They Had to Use the Biffy

If you were lucky, you wiped with the smooth pages of the old Eaton’s Catalogue.

Those who have the good fortune to live with indoor plumbing their entire lives find it shocking that anyone might live without it. Imagine that instead, they would go outside to a primitive little wooden shack and sit over an open hole to do their business. In the day, they called this “toilet” the outhouse or the biffy.

That’s just how it was. Dickies From Gunton: Canadian Brothers in Two World Wars dug their share of holes for outhouses. In their youth, when the hole filled up, it they would fill it in with soil, dig a new hole and move the structure.  When Percy bought his home in St. Vital in the early 1940s, the septic services of a contractor with a truck affectionately known as the honey wagon were contracted to clean out and dispose of the waste so they could keep using the same hole.

The biffy was vented, with a little screening added to try to keep the flies out. It wasn’t insulated or heated so you would never want to linger on a cold day. You sat on a wooden seat, and wiped with the smooth pages of a glossy Eaton’s catalogue if you were lucky, or other waste paper. Once in a while, you might toss some wood ashes or sawdust or barn lime (calcium hydroxide) into the hole, to help control the smell. It was simply the place to go, far enough away from the house.

Even in the dark of night, for there were no streetlights, or in the cold of winter, the boys were strongly encouraged to go outside to do their business. Although there was such a thing as a chamber pot or thunder jug- a ceramic bowl of sorts that some folks used as a portable toilet they kept under the bed at night and emptied in the outhouse in the morning, it was considered more civilized to go outside unless you were unable to do so. Some people emptied their pots out a window or in the garden. Don’t behave like animals, their father would tell them.

The first indoor toilets were connected to their own sewers and flushed right out into the river. When prodded by the province to stop, the City of Winnipeg said the cost of implementing a proper sewer system was prohibitive and with reasonable flow in the rivers, sewage could safely be dumped into them until Greater Winnipeg had half a million people.

First proposed in 1914, the city’s sewage disposal plant opened on Oct. 25, 1937, according to an article that day in the Winnipeg Tribune. More than half of the 49 sewer outlets were to be diverted to the disposal plant and then rivers would be “relatively clean”.

Eventually trunk sewer lines were installed further into St. Vital, and many homeowners including Percy would reluctantly pay to connect to the city sewers.