I got in to history because of my great grandfather William F. Osborn’s Civil War journals. He was an assistant surgeon with the 11th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry and was, for a few days, a prisoner under Confederate guard during the Battle of Gettysburg. My grandfather, his son, transcribed them sometimes in the 1940s and 50s. But I got to hold the real ones when I was seven.
Not long ago, I studied the journals more closely and discovered a wealth of information written on the end papers and sometimes upside down in the corners. A good historian always looked closer. In one journal from 1864 he laid out the order of how the 11th Pennsylvania Volunteers lined up in the end papers of the front. Being a civilian in life before the war, he had to figure it out.
Right of Reg D. I. E. C. A. K. H. B. F. G. Left of Reg.
On the end papers on the back, he wrote down the officers with each company.
A Noble Capt Amstrong 1st Lieu
B Haines capt Stran Phillips
C Cap Shawl 1 L 2
D Capt Overmine (?) 1st L Hall 2 More
E Piper Hammond Briggs
F Chalfant Anderson McCutchin
Perhaps someone out there recognizes the names. Historical research is like peeling an onion or better a collection of dots that eventually connect
Part of writing about lives past is understanding the things people used in that time period. I’ve been very fortunate to come from a tradition where women passed their sewing tools and projects down through the centuries. My great-grandmother Martha Margaret March, affectionately known as Bongie in my family, was born in 1850. When she was ten, she watched Abraham Lincoln go on his way to his inauguration in 1861. Not long after her family moved to Kansas. Her parents were Quakers.
She has written about her experiences as a young girl and later, but nothing means more to me than to have the tools that she used to quilt, sew and darn. Such riches are more powerful than gold and they help me when I create a character from her timeline to understand the craftiness and creativity that women’s hands did and still do.
I’m now a week into the portable outhouse in my backyard as I work getting the sewer pipes replaced. Using it brings back memories of YWCA camp in the Pennsylvania woods with wolf spiders in the corner and a black snake that liked to sun himself at 1:00 PM in path to the john.
It also reminds me of the wonderful language resource I have used for years in researching my historic novels: I HEAR AMERICAN TALKING, An Illustrated Treasury of America Words and Phrases by Stuart Berg Flexner. Now out of print, it is a wonderful study of American words and sayings, showing when they first came into use in America and their origins. This information is especially important in historic novels. Word usage from the wrong period can really bump a reader.
Under the title chapter of “WHERE’s THE BATHROOM? Flexner explains the beginnings of usage around bathrooms and outhouses. For example, when the first outhouses appeared in the colonial days, lower class and rural colonists called their outhouses a privy, privy house or outhouse. The more aristocratic or cosmopolitan person used different words such as house of office, “a necessary house or simply the necessary. If behind a house, it might be called a backhouse; if earth were used to cover the excrement it might be called the earth house.” (Flexner p. 18)
Flexner also points out the origin of the half moon on outhouses. The half moon originally meant it was an outhouse for women. The sun indicated that the outhouse was for men. These are old medieval symbols.
Chamber pots for inside usage are another matter. Here in the Northwest, they were often referred to as “thunder mugs.” I won’t go any further than that. Cousin John or Jake were used by men for both the privy or chamber pot as early as 1530 according to Flexner. The word john has survived to this day.
My blue outhouse/privy does NOT have a sun or moon, but it does its duty. I’ll be happy when it’s gone.