Poop, Piles, and Parasites: Outlander and Outhouses

June 4, 2014 in Resources and Research by M C

Admit it.. you laughed when William fell into the outhouse…

It’s the details that make the Outlander series so special, the way the light passes through a glass of whiskey, the smell of the woods, and the fact that Everyone Poops .  But you’d never know it in a regency romance, or one of my secret vices, Dragon Actually (Dragon Kin).  Dragons like caves, bathing, human women (of course), and going through a battlefield with murderous intent leaving the enemy bereft of head and limbs and bleeding profusely… but they don’t poop.

In Outlander men relieve themselves against castle walls, there are chamber pots, indoor privies, and that wonderful scene with William, Ian, the snake.. and a privy.  Poor diets lead to piles, what the Mayo Clinic likes to call hemorrhoids.. the only thing missing?

Pounds and parasites.

Because everyone does poop.. to the tune of some 400 plus pounds a year.  Yes, you read that right, 400 pounds a year.  And that doesn’t include liquid waste.  So that outhouse on Fraser’s Ridge?  If Claire and Jamie, The Bugs, Bree and Roger are using that privy we’re talking about 2,400 pounds a year, the weight of a very large draft horse.

And speaking of “horse,” the average horse produces 35 pounds of solid waste per day.  13,000 pounds of poop a year.

Then there’s the cow, goats, chickens.. and we haven’t even touched on the white sow and her piglets..

All that waste would have been a valuable source of potassium nitrate.  Useful as a fertilizer, of course, but more importantly, the 18th century source of saltpeter, used in the manufacture of gunpowder.

So valuable is the waste in my barn, the barn on Fraser’s Ridge, and in their outhouse, that once the King of France truly did own all the crap in his kingdom.  Under droit de fouille or “right to dig” the king’s agents seized animal waste, demolishing walls and fencing (without compensating the farmers) to do it.

I used wood ashes to make soap, so here’s more 18th century chemistry: as late as the Civil War, when Joseph LeConte wrote a text based on the French method of calcium nitrate extraction for Confederate farmers, laying out clearly and simply the method in an effort to help supply the south with sufficient saltpeter for the gunpowder works, farmers were laying out beds for leaching calcium nitrate that looked a lot like today’s compost piles.  After a year of decomposing the beds were leached with water to obtain the calcium nitrate.

Saltpeter, however, is potassium nitrate (KNO3), obtained by filtering the calcium nitrate through.. potash, potassium carbonate.  You can see why the British crown paid handsomely for wood ashes and didn’t want those wood ashes going astray, making it illegal to sell them to anyone but British merchants.  Valuable stuff, wood ash.

At least, it is if you’ve got several tons of poop at your disposal.  And you do if you’re keeping farm animals.  But what about the waste in the bottom of that hole William fell into?

Where space was at a premium, a town for example, night soil men came by an emptied out the privies.  In rural areas privies could be abandoned, and a new hole dug.  This, from an anthropologist’s point of view, can result in a treasure trove of trash.  In a time without garbage pickup where does trash end up?  Down the privy hole of course.  Clay pipes, bottles, false teeth, coins, toys, and anything else that fell into the hole, like a man’s pistol, that either wasn’t worth retrieving… or there wasn’t a miscreant handy by to send down the hole… preserved in a pit.  There’s a subset of amateur archeologists and treasure hunters who call themselves “Outhouse Diggers” and specialize in tracking down pits and excavating them.  It’s a dirty job but somebody wants to do it.

In 18th century America not everyone has an outhouse.  When you think about it an outhouse, when you’ve got a whole wilderness to relieve yourself in, no roof over your head, land to clear, and crops to plant.. an outhouse seems a bit superfluous.  A pit deep enough to justify building an outhouse is a minimum of six feet deep, and many holes extended down fifteen feet.  If they were designed to be emptied they’d be lined with brick, to keep the mass wet, making it possible to empty the hole one bucket at a time.  Another seemingly unnecessary waste of time, with that entire wilderness just a few steps from the cabin.

The Outhouse That Saved Outlander or How Parasites Changed Your History >>

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