Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Strange but true: Abolish the privy-pit & use the dry earth closet March 13, 2013

DURING THE FIRST 11 years of my life, I lived in a cramped three-bedroom farmhouse in southwestern Minnesota with my parents and four siblings, my third brother not yet born.

The house, albeit aged and plain, provided necessary shelter for our family. But, unlike most rural homes in the area, ours did not have a bathroom. Instead, we used a two-hole outhouse during the warm months and a pot on the porch during the winter.

It was not the outhouse, but rather the red-rimmed white enamel porch pot which I remember with particular disdain. Cold nipped at my butt in the frosty uninsulated and unheated porch. And the pot, naturally, reeked of feces and urine. I couldn’t remove the lid and slap it back on fast enough.

Stone Valley General Store, 110 Pine Street, located in the old Engesser Brewery on the south side of St. Peter.

Stone Valley General Store, 110 Pine Street, located in the old Engesser Brewery on the south side of St. Peter.

With that memory, you will understand why I was especially fascinated by the Heap’s Patent Dry Earth Closet I found recently at the Stone Valley General Store, an antiques/collectibles/consignment shop in St. Peter.

And we’re not talking clothes closet here.

We’re talking water closet, minus the water.

Not just a fine piece of furniture, but a toilet. The door opens to reveal a urine receptacle on the inside of a door and a pail tucked underneath.

Not just a fine piece of furniture, but a toilet. The door opens to reveal a urine receptacle on the inside of the door and a pail tucked underneath.

William Heap & Sons of Muskegon, Michigan, so my research reveals, patented this stylish bedroom commode in 1886 and promoted it as “perfectly inodorous.” The idea was to sprinkle odor absorbing ash or earth into the galvanized bucket which came with the unit before doing your duty. A separate porcelain receptacle on the closet door collected urine.

The urine collector which hangs on the door.

The urine collector which hangs on the door.

In theory it all sounds so wonderful:

No water! No drain! They are simply invaluable… ABOLISH THE PRIVY-PIT!…Secure health, comfort and cleanliness…

You can almost hear the infomercial, can’t you, with these units priced from $8 – $13 and “25,000 already in use.” That’s the pitch in an ad placed in the “Household Necessaries” section of The Cosmopolitan.

Jackie posted these instructions with the dry earth closet.

Jackie posted these instructions with the dry earth closet.

According to Jackie Hoehn, owner of the Stone Valley General Store, the Heap’s Dry Earth Closet she is selling for $1,500 was used at the Mayo Clinic and the State Hospital in St. Peter.

No trying out the dry earth closet in Jackie's shop.

No trying out the dry earth closet in Jackie’s shop.

Now, I didn’t ask Jackie how she acquired this toilet or when. But I expect she may be sitting on it for awhile. Not literally, of course.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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