’s see how long it takes THAT to spread across the Interwebs.